Hedy Lamarr – not just another pretty face

Hedy Lamarr is one of the most fascinating women I’ve encountered in my Herstory project. We all know her as a beautiful Hollywood star, but did you know that she invented a technology we’d all be lost without?

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in 1914 in Vienna to a Jewish family. At age 18, she starred in Extase, a movie that became notorious for her faked onscreen orgasm, which she achieved by being poked in the bottom with a safety pin. That year she married an intelligent, wealthy older man, but soon realised what a mistake she’d made. Her husband was extremely controlling, prevented her from pursuing her acting career and sought to destroy every copy of Extase in existence. A munitions manufacturer with close ties to Hitler and Mussolini, he insisted that Hedy accompany him to dinners, business meetings and conferences in the field of military technology. Her role was to sit quietly and look beautiful, but no-one imagined that she was taking in every word that was said.

When she attempted to return to acting, her husband prevented her from leaving his castle. She made her escape disguised as her maid, whom she’d drugged, and made her way to Paris, where she met Louis B Mayer. Mayer took her to Hollywood, renamed her Hedy Lamarr, and promoted her as the world’s most beautiful woman. Soon she was a star but her roles weren’t exactly challenging, usually the dark, exotic seductress. She famously said, ‘Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.’ To relieve her boredom, she invented things. Her earliest inventions include a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated beverage and a skin-tightening technique based on the principles of the accordion.

However, in the early 1940s, when it became obvious that the Americans would become drawn into the war in Europe, Hedy realised that her knowledge of Nazi technology might be useful. She knew that the Germans had been working on wireless means of controlling torpedoes, but their method used a single radio frequency communication, which was easy to jam and divert the torpedo off course. She invented a system whereby the transmitter and receiver randomly hop among several radio frequency channels, making signals difficult to jam. Together with the avant garde composer George Antheuil, they developed the technique of frequency hopping using a piano roll to randomly switch the signal sent from the control center to the torpedo in short bursts among 88 frequencies, like the 88 keys on a piano keyboard. Their invention was patented but they gave it to the military for free, and it wasn’t used until 1962 during a blockade of Cuba, by which time the patent had expired and Hedy’s involvement forgotten

Over the next decades, Hedy’s idea became absorbed into a larger area of technology known as spread spectrum communication. But when wifi technology took off, Hedy’s invention came into its own. Her original frequency hopping idea is the basis of bluetooth technology, used every day in computers and mobile phones.

Hedy had quite a colourful personal life too. She married six times, had two children and an adopted son from whom she became estranged, earned thirty million dollars but spent every penny. In her later years she became reclusive; seeing no-one, not even her family, but talked for up to seven hours a day on the phone. She turned to plastic surgery to preserve her fading looks but with disastrous results. And sadly her scientific work was not formally recognised until 1997, when she given an award by the Electric Frontier Foundation, but refused to come out of seclusion to collect it in person. She died aged 85 in January 2000.

Annette Kellerman – changed the way we looked at women’s bodies

Annette Kellerman appeals to me on lots of levels. She had a fabulously diverse career: swimmer, vaudeville star, film actress, writer and inventor of synchronised swimming. But her lasting fame lies in the way she revolutionised women’s swimwear, freeing women to enjoy a sport that had previously been denied to them.

Annette was born in Sydney in 1886 and took up swimming aged six, solely as a means of strengthening her muscles; rickets had left her with weakness in her legs and she had to wear steel braces for support. To say she was a natural was an understatement; at age twenty she held all the world’s swimming records and the diving record for women. Admittedly, few women swam competitively in those days. But what gained Annette the most attention was the daring tight-fitting one-piece costume she wore. The acceptable dress and pantaloons of the early 1900s were so cumbersome that they didn’t actually allow women to swim. In Australia, women had been wearing men’s costumes since the 1870s; this was permitted for competitive swimming. But in 1905, when told she couldn’t show her legs during a performance for the English royal family, Annette sewed a pair of black stockings onto her costume. The resulting one-piece costume was manufactured and marketed, and Annette wore it wherever possible, determined to challenge restrictions in women’s swimwear. In the US in 1907, she was even arrested for indecency.

By this time, Annette was internationally famous. In London, she swam 27 km of the Thames, the first woman to do so, making front-page news. In Paris, she competed with seventeen men and came third in a race down the river Seine. In 1905, she became the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. At this stage, only one man had succeeded in this feat. But despite three attempts, Annette didn’t succeed. ‘I had the endurance but not the brute strength’, she said.

Annette’s talents weren’t restricted to swimming; she was a natural performer. She gave exhibitions and performed spectacular high dives as part of a vaudeville show, named the Perfect Woman, a description of her made by a Harvard professor, since her measurements were the closest to those of the Venus de Milo among the the10,000 women he studied. As part of her act, Annette made dramatic entrances in a long garment that was discarded before her dive into a glass tank, from which she emerged in her wet, body-hugging swimsuit. Her underwater swimming was also spectacular; she could hold her breath for an impressive three and a half minutes.

Soon Hollywood beckoned and she became a silent movie star, mostly in aquatic-themed movies, and was the first high-profile star to appear fully nude. She performed her own stunts, including jumping into a pool of live crocodiles, and when the studio executive decided against a scene because it looked too risky, complained: “Somebody’s always trying to take the joy out of life.” Some of her movies featured a troupe of ‘Kellerman girls’ that performed choreographed movements with her in the water, and as a result she has been credited with inventing the sport of synchronized swimming.

In her long life (she died at 89 and could perform a high kick into her old age), she also became a health guru, wrote bestselling books on swimming and fitness, pioneered exercise regimes for women and as a lifelong vegetarian, owned a health-food store in San Diego. But she’ll be remembered for promoting the female body as a thing of power and beauty at a time when women’s activities were limited by the restrictive clothes society imposed on them.