Bombshell – Documentary of the actress (and scientist) Hedy Lamarr

Last fall, I wrote a brief post to introduce you to the fascinating story of Hedy Lamarr based on the novel “The only woman in the room.” While the book is a dramatization of her life as both an actress, and yes, scientist, PBS is airing a documentary called “Bombshell – The Hedy Lamarr Story.” Please click on the link below.

While Hollywood is so busy making movies about comic book heroes with supernatural abilities, it is ironic they have missed the fascinating story of a real hero right in their midst. I did not reveal the punch line in the first post, but even when I do, the book is worth the read.

Hedy Lamarr escaped Austria both as a Jew, but also from a controlling husband who supplied munitions to both the Nazis and Italians. She met Mussolini, who hit on her, and she believes she heard Hitler making her domineering husband quiver in the next room, as she listened through the wall.

As she came to America to become one of the most beautiful and iconic stars, she paid attention to what was going on in World War II. And, here is where it gets even more interesting. Her father taught her to investigate and understand science. She took apart a music box at age 5 and put it back together. She even briefly dated Howard Hughes, at one point, and he listened to her suggestions on making planes faster, as she showed him pictures of fast fish and birds as compared to his boxy design.

When she noticed that the German Uboats were unstoppable in the Atlantic easily avoiding the antiquated torpedoes of the US and UK, she invented a way for allied ships and subs to communicate with their torpedoes and alter the path. She used a frequency hopping approach and worked with an avant garde pianist composer named George Antheil, who had done cutting edge work on linking up music from multiple player pianos. A prominent scientist who saw promise introduced them to a physicist and the invention got a patent.

The Navy scoffed at the idea, in large part of her being a woman, an actress and borrowing an idea from player pianos and buried the patent. It was more than OK for her to raise money for War Bonds, which she was good at, but a woman inventor, who heard of such a thing? was their attitude. Unbeknownst to her, the Navy began using her patent in the 1950s (while it was still effective) to pilot drones and other systems. She was never told nor was she ever paid for its use. For some reason, she did not seem to mind not getting paid, but she did want the acknowledgment.

Yet, it gets more interesting. Lamarr and Antheil’s invention is now used in Wifi, GPS and Blue tooth technology. And, finally, she received late in life accolades when the story broke about who actually invented this technology. In fact, on the website of a scientist who developed its use in the Navy, he gives credit to her cutting edge invention made many years before in 1942.

Lamarr had become a recluse by the time she started getting the accolades, after she felt too many plastic surgeries greatly altered how she looked and she did not want to be remembered like thst. Her son spoke on her behalf in front of other inventors accepting their accolades.

The documentary uses a recorded audio interview with her as well as a few TV interviews to tell her story. Her son, daughter and granddaughter, as well as other historians, add a lot of background to the story. She was a complex woman and she described herself as a better artist than business person.

The documentary is worth the watch. Do pay attention to her words of wisdom at the end of the documentary. And, if you like the documentary, you will also enjoy the dramatization in the book. A link to my earlier post is below as well.


13 thoughts on “Bombshell – Documentary of the actress (and scientist) Hedy Lamarr

    • Janis, thanks. Having read the dramatic book, the documentary is more compelling. I remember watching her in “Samson and Delilah.” Her big break through was “Algiers,” which I have not seen. It still surprises me that the Navy did not tell her they used her idea. Keith

    • Bean, I am not an online member and I can open up. I don’t know if there any restrictions. Have you tried going directly to the websit and searching under the American Masters programming? Keith

    • Roger, she has an interesting line. For purposes of the invention, Lamarr says he is codified as an alien, yet when she is asked to raise money for War Bonds (over $300 million in today’s dollars), she is considered an American citizen. She was told to take her pretty face and go raise money and leave the heavy lifting to us men. Keith

      • And this was in the era when they were relying on women to work in factories.
        And fly bombers from one location to another (Interesting fact Paul Tibbets pilot of Enola Gay was a most exacting person and was very impressed by the standard of women aircrews who transported the bombers to the airbases)

      • Roger, that adds context. Per the book, the Navy was surprised she got a patent. Given the problem she was trying to fix, you think the Navy bureaucrats would have at least spent a day on it to see if it warranted study.

        You may not be aware, but Alan Turing’s Bletchley group benefitted from some early work the Poles did on the Enigma code. But, some arrogant bureaucrats almost did not take a meeting to obtain the info because they felt the Poles could not have anything of value. How many good ideas have been wasted due arrogance. Keith

      • Roger, there is a truism that is lost on too many. Many of the best ideas come from those closest to the customer. It behooves leaders to let those ideas flow up in the organization. The Neiman Marcus inverted pyramid, with the customers at the top and shareholders at the bottom illustrates this point, by flipping the priority. Keith

  1. Note to Readers: One reason Lamarr is able to recruit George Antheil to help in the development of the frequency hopping idea is Antheil’s brother was on a plane shot down by the Russians (when they were initially working with the Nazis), the first American casualty of WWII.

    • Thanks Marilyn. Mel Brooks is in the documentary. He said he had huge crush on Lamarr and named a male character in “Blazing Saddles,” Hedley Lamarr. Brooks noted there were rumors of her scientific bent when he went to Hollywood. Robert Osborne, the movie critic, was a friend of hers, and he appears in the documentary offering historical context. It is sad it took so long to get her due. Thanks for steering me to look for other books. Keith

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