“Any girl can be glamorous,” actress Hedy Lamarr once said, “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” Whether maximizing the elements for a skin-deep litmus test in a brief nude scene in the notorious 1932 Czechoslovakian movie Ekstase (Ecstasy), or playing the temptress sapping the strength of Victor Mature in Cecile B. Demille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), the stunningly “stupid” Lamarr stood out.
But she never stood still, unthinking. As unexpectedly portrayed in Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, historian Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winner for 1988’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Lamarr’s poised preoccupation and absent-mindedness masked an active and inventive mind, one that well served her resourceful and detail-oriented nature. After all, movie stardom isn’t rocket science – so she may as well use her mind pondering something along the lines of… rocket science!
And indeed, her inherent interests and scientific inclinations were such that she set up shop in a work area in the drawing room of her Hollywood home complete with a drafting table and tools — even reportedly getting Howard Hughes to lend her a pair of chemists for one project. Her biggest and earliest breakthrough, however, came in 1942 when she co-invented – with avant garde composer George Antheil – an early technique for spread spectrum communications and “frequency-hopping” necessary to wireless communication. Bridging the gap from the pre-computer age to the present day, the development laid the groundwork for such modern conveniences as mobile and cordless telephones, WiFi, Bluetooth, and Global Positioning Systems.
None of Lamarr’s contributions could go forward until she escaped the ominous threat of war and oppression engulfing Europe in the 1930s, however. So when Hedy, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in1913 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary in 1913, found herself lonely, bored, and married at age 20 to Friedrich Mandl, an Austrian arms dealer to the Nazis, she took advantage of circumstances by listening in on those occasions when the movers and shakers of the military and government — including Mussolini and German generals — would be guests at their castle home. Acting as a “graceful automaton, “Lamarr would be privy to all varieties of information pertaining to military technology, secrets, and weaponry. Moreover, the mathematically-skilled Lamarr was able to remember these details for future reference, which would prove to be a boon for Allied technology and later civilian and scientific developments in the United States.
Lamarr’s increasing yearning to get to America saw her playing the role of her career, if one version that had her “veiled and incognito and with all the trappings of a melodrama mystery” is true. Imagine the cinematic suspense that could be captured in a bio-pic dramatization in which Lamarr’s character learns to mimic the mannerisms of her housemaid, drugs her, wears her clothes, and is on the lam to London and Louis B. Mayer and MGM and Hollywood, bypassing the Schwab’s soda counter sweater girl route soon enough for major roles. The rest is cinematic history. Except that Hedy isn’t exactly a social butterfly, and she shuns Hollywood parties, though she does actively participate in War Bond rallies and charity functions at the Hollywood Canteen, at which she undoubtedly attracts many donors and causes donations to go through the roof.
When it came to her technological frame of mind, and the information Lamarr had gleaned back in her days in Austria, the impetus to help with the war effort came after Germans sank an ocean liner carrying children being evacuated from Britain. The Jewish-born actress correctly saw an immediate need to devise a frequency-hopping system that could securely guide an underwater torpedo by transmitting intermittent signals. It was necessary to transmit signals over multiple frequencies, therefore frustrating enemies’ attempts to jam radio-guided missiles by homing in on a single frequency. Lamarr knew that the system would work only if the transmitter and receiver were both synced to the same sequence of frequencies.
In a fascinating account Rhodes chronicles the incidents and happy accidents surrounding Lamarr and Antheil’s ability to adapt a technology Antheil had developed for his 1924 composition Ballet Mécanique, which called for 16 synchronized player pianos. Antheil essentially adapted a piano roll to coordinate the frequencies. As it was, however, miscommunication and delays stood in the way of progress on the military side of the equation, with the result that unimaginative Navy officials – probably zeroing in on the analogy of “player pianos” too literally — hastily reviewing the new torpedo mechanism and deciding that it was too bulky. Spread spectrum communication finally came into use three years after the patent had expired, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
By that time, in 1959, the patent for spread-spectrum had run out for Hedy and George Antheil. In 1976, the technology had emerged from military and government exclusivity to commercial applications with the publication of electrical engineer Robert C. Dixon’s Spread Spectrum Systems, becoming the first full and unclassified review of the technology, if not a definitive acknowledgement of Lamarr and Antheil’s innovative work and its influence as a technological touchstone for today’s mobile and cordless telephones, WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS. Rhodes characterizes Lamarr, who died in 2000 at the age of 86, as resigned in later years to a lack of recognition of her pioneering work, but not to the point where she dwelled on it.
She certainly didn’t let it deter her from pursuing her avocation, going on to pursue work on such inventions as a fluorescent dog collar, a skin-tautening technique, modifications to the Concorde airliner and a bouillon-like cube that would create a carbonated beverage when mixed with water. In any case, the actress did receive some long-overdue recognition and awards before her death, including a Pioneer Award in 1997 from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit that defends digital rights and celebrates electronic pioneers.
Rhodes’ accessible and narrow focus on the fact-centered nuts and bolts of his subject — if a bit dry and prosaic at times — doesn’t leave much room for any gossip or glamor. We are vaguely aware that, when it comes to marriage, Hedy herself engages in a little frequency-hopping herself, but we would be hard-pressed to account for the identity of her six husbands. It’s more important to note her contention that she’s happiest “between husbands” because it leaves her more uncluttered time to work on her inventions. Undaunted, then, Lamarr went on to pursue work on an array of inventions, including a fluorescent dog collar, a skin-tautening technique, modifications to the Concorde airliner and a bouillon-like cube that would create a carbonated beverage when mixed with water.
So it wasn’t all torpedoes and missiles. Indeed, as Rhodes states in the closing pages of Hedy’s Folly, Lamarr’s favorite fictional character is Bart Simpson, noting that, like Bart, her motto was “Do not take things too seriously.” I might cite another member of The Simpsons, however, and paraphrase Homer Simpson when he said, “Celebrities, is there anything they don’t know?”
We may know the real answer — if Homer doesn’t — so let’s just say that Hedy Lamarr was an exception to the rule.