Hedy Lamarr: movie star and mother of WiFi?

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“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid. In these two short statements, Hedy Lamarr perfectly articulated her feelings about stereotypes and the expectations placed on women like her in the 1930s. That’s right, she was a famous and beautiful actress, who starred in over 30 films – she was Delilah in the incredibly successful Hollywood adaptation of Samson and Delilah (1949)

But of course, it’s not just the acting that draws our attention to Hedy Lamarr as an important woman in tech this International Women’s Day – it’s her story of courage, invention and of escape, which forks on two paths: one towards the arts and the other towards science. .

Indeed, it’s suggested that during her often overlooked career as an inventor, she may even have created one of WiFi’s key enabling technologies.

In summary, the life of Hedy Lamarr is a sometimes overlooked chapter in the history of diversity and inclusion in IT. Read on and you’ll understand even better why we need more women in tech. History also tells us more about how we can attract more women into tech.

Humble beginnings and notoriety

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna to a bank manager father and a pianist mother, young Hedy was drawn to the arts. She was fascinated by the stage and at 12 she won her first beauty contest.

At 16, determined to pursue her acting dream, she forged a note from her mother to get a job at Sascha-Film (the largest film studio at the time in Austria) and landed her first small roles. during this first year.

By age 18, Lamarr had moved to Berlin and starred in the film that made her infamous, Exstase (Ecstasy). Ahead of its time for the depiction of the nude female form, the film was banned in Germany, the United States – and by the Pope. She was already leading the way.

Daring getaway

Enchanted by his screen presence, Austrian arms dealer Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Mandl romantically pursued Lamarr. However, due to his ties to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (and later even Adolf Hitler), Lamarr’s Jewish parents vehemently opposed the match. Despite this, a stubborn Hedy agreed to marry Mandl in 1933.

Although being able to attend business meetings and conferences alongside her husband helped fuel her interest and talent for applied science, Mandl became extremely controlling and did not allow her to act. . Later, when asked about his marriage, she said: “I knew very quickly that I could never be an actress as long as I was his wife”. … He was the absolute monarch in his marriage. … I was like a doll. I was like a thing, an art object that had to be kept — and imprisoned — without a spirit, without a life of its own. (Rhodes, 2011).

As fascism took hold of Europe and her husband joined in the effort, Lamarr finally had enough and plotted an elaborate escape to London in 1937. According to the account you read, Lamarr drugged his maid and worn her clothes as a disguise. or wore all the jewelry she owned to a party, then slipped away with her things before she could be noticed (Austria.org).

Quite the exit.

Hit the big time

After escaping Nazi Europe, things started to look up again for Lamarr when she arrived in London, when she was introduced to MGM Studios co-founder Louis B Mayer. Turning down his initial offer of $125 a week, Lamarr, who knew his worth, eventually managed to secure a $500 a week contract, changing his name to Hedy Lamarr to distance himself from his controversial film and marriage (history. co.uk).

She then moved to America and starred in countless box office hits until the late 1950s when she retired.

The road less traveled

This brings us back to the crossroads of Lamarr’s history: born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna to a bank manager father and a pianist mother, the young Hedy was also attracted to science.

Her father took her on long walks, where he “discussed the inner workings of different machines, like the printing press or streetcars”, and encouraged her to look at the world openly. At the age of five, Lamarr could be found “taking his music box apart and putting it back together to figure out how the machine worked”. (WomensHistory.org). And while it would be acting that Lamarr would eventually do for paid work, inventing would be her lifelong interest and legacy for which she would also be remembered.

self reinvention

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