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

Author:Catherine Jewell
Position: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.


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.

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...

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