Confession. I didn’t really hear about Hedy Lamarr until around 2012. I knew the name. Enough to recognize it when a coworker at a semiconductor company posted a brief bio and tribute to her in one of the conference rooms. And then I encountered her more as I moved in women in technology circles.
So it is understandable—but totally different from most people—that I knew Hedy Lamarr as an inventor first and as an actress second. I came to the documentary Bombshell from this perspective. I learned more about the history surrounding her invention but I learned a lot about her life and acting career.
Hedy was known for inventing frequency hopping in the early 1940s as her contribution to the war effort. How to prevent the enemy from intercepting radio frequencies? Frequency hopping.
The Navy discounted her patent and buried it. She was told to contribute to the war effort by selling war bonds, not inventing technology. Inventing technology was man’s work. Her technology was quietly adopted though she didn’t know of it in time to contest any royalties from her patent. In time, her contribution led to future technological advances such as GPS, Bluetooth, secure wi-fi, and military applications.
The movie starts from her life in Vienna, through all of the twists and turns during the war, her acting career, and her seclusion. The movie is a lesson in discrimination and resolve. Hedy wanted to be taken serious for her intellectual contributions but that was just not possible in American society of the time (and maybe today too). The last several decades of her life, she retreated to live in seclusion. One of her sons was her advocate and spokesperson in the world. (She literally called him during a talk he was giving to accept an award on her behalf.)
Her wasted talent was a shame. Married numerous times, she seemed to vacillate between being an independent woman and one curtailed by societal norms. She tried to play the role of happy wife and mother.
Bombshell is illuminating. You will certainly come away with an idea of who Hedy was and her contribution to technology. But you will also come away with the sad realization that anyone who does not fit the model of what society thinks a person should be is rejected—whether it is Hedy Lamarr or Alan Turing. Their contributions are largely ignored or discounted until after we lose them.