Before Hedy Lamarr was a world-famous Hollywood starlet, she was a five-year-old girl in her parents’ Vienna home in 1921, thoughtfully deconstructing — then reconstructing — an antique music box. Her father loved technology and saw that same spark in his daughter. And though by the time that young Jewish girl had reached 16 years old her unparalleled beauty had already set her on a path toward stardom, she never forgot her passion for inventing.
In Austria, filmmakers clamored to cast teenage Hedy in bit parts. In her first starring role she briefly appeared nude, and the ensuing controversy rocketed her to fame. But terrifying consequences followed: Hitler declared that because Hedy was Jewish, the film would be banned in Germany. With anti-Semitism rising across Europe, Hedy knew she had to escape Austria, a task made more difficult because her controlling husband, a prominent arms dealer, was allied with the Nazis. She fled in the middle of the night. By the time she made her way to Los Angeles, she had a lucrative contract with MGM Studios in hand. And when MGM released the movie Algiers in 1938, Hedy became an instant worldwide star.
But despite her glamorous lifestyle, Hedy still loved inventing more than anything. After exhausting days on set, she would return home to work late into the night on her inventions, including an improved stoplight, a tablet that fizzed in water to create soda, and a revolutionary airplane design. Meanwhile, the Nazis continued to ravage her home country, and by 1942 Hedy wanted to support the Allies. Teaming up with pianist George Antheil, she developed a new torpedo communication system, one that by randomly switching frequencies would be nearly impossible for the enemy to jam. No one had ever seen anything like it. But when Hedy presented it to the Navy, they encouraged her to instead spend her efforts using her famous face to sell war bonds. So she did: Giving out kisses to those who bought an exceptional amount of war bonds, Hedy made millions of dollars for the war effort.
After years, the military finally pulled Hedy’s invention off the shelf, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, used an updated version of the torpedo communication system she designed. Though Hedy’s patent had expired — meaning she never received remuneration or recognition — her work has helped shape our military efforts ever since. Hedy’s design also became the foundation for countless technologies, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. When asked about her incredible impact years later, Hedy answered drolly, in her famous Austrian accent, “The brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think.”