My history hero: Martha Lane Fox chooses Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000)

Internet entrepreneur and philanthropist Martha Lane Fox chooses actor and inventor Hedy Lamarr as her history hero

Glamorous portrait of movie actress Hedy Lamarr wearing white fox fur short jacket

Hedy Lamarr: in profile

Born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna into a wealthy Jewish family, Hedy Lamarr is best known for starring in hit Hollywood films such as Lady of the Tropics (1939) and Boom Town (1940). She was also a gifted inventor, helping develop a radio guidance system for torpedoes to counter the threat of jamming, patented during the Second World War. The principles of her work are incorporated into Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology. The six-times-married mother-of-three died a recluse in Florida, aged 85.

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When did you first hear about Lamarr?

I’ve been a big fan of her films – Hollywood classics like Cecil B DeMille’s biblical romantic drama Samson and Delilah (1949), which I think is absolutely hilarious – ever since my teens. I quite liked her racy personal life and the fact that she was very much her own woman. However, I learnt a lot more about her from an excellent documentary called Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story which I saw a couple of years ago.

What kind of person was she?

She was incredibly talented. I respect anybody who can move between disciplines like she did, and be both a big-screen star and a serious mathematician, whose research all those years ago helped lay the basis for the infrastructure of Wi-Fi. I think that Hedy was a complicated person, which might go some way to explaining her tempestuous private life. She was also a strong character, an amazing actor and a beautiful woman, although at times she felt she had to play down her glamour for people to see her serious side.

What made her a hero?

The number of women who work in the world of technology today is relatively small and, by and large, they’re not well known. So I think we need to raise the profile of women such as Hedy Lamarr who have made such a significant contribution to all the ways in which we now use technology. I’m rather ashamed to admit it, but it was not until the 2000s that I really appreciated just how important a role she played in laying the groundwork for the modern world of technology.

What was Lamarr’s finest hour?

It’s her career arc that I really admire. Anyone who developed the frequency-hopping system she co-created in the war, which has contributed so significantly to today’s communications technology, while also making a lot of films of real note, has to be a pretty impressive person. She also had the first on-screen orgasm in mainstream cinema history, in the 1933 erotic drama Ecstasy [appearing under the name Hedy Kiesler]!

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about her?

As I’ve mentioned, she had a complex personal life, and it’s unfortunate that that eclipses some of her other achievements. I wonder if a man would have had so much written about his private life?

Can you see any parallels between Lamarr’s life and your own?

I’m a frustrated actor and would love to have had a successful Hollywood career, but I’m not nearly as racy as Hedy and not a fraction as glamorous! That said, like her, I’ve always tried to do my own thing and be my own person.

Martha Lane Fox co-founded lastminute.com in 1998 and sits on the boards of Twitter and Chanel. She is chancellor of the Open University. She was talking to York Membery

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This article was first published in the January 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine