Although once touted as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” actress Hedy Lamarr was much more than a pretty face. This week, Tidbits turns its attention to some of her other accomplishments.

If you’re an old film buff, you’ll recognize the name of Hedy Lamarr, who was at the top of the box office during the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1914, Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler was fascinated with film and theater and made it her goal to be an actress at a very young age. She won a beauty contest at the tender age of 12 and landed a film role in Germany at 18.

    She caught the eye of Fritz Mandel, a wealthy 33-year-old from a family who was known for its arms manufacturing. Hedy married him in 1933, but soon learned he was a Nazi arms dealer with ties to Mussolini and Hitler. She discovered he was a controlling and jealous man who prevented her from pursuing her acting career, keeping her at home and out of the limelight. Hedy accompanied Mandel to several business meetings with diplomats, scientists, and German leaders, where she paid close attention to military technology and applied science.

      After four years of Mandl’s oppression, Hedy devised a plan to escape. The couple attended a lavish dinner party, where she wore every piece of jewelry she owned, worth a small fortune. A packed bag contained her furs. Slipping out of the back door of the restaurant, she fled to London.

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    Fortunately for Hedy, Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM Studios in Hollywood happened to be in London, ready to set sail for home. Hedy booked passage on the same ship. Mayer, familiar with her four German films, agreed to bring her to Hollywood, changed her name from Hedwig Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr, and began publicizing her as the “world’s most beautiful woman.”

    Her first film role in America came along six months later in 1938. She had starred in 11 films by 1942. (She went on to star in 19 more.)

In her spare time, Hedy loved tinkering with gadgets and inventions. Recalling the knowledge she had obtained from eavesdropping on her husband’s meetings, she conceived the idea of creating a communications system that couldn’t be infiltrated by the enemy. She teamed up with a musician and composer named George Antheil to create a system that would change radio frequencies and prevent enemy ships from interfering with the U.S. Navy’s radio-controlled torpedo guidance signals. The method was called “frequency hopping.”

    Lamarr and Antheil received a patent for their invention in 1942 and offered it to the Navy for free. As brilliant as the system was, the Navy said they weren’t interested, and told Lamarr that, with her beautiful face, she would be more useful selling war bonds. Some years later, the Navy did use another of Lamarr’s inventions, which could detect submarines in the water.

    But it was decades before the importance of the frequency hopping invention was recognized. The technology behind their “spread spectrum technology” was the basis for today’s wireless communications systems, including cell phones, Bluetooth, GPS, and WiFi.

    Finally in 1997, three years before Hedy Lamarr’s death, she was finally recognized and given credit for her invention. Sadly, Antheil had already died and didn’t live to see the many accolades and awards received for his contribution.

    It was Hedy’s goal to live to see the new millennium, which she accomplished, passing away 19 days into 2000 at age 86.