If you’ve heard of Hedy Lamarr, it’s probably in connection to her dramatic and scandal-laden career as a Hollywood film actress of the 1930s and ‘40s. Pigeonholed early for her involvement at the age of 19 in an “experimental” film, Ecstasy — the first non-pornographic film to portray an on-screen female orgasm — Lamarr went on to lead a life that was, in all respects, the embodiment of old Hollywood glamour and scandal. Her much-publicized feats include more than two dozen film roles, an endless supply of frankly honest and devastatingly arch press quotes, and no less than six marriages. Get it, Lamarr.
But what you possibly haven’t heard — what seems to be a largely unrecognized aspect of this astonishingly multifaceted woman — is that she is effectively one of the founding mothers of modern technology. Disillusioned by her life in Hollywood, which castigated Lamarr for the sexpot image that it was nonetheless endlessly commoditizing, in 1941 — 75 years ago today — the actress patented a “secret communication system” in collaboration with modernist composer George Antheil. Using ideas gleaned during her first marriage at the age of 18 to Friedrich Mandl, a powerful Austrian arms merchant, Lamarr developed “frequency hopping” technology which used piano keys as a form of message encryption for torpedo guidance systems during World War II. These techniques were adopted militarily during the Cuban Missile Crisis and would eventually go on to be the basis for modern wireless communications, including Wifi and Bluetooth. While the wartime efforts of figures like mathematician Alan Turing are widely recognized to be the foundations of modern computing, Lamarr’s achievements seem largely confined to an obscure chapter of history.
Or perhaps not. Reframed Pictures — the film, television, and digital production company created by actress Susan Sarandon and a team of award-winning producers and directors — is producing a new documentary on the life of Lamarr, which will be released in theaters in 2017. Sarandon is the film’s executive producer, and has thrown herself into efforts to raise awareness of Lamarr’s legacy. “This is the story of a Hollywood actress, defined by her appearance, who was secretly a brilliant inventor and helped change the course of history,” said Sarandon in a press statement. “Until recently, Hedy Lamarr has laid in an unmarked grave.”
Reframed Picture organized a crowdfunding campaign at Fund Dreamer, in collaboration with Katherine Drew, the producer of the Hedy Lamarr documentary, for a memorial that will mark the grave, which contains a portion of the actress’s ashes, in the Vienna Central Cemetery. Lamarr’s son, Anthony Loder, hired Viennese designer Christian Thomas to create a memorial for his mother, which will not only mark her gravesite, but honor her contribution to the worldwide advance of technology.
Thomas designed a stainless steel grave marker, which includes a series of 88 balls on stainless steel rods (which represent the 88 frequencies in Hedy’s patent for frequency hopping). The effect is quite abstract, when viewed up close or at an angle, but when viewed head-on, the dot matrix resolves into a pixelated version of Lamarr’s visage, mirrored on a steel plaque that will serve as a headstone. The proposed memorial holds personal significance to those who have outlived the actress and seen her technology flourish, but also represents a kind of monument to women in tech, who still struggle to find meaningful mentorship and role models in a mostly male-dominated field.
The crowdfunding effort still has a month to reach its goal of $9,000 — a mere pittance in the face of untold telecommunications wealth, of which Lamarr never receiving a penny. The actress lived out her final years with limited means, passing away in 2000, just as the seeds of innovation she planted were beginning to change the face of worldwide communications. Hopefully, these new tributes will restore the memory of her audacity, glamour, and ingenuity. Get it, Lamarr!
The Hedy Lamarr Memorial, designed by Christian Thomas, is raising funds on Fund Dreamer through July 8.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.