“Hedy Lamarr was known as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” For most of her life, her legacy was her looks.
But in the 1940s — in an attempt to help the war effort — she quietly invented what would become the precursor to many wireless technologies we use today, including Bluetooth, GPS, cellphone networks and more.
An Unlikely Beginning
A new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes sets out to rewrite America’s memory of Lamarr. Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, chronicles her life and the inventive side that is not often mentioned.
Rhodes tells Rachel Martin, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered, that Lamarr had been fascinated with science as a child growing up in Austria, but pursued acting instead. Her first break into Hollywood came when she heard Louis Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios was scouting for actors.
“She went to see him in London. He wasn’t willing to offer her a very good deal, so she said no and walked out, having great confidence in herself,” Rhodes says.
When Lamarr found out Mayer was headed back to the United States, she bought a ticket for the same boat.
“Once she was aboard, she found a way to make him long for her — after all, she was an actress. And before the ship landed in New York, she had a much, much better contract — the equivalent of about $3,000 a week for seven years,” he says. “Within a year, with the appearance of her in the film Algiers opposite Charles Boyer, she was a superstar.”
Rhodes says Lamarr was most often cast based on her looks and had few lines. She quickly grew bored in Hollywood.
“Hedy didn’t drink. She didn’t like to party,” he says. “Her idea of a good evening was a quiet dinner party with some intelligent friends where they could discuss ideas — which sounds so un-Hollywood, but Hedy had to find something else to do to occupy her time.”
Rhodes says she had a drafting table installed in her house and started inventing. Among her projects was an improved stoplight and a tablet that, when dissolved in water, created a soda similar to Coca-Cola.
“She laughed later and said, ‘Well, it never really worked.’ It probably tasted like an Alka-Seltzer tablet, which is basically what it was,” he laughs. “But she was constantly looking at the world and thinking, ‘Well, how could that be fixed? How could that be improved?’”