January 16, 2012 2:38:00 PM
Everyone knows the name Hedy Lamarr; even Mel Brooks could get laughs from naming a character "Hedley Lamarr" in Blazing Saddles. You know Hedy Lamarr because of her screen career as a gorgeous starlet. It was only around 1997, though, that the story came out that Lamarr was an inventor, and a prophetic one. Other people read or do needlepoint for a hobby; Lamarr worked on inventions. She eventually got credit for her inventing work, and historian Richard Rhodes tells the full story in Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (Doubleday). Rhodes's brisk, delightful biography, which takes in not just Hollywood, but Vienna and avant-garde Paris, too, also dips into patent law, military inertia, and electronic innovations. Lamarr was famous for her self-deprecating advice, "Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." This entertaining book ought to help ensure that if you think of Lamarr's glamour, you will couple it with an intellect far from stupid.
It is not possible completely to understand where genius comes from, but for Lamarr, we have good clues. She was born Hedwig Eva Maria Keisler in 1913, to a prosperous family of assimilated Jews in Vienna. Her father, a banker, would read books to her and take her on walks through the city, during which he would explain how all sorts of gadgets worked, printing presses, streetcars, and more. Her parents were dismayed when she left school at sixteen to become a stage actress. They were even more so when at age nineteen she appeared in the film Ecstasy, featuring shots of her swimming and enjoying the woods while nude, and enjoying what might be the first on-screen orgasm when she takes a lover. The movie is tame now, but it was notorious, and was one of the first condemned in America by The Legion of Decency. They didn't like it, but the Viennese arms dealer Friedrich Mandl did, or at least he liked her. He was thirteen years Lamarr's senior, and though he was eager to have her as a trophy wife, he disapproved of her acting career, and tried to acquire all the prints of Ecstasy. Her role was merely to entertain his business clients, and though she was virtually a prisoner in her own home, she did hear the conversations about torpedoes and other weapons systems Mandl's firm supplied. She may have practiced looking stupid during such conversations, as she absorbed the newest of technological advances.
She wasn't long in that marriage, and fled to America on the liner Normandie, on which she met Louis B. Mayer of MGM, and disembarked with a seven-year contract. In 1940, while she acted with Jimmy Stewart and Judy Garland in the musical Ziegfeld Girl, she started thinking about the German torpedoes sinking boats in the North Atlantic, and started to wonder if there was anything she could do about it. Hedy's Folly is of course her story, but it also is a brief biography of her partner in inventing, the composer George Antheil. He is recognized now as one of the most important American composers of the twentieth century, but he had been a bad-boy of the avant-garde. In 1925 he had premiered in Paris his Ballet Mécanique, a cacophonous work that required him to synchronize sixteen player pianos, along with percussion, gongs, and an airplane propeller. The premiere caused one of those riots that happened among Parisians who took classical music seriously. When he met Lamarr in Hollywood, though, he was trying to make an income from movie music. Their meeting, preposterously enough, came because she consulted him about her breasts: was it endocrinologically possible that they could be made larger? Antheil, you see, had written several articles for Esquire about his amateur endocrine theories, by which one could presumably tell if one's wife were unfaithful or how sexually disposed a particular woman was.
No matter how the breast discussions turned out, Antheil was delighted to find out that Lamarr was thinking about inventions, tinkering with things in a workshop within her Hollywood home. There was a problem with radio-controlled torpedoes, a problem that might affect radio-controlled anything. A transmitter sending on a particular frequency could be easily located, and that particular frequency easily jammed. If the signal did not stay on one frequency, however, but hopped between a few dozen different ones, jamming was much more difficult. The idea was Lamarr's, and she dubbed it "frequency hopping." Antheil was the perfect partner for such an endeavor of frequency synchronization; after all, it was he who synchronized the performance of all those player pianos, and he came up with a tiny electronic gadget that would switch the frequencies. At the time, the invention came to naught. The Navy's technicians were having enough trouble making reliable one-frequency torpedoes, and were not interested in installing within them a gadget they mistakenly thought had the bulk of a player piano mechanism. The Navy did acquire the rights to the Lamarr - Antheil patent, but rejected it for any practical use, and it remained a naval secret.
The patent expired in 1959 (the same year Antheil died) and had been forgotten, but it was to be resurrected for various military and civilian communication systems shortly thereafter. Nowadays, "frequency hopping" is called "spread spectrum" technology, and it is used in cell-phones, GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and more. Lamarr got to see some of those applications, and knew her ideas were being put to work. She occasionally complained about the lack of recognition she had gotten for her invention. It wasn't until the 1990s that her work was brought to wider awareness, and in 1997, three years before she died, she received a Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Hedy's folly, perhaps, was thinking that the Navy would welcome the invention of a gorgeous Hollywood star. She certainly contributed to the war effort, in her more acceptable and conventional role as a celebrity promoter for war bonds. She deserved the fame she got for her beauty, to be sure, and for her ability to display it on screen. But there was more to her than looks and glamour, Rhodes shows. Hedy Lamarr played an important role in inventing the future.