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So much more than just a pretty face!

12:00am | & Lifestyle

She was the sultry screen goddess whose smouldering looks made her a worldwide star and whose often scandalous lifestyle kept her in the glare of publicity, but away from the bright lights there was a secret and surprising side to Hedy Lamarr.

Now a new documentary will focus on her off-screen life as a gifted inventor, partly responsible for scientific innovations which paved the way for modern WiFi, SatNav and Bluetooth technology.

Born in Austria in 1914, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler first encountered scandal when she appeared in brief nude scenes in a 1933 Czechoslovakian film, "Ecstasy", at the age of 18. That same year she had married a wealthy Austrian munitions manufacturer, but he strongly objected to his new young wife's salacious film and became extremely controlling, forbidding any further acting roles and keeping her a virtual prisoner in their castle home. 

However, she was allowed to accompany him to business meetings and conferences where she met scientists and other innovators at the cutting edge of military technology. With little else to occupy her sharp mind, she took a keen interest in their work.

Eventually she escaped her controlling husband and fled to Paris, where she met legendary Hollywood producer Louis B. Mayer, who persuaded her to change her name to Hedy Lamarr and took her to America. In her first film, in 1938, her dazzling beauty and sensual screen persona created a national sensation, but its success would also prove her downfall as an actress.

After that she was invariably typecast as the glamorous and exotic seductress, gracing the silver screen with her stunning looks, but with few lines and nothing to challenge her undoubted acting talent. Increasingly frustrated at Hollywood's treatment of her, she is quoted as saying: "Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid."

Nevertheless, she made 18 films between 1940 and '49, her most memorable role as a smouldering Delilah against Victor Mature's Samson in Cecil B. DeMille's biblical epic "Samson and Delilah". She also earned notoriety through a string of high-profile affairs, often with her leading men, seeming not to care whether she, or they, were married at the time.

In later life she claimed the affairs were a distraction from the boredom of her undemanding film career, which was also why she turned again to science and inventing. One of her earliest inventions was an improved traffic stop light, but with the Second World War under way she applied herself to military innovations.

Working with compose George Antheil, another keen amateur scientist, they realised that the US Navy's radio-controlled torpedoes could be easily jammed by the enemy once they had locked onto the right radio frequency. With the knowledge of torpedoes she had gained from her first husband, and using a method inspired by the music rolls in self-playing pianos, she and Antheil designed a 'frequency-hopping' system which would continually change the radio signal sent to the torpedo, making it impossible to jam.

Their invention was patented in 1942, but the military was reluctant to adopt anything not produced by its own scientists. It wasn't until the 1960s that an updated version of their design was adopted by the Navy and later much more widely used. Today it is one of the key elements of 'spread-spectrum' communication technology, which includes WiFi, Bluetooth and other high tech radio systems.

Sadly, Lamarr's contributions to scientific innovation went virtually unnoticed during her lifetime, overshadowed by the media focus on her torrid love life. Married and divorced six times, she became increasingly reclusive in later life after her film career declined in the 1950s. She died alone in 2000, aged 85, having been single for the last 35 years of her life.

Only after her death did details of her work as an inventor become more widely known, highlighted in various TV documentaries and magazine articles. In 2014 both she and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, their pioneering work in radio communications finally recognised.

Now the new documentary, from actress Susan Sarandon's production company, is set to throw new light on Hedy Lamarr's unlikely role in revolutionising world communications.

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