The Hollywood Stars Who Became Inventors

The glamour and glitter of the Oscars are hard to match; such exquisite dresses, so many porcelain veneers, not to mention the Botox. . .

Hollywood’s great and good have just been honoured with golden statuettes at the annual gong fest as thanks for their achievements. But, without trying to sound like too much of an old fogey, the glamour and star quality of today isn’t a patch on Hollywood’s truly halcyon years.

Neither is the talent.

You might beg to differ on that last point, but you’d be wrong because when it comes to the entertainment industry there are stars and then there are true pioneers. Step forward Howard Hughes and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Now, we all know of the legendary Hughes as the reclusive movie mogul and Curtis for her work as an actress, but there’s more to them than that. Both were also inventors and actually patented items of clothing. Well, clothing of sorts – Hughes may have invented a steel bra and Curtis a disposable nappy with pockets holding clean-up wipes, but the point is they were coming up with creative work onscreen and off.



Zeppo Marx

Marlon Brando is another star who turned his talent to more than acting. The star of The Godfather patented a drumhead tensioning device, which made it possible to tune a drum. Even the comedic actor Zeppo Marx (Groucho’s brother, not Karl’s) got in on the act in a very serious way when, in 1969, he help to develop a type of monitor that would let people with heart problems know if their pulse was heading towards the danger zone.

James Cameron

James Cameron

Directors Steven Spielberg and James Cameron hold a number of patents. Spielberg came up ideas for annotating scripts and for a camera dolly track switch for use in filming, while Titanic director Cameron really pushed the boat out, so to speak, by patenting a submersible which can dive five miles below the surface. In 1989, he and his brother, Michael, also created  an underwater dolly equipped with propellers that makes it easy for a camera operator to manoeuvre in the water.

All very clever, I think you’ll agree. However, there was one Hollywood luminary who, in my mind, stood out more than all the rest. Her name was exotic, her looks hypnotic . . . I give you the delectable, the astounding, Ms Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Lamarr

Screen goddess Hedy Lamarr

I may be a sucker for a pretty face and a smart mind, but it’s not every day that you come across the words ‘screen goddess’ and ‘inventor’ in the same sentence, much less when you realise that the invention concerned proved to be hugely important to the military and to the rest of the world. Yet, Lamarr can justifiably make such outlandish claims.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born of Austrian and American parents on 9 November 1914. She started her acting career in Germany, but after meeting Louis B Mayer, would go on to light up the screen in the ’40s and ’50s, starring alongside Hollywood greats, including Clarke Gable, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart.

There’s a real ’40s’ glamour feel to that name, but I’d never known what she looked like. There’s a touch of Vivien Leigh about her, but aside from the beauty and acting talent, there were brains to burn, too.

During World War II, Lamarr and composer George Antheil actually devised a radio guidance system for torpedoes. The idea was to prevent the enemy from jamming a  signal which would allow torpedoes to hone in on their targets. To avoid the signal from being blocked, Lamarr and Antheul used frequency hopping technology to defeat the jammers.

Her technology was developed by the US Navy, which has used it ever since . . . as have most of us.  Her patent sits at the centre of what is known as “spread spectrum technology”, which is used in wi-fi networks and when we make calls with Bluetooth-enabled phones.

So, as the winners of last night’s Oscars revel in their acclaim, it might be worth their while remembering those other talents of the entertainment world . . . some of whom may never have won the golden statuette, but whose creative skills had a more lasting impact than any takings at the box-office.




About historywithatwist

I am an Associate Editor with a national newspaper. I have a keen interest in history and in writing. I have published one novel, Tan, and am currently working on a sequel
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12 Responses to The Hollywood Stars Who Became Inventors

  1. Hedy I find the most fascinating of all.

  2. meathtoday says:

    Mel Brooks famously claimed that Hedy Lamarr threatened legal action against the use of her name in the film Blazing Saddles on grounds of plagiarism and her right to privacy. She settled out of court. All brains but little wit!

  3. I’ve never heard about Brando patenting a drum tuning device. Yet again, Mr. Lawlor gifts us with fun facts to know! And the picture of Hedy Lamarr is stunning. I loved this post!

  4. Thanks Claire. Hedy looks gorgeous, no doubt about it

  5. Your post encourages us to find more than one outlet for our creativity – interesting as always, David.

    • Thanks Mary, It’s nice coming across people with several talents. We always seem so surprised by such things. In reality, we are all multi-talented. It’s just that some of us don’t get the opportunity to use those talents, which may remain hidden to us. The Victorians were great for trying things and developing new interests. We should take a leaf out of their book.

  6. Bill Kasal says:

    Entertaining and informative, as always, David. And, as Meathtoday mentioned, above, it’s hard for me to hear Miss Lamarr’s name without thinking of Harvey Korman saying, “It’s Headly…” But frequency hopping technology in torpedoes? Gives me something else to think of when I hear her name. I LOVE intelligent women. Unfortunately, they’re too smart to go out with me…

  7. Haha. I doubt that Bill. She as a remarkable and beautiful lady . . .and don’t get me started on Headly!

  8. jazzfeathers says:

    I knew about Lamarr (remarcable woman to say the least), I din’t know about the others.
    We tend to think to actors and show people in general like people of success only, it’s nice to know that some of them really try to be useful 🙂

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