The Controversial Actress Whose Invention Changed The World
If you could have dinner with any Hollywood celebrity from history, alive or dead, who would it be? And before you answer, remember that most of these people are probably insufferable and/or incoherent. So can I suggest Hedy Lamarr? In the course of her life, she made an erotic movie that pushed the envelope so hard it immediately got banned, married an evil arms dealer, then helped invent the technology you're probably using to read this article. It definitely seems like she'd have some stories to tell.
It Started With The First Movie Orgasm
Hedwig Kiesler was born in Austria in 1914. As a child of privilege, she did all the absurdly fancy shit wealthy kids did back in the day. She studied ballet and piano, and probably also did the kind of weird stuff with horses that I picture rich people back then liked to do. You know, how they inexplicably got off on making horses trot in ridiculous ways in front of about nine other uber-wealthy people who were politely clapping, but whispering that their own horse trots way weirder and dumber. They've got the ultimate weird-ass horse, goddammit.
Anyway, Hedwig grew up to be stunningly gorgeous and started a career as an actress, going by "Hedy" and immediately getting naked. That's unremarkable now, but we're talking the late '30s, when nudity in film would send audiences into a frenzy. Such panic can only be matched today when a rare non-Disney movie sneaks through the cracks. In the 1933 film Ecstasy, Kiesler plays the sexually frustrated young bride of a much older man who spices things up a bit with a hot young guy in town. What made this particularly noteworthy was that it featured what's believed to be the first onscreen orgasm (outside pornography, that is).
She committed completely to the scene, possibly because the director was allegedly poking her in the butt with a pin. (There is perhaps no better portrait of most men's understanding of the female orgasm.) The film would go on to be about as controversial as you'd expect for a movie with a female orgasm in it at a time when most people would head to confession after touching their genitals while pissing. Hedy became known as "Ecstasy Girl," which would bring the worst kind of man into her life.
Then She Married A Bond Villain
Though Ecstasy couldn't be publicly shown in the USA, it turned Klieser into something of a sex symbol. (It turns out that banning a thing only makes people want to see it more.) It also put her on the radar of Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy arms dealer who liked to sell shit to the upstart Nazi Party. At 19, she made a move that is going to sound bad on paper, marrying a 33-year-old with ties to Hitler and Mussolini. Here's the catch: That doesn't just sound bad on paper, but was real-life bad too.
Not shockingly at all, Mandl instantly became possessive of his new wife, making her stop acting and trying to destroy all prints of Ecstasy, as if it was her past that was shameful. It's like some creep guy today going through his wife's Instagram to delete all of her bikini pics, when his own profile features photos of him building a dirty bomb in his garage. But she made the best of the situation, attending fancy parties with Hitler and Mussolini and sitting in on meetings where she found herself privy to conversations about military technology and tactics. Though they no doubt assumed she was just beautiful arm candy not paying attention to anything they were saying, she used these hangouts to fuel her growing passion for technology.
When they were talking about using radio frequencies in weaponry and torpedoes and cool-ass shit like that, she was listening. But unlike you or me, who might be hanging around your average torpedo talk nodding like we understand, she had a brain that could actually do things with that knowledge. Unfortunately, she was also increasingly cooped up by her dickhead husband, who no doubt tried to deploy an unsuccessful pinprick technique of his own in the bedroom. So she put on her most expensive jewelry and got her ass out of town, escaping to Paris.
Back Into Acting ... And Inventing
In short order, Klieser was signed to MGM, changed her last name to "Lamarr," and was soon in some of the biggest movies of the era. She was a prominent fixture in the genre of looking beautiful next to a dude that looks like someone just handed a script to the deli manager at a grocery store and started rolling.
But it's not Lamarr's success on the screen that is most important during this time; it's what she was up to when the cameras weren't rolling. She was a genuine tinkerer. When she wasn't filming, she'd be in her trailer working on some invention or other. Soon she linked up with a neighbor who was on the same wavelength: George Antheil, a composer. When he wasn't making music, he was doing things like writing a book on endocrinology. That got Lamarr's attention, and when she went to him seeking ways to use his expertise in this field to up her breast size (not a joke!), the two ended up getting down to some more important non-boob science.
They particularly hit it off on the subject that Lamarr had previously been privy to back in her supervillain dinner party days: radio frequencies and torpedoes, baby. Her brilliance came in her ideas around "frequency hopping." She posited that a frequency that's constantly changing and moving would be far more efficient and difficult to jam. The two perfected their invention and eventually acquired a patent before approaching the U.S. Navy with it, with the intention of helping them blow up a fuckload of Nazis. That part didn't happen, but ...
Her Invention Made Your WiFi Possible
The Navy wasn't able to implement the idea at the time because their technology hadn't actually caught up to the concept (that wouldn't occur until the 1960s). Instead they convinced Lamarr that her services would be better used as a pinup girl leveraging her beauty to support the troops overseas. And indeed, her appearances sold $25 million in war bonds.
Lamarr went back to work in film, with no inkling of how important her invention would become. Her career spanned decades, and she of course has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But being wedged in between two actors who absolutely did not invent shit in between takes didn't really do it for the heady Lamarr. The honor she seemed to take the most pride in came late in her life, when was when she was finally recognized with the Electronic Frontier Foundation award in 1997.
I fucking love this. Every single actor's biggest dream is to win an Oscar and give a tearful phony speech in front of a packed house of sycophants and psychopaths. Meanwhile, this badass just wanted recognition from an institution which I'd have to guess consisted of about 28 weirdos huddled around the continental breakfast at a Howard Johnson, handing out awards the recipients would have to give back after the pictures were taken.
Lamarr died in January 2000, and since then, technology using her frequency-hopping patent has pretty much taken over. It makes your WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth devices possible. Oh, and she never made a dime off of it. Here was a woman who wasn't scared to perform the first (fake) onscreen orgasm, take the stigma that came with it, and still go out and put the effort into a side project that changed the world as we know it. I think it's fair to say that if she can do that, you can get your ass out there and reopen your Etsy shop for dream catchers made out of your pubic hair. Maybe people don't appreciate you now, but someday ...
For more, check out How 'Friends' Invented The Friendzone - People Watching No. 5:
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