Hedy Lamarr was a famous actress and an inventor. According to Wikipedia, her inventions included:

  1. Improved traffic stoplight.
  2. Tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink.
  3. Suggested a change to the design of aeroplanes.
  4. Suggested a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed, and patented this invention together with her friend, composer and pianist George Antheil.

How did Hedy Lamarr acquire her scientific education?

All I could find is some sources saying she was self-taught, but I'm looking for some elaboration on her autodidactness: Did she grab any scientific book she could find as a child? Did she take scientific classes somewhere? Or perhaps she was simply really smart and associated with smart people like her (such as her pianist friend)?


2 Answers 2


Hedy Lamarr's father was a key inspiration, and she later learnt much from her first husband's social and business acquaintances. She was also highly intelligent, creative and motivated to help combat the Nazi and fascist regimes. It was her ability to see problems and come with ideas for solutions that marked her out.

Self-taught or self-educated inventors who learn from those around them (as opposed to in a classroom) are not as unusual as one might think: Thomas Edison is a notable example. In Hedy Lamarr's case, this started with her father. He

told her stories, read her books, and took her on walks in their tree-lined neighborhood and in the great park of the Wienerwald — the Vienna Woods. Wherever they went together, he explained to her how everything worked — “from printing presses to streetcars,” she said. Her father’s enthusiasm for technology links her lifelong interest in invention with cherished memories of her favorite parent.

Source: Richard Rhodes, 'Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr' (2012)

Another significant influence was Friedrich Mandl, a munitions manufacturer and her first (of six) husband.

As a young woman, before she emigrated from Austria to the United States, she married a munitions manufacturer and listened in on the technical discussions he held with his Austrian and German military clients.

Source: Rhodes

According to Lamarr herself,

“we entertained and were entertained by diplomats and men of high political position, makers and breakers of dynasties, financiers who manipulate the stock exchanges of the world.”

Cited in Rhodes

Once in America at MGM, Hollywood movies became her primary source of income, but she used her spare time to invent. She

...invented as a hobby. Since she made two or three movies a year, each one taking about a month to shoot, she had spare time to fill. She didn't drink and she didn't like to party so she took up inventing....In Hollywood she set up an inventor’s corner in the drawing room of her house, complete with a drafting table and lamp and all the necessary drafting tools.

Source: Rhodes

Her 'partner, the composer George Antheil, wrote in his memoir Bad Boy of Music of Hedy Lamarr:

Here, then, and at long last must suddenly come the true solution as to why Hedy does not go out upon joyous evening relaxations to which all Hollywood would only too willingly invite her, why her “drawing room,” sure enough, is filled both with unreadable books and very useable drawing boards that look as if they are in constant use. Why apparently she has no time for anybody except something ultra mysterious about which no inside Hollywood columnist has dared to even venture a guess. Believe it or not, Hedy Lamarr stays home nights and invents! I believe it because I know.

Cited in Rhodes

He also noted that she was highly intelligent, far more so than most of those around her, which was perhaps why she was bored by Hollywood parties. She enjoyed a challenge and even helped Howard Hughes with the design of an aircraft to help it fly faster. In an interview, she explained that the wings

...shouldn't be square...so I bought a book of fish and I bought a book of birds and then used the fastest bird ... connected it with the fastest fish and I drew it together and showed to Howard Hughes and he said 'You're a genius'

On a more general note on inventing,

Nino Amarena, the inventor and engineer, commented on the phenomenon in our discussion of his 1997 interview with Hedy. “More often than not,” he told me, “the inventive process follows a cascade of ideas and thoughts interconnected from previous concepts that for the most part lie separate, unconnected and unrelated. It takes a clear state of mind, which is usually someone thinking ‘outside the box,’ to suddenly or serendipitously see the connection between the unrelated concepts and put it all together to create something new.” In that regard, the process of invention is no different than the creative process in other fields. Scientific discovery proceeds the same way. So do painting and sculpture. So does creative writing.

Source: Rhodes

  • I have seen pages of math-heavy work attributed to her, related to her radio work. OR they are fake, OR she had some math education. People can learn math outside of school, but it requires hard work alone with books, not just being smart and sitting at meetings. Perhaps your sources got the inspiration part and not the transpiration part?
    – Luiz
    Mar 10, 2022 at 20:07
  • 7
    @Luiz Was their original invention actually that math-heavy? While semi-complicated mathematics can be used for frequency hopping, it isn't fundamentally necessary.
    – reirab
    Mar 10, 2022 at 22:49
  • @reirab It does seem possible to find the full patent online. I can find at least photos of the diagram and at least a page of the text submission, though a lot of sites leave quality (for zooming to actually read anything) and accessibility with a great deal lacking. It doesn't look like what I'd deem math-heavy, though the diagram does seem fairly impressive for what little I know of such things. Mar 11, 2022 at 12:29
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    You can see the frequency hopping patent at freepatentsonline.com/2292387.pdf
    – Henry
    Mar 12, 2022 at 1:58
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    There's no significant math in the above linked patent application, though it is quite clever. It's actually explaining how to use it to remotely guide a torpedo, with the obvious intent of preventing the enemy from taking control of it. The frequency-switching pattern is coded into duplicate piano-player rolls in the torpedo and the controlling ship (or plane). It's really quite ingenious. Mar 12, 2022 at 11:21

Regarding the question of Hedy's math ability relating to her frequency hopping invention,

"Antheil was introduced to Samuel Stuart Mackeown, a professor of radio-electrical engineering at Caltech, whom Lamarr then employed for a year to actually implement the idea.[44]" Wikipedia

"Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil worked together on the project, with Hedy employing engineering professor Samuel Stuart Mackeown for a year to turn the concept into hard science." Segulmag.com:A Beautiful Mind

From a review by Gerald T. Westbrook (An amazing story deserves a major review) of "Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World": In-spite of all this trauma and activity George and Hedy constructively reduced their invention to practice. Their final contact was a professor in electrical engineering at Caltech. He supplied them with some additional details and also his enthusiasm about the torpedo anti-jam device. He stated "positively that it would work." amazon.com

  • 2
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    Jun 1, 2023 at 11:35
  • Thank you MCW for normalizing my references for clarity.
    – Dustin G
    Jun 4, 2023 at 15:12

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