Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story: an interview with Alexandra Dean

April 2018

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

Emmy award-winning journalist, director and producer Alexandra Dean talks about her compelling new documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story – the remarkable tale of a Hollywood star whose natural flair for invention helped shape today’s communications technology.

Hedy Lamarr, an icon of the silver screen, was also a self-taught, serial inventor who relished working on and improving design flaws in existing technologies (photo: Courtesy of Reframed Pictures).

How did Bombshell come about?

My colleague Katherine Drew gave me the book Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes and I thought it would make an excellent starting point for an investigative documentary. From my work as a journalist, I realized our culture has a big problem funding inventors who do not look like Thomas Edison. I know so many young women with brilliant ideas who want to do great things but can’t get funding. So I wanted to reframe the story around gender and explore who invents our world, how and why. We were very lucky that the Sloan Foundation supported our vision from the beginning and gave us a grant that made the film possible. 

Why focus on Hedy Lamarr? Who was she?

Everything about Hedy Lamarr appealed to me. Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-born American actress and one of the most iconic film stars of her day. She is the reason Snow White has black hair and why Catwoman looks the way she does. She changed the look in Hollywood. But at night during the Second World War she was doing something far more important – inventing a frequency-hopping communications system for Allied Forces. That system laid the foundation for the GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology we use today.

Tell us more about her inventions.

Hedy met George Antheil at a party in the war years, at a time when she was inventing regularly with the movie director Howard Hughes, who was trying to develop faster airplanes. George Antheil was a brilliant musician with an inventive mind and, like Hedy, he finished school at 15.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story traces the remarkable tale of a
Hollywood star whose natural flair for invention helped shape today’s
communications technology (photo: Courtesy of Reframed Pictures).

Hedy and George came up with three different inventions. One was a top-secret secure radio guidance system, using frequency-hopping technology, for Allied naval forces chasing down U-boats in the North Atlantic. Hedy was desperate to develop her invention so her mother could get safe passage from London to the United States.

Why did it take so long for her off-screen talents to be recognized?

Hedy never got a penny for any of her inventions. It’s hard to know exactly why, but in part it was because inventing came out of her in a completely natural, irrepressible way. Her inventions came from the best part of her; the part that wanted to give something back with no thought of financial gain. Toward the end of her life, however, she did feel very sore that the world had never fully recognized or appreciated what she had achieved. By then she had become a recluse and money was short. But Hedy was very resourceful. And when, in the mistaken belief she had died, the graphics company, Corel, used her image on their products without her authorization, she sued them for USD 3 million and won. Shortly after that she asked the Smithsonian Museum to value the original patent issued for her frequency-hopping invention. Unfortunately, she died before learning that they put its estimated value at USD 6 million. What I love about this is that it meant her mind was worth twice the value of her face. 

What happened to her invention?

When Hedy patented her technology, she gave it to the US Navy, but sadly, they didn’t take her seriously. They said it was too bulky and not a useful military technology. What they were really saying was that it was unlikely that an actress and a musician had come up with a technology they could use. In actual fact, it was ahead of its time and some say it could have shortened the war by a year or more. And it was the size of a watch face.

She did get some recognition and awards in the 1990s when mobile telephony took off. She also received one from Milstar, which operates military communications satellites that provide secure communications for the US Armed Forces and President. That meant a great deal to her.

And her legacy?

Incredibly, today almost everybody in the world is connected by a communications system related in some way to Hedy Lamarr’s invention. We all interact, every day, with something that came from that beautiful mind. 

We found evidence that Hedy and George’s patent had been handed to military contractors in the 1950s and that the technology was used in military drones and sonobuoys. We know it was used in Milstar satellites and migrated from there to the GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi systems we use today.

In developing their spread-spectrum technology, which made interception almost impossible, Hedy Lamarr and George Anteil took inspiration from workings of self-playing pianos. It uses 88 different frequencies, corresponding to the number of keys on a pianoforte (photo: Courtesy of Reframed Pictures).

But the significance of Hedy's story goes beyond her invention. She was a woman with tremendous natural talent – beauty, brains (obviously) and courage, she had it all. Yet still she was unable to command real authority or respect for her achievements in her elder years. What does that mean for the rest of us? Are women only allowed to be powerful and interesting when they are young and beautiful? That really haunts me. Why don’t we let women age more powerfully?

What do you hope people will take away from it?

I ended the film with Hedy reading a poem to her children on their answerphones. She says even if life kicks you in the teeth and the world doesn’t recognize your achievements, do it anyway. What’s important is that you tried to change the world for the better. That is what you will remember. The applause doesn’t matter; what matters is the doing.

I never thought that the film would take off like this, but Hedy’s story is really hitting a nerve with the #MeToo and #TIME’SUP movements and the urgent need to get more women into science and technology.

What challenges did you face in making it?

Hedy Lamarr (center left) and George Anteil (center right)
(photo: Courtesy of Reframed Pictures).

Finding Hedy’s voice was the biggest challenge. I began with the book she had written called Ecstasy and Me. I thought it was her autobiography but soon discovered she was so disgusted with the way the ghostwriter presented her that she sued him for USD 21 million.

So I needed another, more reliable, source and was incredibly lucky to come across tapes of an interview that Fleming Meeks had done with Hedy for Forbes magazine in 1990. That’s when we decided to rethink the project and let Hedy tell her own story. The tapes were a real bolt from the blue.

What is it about inventors that you find so interesting?

The eureka moment of invention fascinates me, and the fact that it is different for every inventor. But it really bothers me that we might only be allowing a certain segment of our population create our world. We really need to draw from all of our best and brightest to create a world capable of dealing with what’s ahead. If we don’t have a gender-diverse group of people to design our future, what will it look like?

Why have women inventors been in the shadows for so long?

For the same reason so many powerful women have been in the shadows. We are just beginning to wake up to how patriarchal our society is and all the subtle ways that women or people who are from diverse backgrounds are undermined or partially recognized. We may even be holding ourselves back. Every woman around the world needs to be supported as they become more secure in their ability to create and innovate. 

I grew up in an era where I was on the crest of a wave that had been created by an amazing group of pioneers before me. I was in the first class at Harvard that was gender balanced. We didn’t know it at the time, but my cohort and I had an unbelievable privilege and responsibility.

Notes on the frequency-hopping communications system developed
by Hedy Lamarr and George Anteil which some believe could have
significantly shortened the Second World War
(photo: Courtesy of Reframed Pictures).

But as we go forward we still have paths to forge. We haven’t even started to tackle what happens to women when they become mothers or when they age, so new revolutions have to come.

So not enough progress has been made?

People assume things are improving but we are regressing. The numbers of women entering science, technology, engineering and mathematics are falling globally.

Most of us haven’t thought enough about the world we are inventing right now. The technologies we are inventing today are quite benign, but sometime in the future technology may actually govern our lives. And when that happens, what kind of technology do you want? Do you want it to be like you? Should it be humorous, gentle and empathetic? If so, we need to choose the sort of people who can build that technology, and design the kind of world we want to live in. Too often we just let one kind of person do all our inventing, and that is incredibly dangerous. We have to encourage everybody to design the world we want to live in tomorrow.

How would you like things to change?

Innovation must become more democratic. When I was creating the TV series Innovators, it became blindingly clear that those who invent do so because they get a huge check, usually from a Silicon Valley-type entrepreneur. And unsurprisingly, those entrepreneurs back people who remind them of their young selves. But that means anyone else with equally brilliant ideas is being ignored. That isn’t democratic, or meritocratic.

Hedy Lamarr née Kiesler was a naturally gifted inventor. In the early 1940s she teamed up with modernist composer George Antheil to develop a ground-breaking frequency-hopping, torpedo guidance system for allied forces. She gave the patent to the U.S. Navy, and although they didn’t use it, the technology subsequently formed the basis of the spread spectrum technology found in many electronic devices we use every day (photo: Courtesy of Reframed Pictures).

What intellectual property lessons does the Hedy Lamarr story offer?

Her story teaches us how important it is to give people ownership of their intellectual property (IP) so they can benefit financially from their invention, and to recognize them for their achievements. Even today, many of those doing the real inventing don’t benefit from their IP because their brilliant genius does not lie in IP but elsewhere. If we don’t start really looking after our inventors and make sure their IP is protected, fewer people will be drawn to invention. So we need to think about this more carefully.

You have your own production company. What prompted you to set it up?

I felt the need to break out, and it was the most liberating thing I have ever done. With Reframed Pictures, our aim is to reframe the conversation around various issues and explore them through a new lens.

What role does IP play in your work?

IP is at the core of our company. Without it there is no way for us to grow. We needed to own the rights in Bombshell; that was actually quite unusual for an independent documentary maker. But if a documentary really speaks to people and for a long time, why shouldn’t those who made it be able to build on that success?

It was incredibly difficult to secure all the rights for Bombshell. Hedy’s films alone were a third of our budget and we also needed to secure rights for all the other snippets that viewers hardly notice. But I found that process really interesting. It gave me a great insight into what we were actually putting into the film, and of course it’s an important part of a filmmaker’s work.

What next?

I'm doing a series with PBS called Beautiful Minds about women inventors who are really changing our world, but have not been recognized. And I am doing a documentary about Niki de Saint Phalle, an incredible artist, who, like Hedy, was ahead of her time and has been largely overlooked. And I am doing a fiction series about Prohibition in Napa.

What message would you give to young women with aspirations to create?

I hope that any young woman watching the film will take heed of Hedy’s message: if you want do something, just do it. Follow your passion. Not just for your own sake, but for the benefit of society because you will be part of that new, diverse team of people who will shape our world.

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