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Artists who Moonlighted as Scientists: Lamarr, Atkins, and Da Vinci

The idea that some of the people who created great works of art were also highly influential in STEM may not be a common one. Nevertheless, many influential and recognizable artists brought about revolutions in our understanding of the applied sciences, although their artistic achievements often overshadow these contributions.

Artists who Moonlighted as Scientists: Lamarr, Atkins, & Da Vinci | Hedy Lamarr publicity photo for the film "The Heavenly Body"

The Austrian-born actress was a stunning and famous face in the mid-20th century, famed for popular films such as Algiers (1938), Dishonored Lady (1947), and Samson and Delilah (1949). However, the art of acting is not what really stands out about her; rather, it’s her invention, which changed the way we communicate.

Lamarr fled from a loveless marriage to Fritz Mandl, a fascist and Austrian arms dealer. It was through him and his associates that she learned about radio-guided torpedoes. Blessed with a truly brilliant mind, Lamarr later went on to co-invent a ‘secret communication system’ with business partner and composer, George Antheil (1918 1959). “It could guide torpedoes to their target without being intercepted by the enemy, by sending messages between transmitter and receiver over multiple radio frequencies in a random pattern." However, neither of these artists made a penny from their invention, and it was never used in the war effort. Eventually, the patent was given to the US Navy and, decades later, it became the foundation for modern GPS, Bluetooth, and other wireless technology!

When Science Turns into Art: Anna Atkins (1799 1871)

Artists who Moonlighted as Scientists: Lamarr, Atkins, & Da Vinci | A cyanotype photogram made by Atkins which was part of her 1843 book, Photographs of "British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions"

Many may not have heard of Anna Atkins, who was a trained botanist that wanted to publish a book on algae. Up till then, books were traditionally illustrated with accompanying text. Atkins, on the other hand, took to photography instead of going the established route. She corresponded with William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 1877), who is widely considered to be the inventor of photography. The publication of her scientific reference book, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, was the first to use photographic illustrations as a way to record botanical specimens. This was a momentous moment in publishing history, paving the way for the use of photographs in publications.

The Art of Invention: Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Artists who Moonlighted as Scientists: Lamarr, Atkins, & Da Vinci | A design for a flying machine (1488), Institut de France, Paris

No discussion on art and science would be complete without Leonardo da Vinci. Though the Italian artist is most known for the famed Mona Lisa painting (1503), but he was also a sculptor, architect, military engineer, and general scientist. As a matter of fact, he is credited for only about 15 existing paintings due to the fact that his experimentation with new painting techniques led to disastrous results.

Da Vinci is thought to be the first man to conceive a theoretical plan for “flying machine” which was partly based on the anatomy of a bat. Additionally, some may be surprised to learn that he taught himself to write backwards; academics believe he did this so that the Church couldn’t read his texts, since he feared being branded a heretic and condemned to death. Despite his fame as an artist, his love and devotion lay with science.

From the silver screen to a flying machine, it turns out science often intersects with art.

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