Monday, April 25, 2016

Hedy Lamarr, Acress and Inventor

Hedy Kiesler, before she became Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr was an actress known for her beauty, but she was also an inventor. Her frequency-hopping technology was used by the U.S. government and later modified for many wireless communication devices we have today.

"Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." ~ Hedy Lamarr

Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler was born in Vienna, Austria on November 9th, 1914 to a wealthy Jewish family. As a child she was fascinated with science but was also drawn to acting, and she left school to devote herself to a career on the stage and screen.

Her first film project was a German film called Geld Auf Der Strasewhen she was 17. With this appearance she caught the attention of Czechoslovakian and German producers, but itExtase in 1932 that would get her noticed by Hollywood.

Hedy wanted a contract, however, and when she heard that Louis Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Studios was scouting for actors, she went to see him in London.

According to Lamar's biographer, Pulizer-Prize winning author Richard Rhodes: "He wasn't willing to offer her a very good deal, so she said no and walked out, having great confidence in herself."

When she found out Mayer would be returning to the United States shortly, she bought a ticket for the same boat.

"Once she was aboard, she found a way to make him long for her — after all, she was an actress," said Rhodes. "And before the ship landed in New York, she had a much, much better contract — the equivalent of about $3,000 a week for seven years. Within a year, with the appearance of her in the film Algiers opposite Charles Boyer, she was a superstar."

In Algiers, 1938. Hedy's beauty was once described by fellow actress
Lana Turner at as "enough to make strong men faint."
It would be tempting to look at Hedy's face and assume she had gotten it easy, but this wasn't true. The years preceding her entry to stardom were marked with drama and strife, mostly at the hands of the man who was her first husband.

Fritz and the Third Reich

Hedy's film Extase in 1932 was notorious for its sensual scenes, in which Hedy appears nude. Her husband at the time, Friedrich "Fritz" Mandl, objected to the distribution of the film, on the basis that it was an "exploitation of the expression on Hedy's face."

Fritz was an arms manufacturer and the third richest man in Austria, and they married when Hedy was nineteen. In her autobiography Ecstasy and Me, Hedy described him as being extemelly controlling, and preventing the growth of her acting career. She felt imprisoned in the castle-like home they kept and his family estate, where Fritz routinely hosted parties with guests that included Hitler and Mussolini.

As fascism rose to power in Europe, Frizt became increasingly involved in deals with the German Third Reich. The dealings required long, extensive conferences that he would force Hedy to attend. She was repulsed by this, as she was with her husband's rejection of his Jewish heritage and his acceptance of the title "Honorary Aryan" from the Third Reich.

Having witnessed the rising violence of the Nazis in Austria and hearing of their plans first-hand, Hedy knew she had to flee both her husband and her country. With the help of a servant one night in 1937, she disguised herself as a maid and escaped to Paris. From there, she would travel to London, and ultimately to Hollywood.

Success but not satisfaction

As Hedy changed her name to Hedy Lamarr and embarked on a successful career in Hollywood, she could not forget her experiences at home. She helped with the war effort in every way she could think of; by writing patriotic songs in the breaks between movie scenes, by signing autographs and washing plates for soldiers at the Hollywood Canteen, even by raising money for war bonds by going on tour - in one 10 day tour in 1942, she raised $6 million in one day alone.

Another of Lamarr's biographers, Stephen Michael Shearer, would state in his book Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr, "Her patriotism was astonishingly deep. She knew that the threat of fascism was very real."

Cast in the typical "beautiful girl" role in her movies, Hedy led a less than typical life in Hollywood. She did not enjoy going out, but preferred quiet evenings at home. She enjoyed spending time with friends, including one of her neighbors, composer George Anthiel, the son of German immigrants.

Inquisitive all her life, Hedy also took up inventing, as something of a hobby. She had a drafting table installed in her home, and started working on both new ideas and improvements to existing systems. She would laugh later about some of the things she tried to invent that never quite worked. Her most successful contribution, however, would go unknown for many years.

Torpedoes

Having spent so many hours in conferences about munitions with Mandl, Hedy had some knowledge of torpedoes. She was also aware of the biggest issue for anyone using torpedoes: that they were powerful, but difficult to control. Together with her neighbor George, who was also an inventor, Hedy worked on a solution to this problem.

She felt that if they were radio-guided, torpedos might by more accurate when aiming for a target.
She conceived of a guidance system with transmitters that would that send signals with continuously shifting frequencies to receivers; by shifting the frequency around in what seemed like a random pattern, the signal would be virtually impossible for anyone from the outside to jam.

George was able to program the transmitters and receivers, and in August 1942, the duo patented their "Secret Communication System" and offered it to the U.S. government. As might have been expected from a military force that was not used to having ideas suggested from the outside, the Navy ignored it.

Late Praise

It was not until after World War II that the Navy dug the patent out of the files, and by then it had expired. By then, they were looking for a way to use sonar to detect submarines in the water and transmit the information to an airplane above - but they wanted to make sure the signal to the plane was secure.

They used Hedy and George's idea of a frequency-hopping signal, and it "caught on like wildfire," said Rhodes. It was used by the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam, and was later adopted by cellphone networks and wireless communication systems such as Bluetooth and GPS.

It wasn't until the 1990s that one of the pioneers of wireless communications for computers came across Lamarr's patent and realized she had never been credited. He pressed one of the major communication organizations to give her an award, so in 1997, exceedingly late but still appreciated, Hedy Lamarr was honored with an award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Her first words when they called her up to tell her she had gotten an award was, "Well, it's about time."

As welcome as that honor was, some stereotypes would never die - later in her life when Hedy expressed an interest in joining the National Inventors Council, NIC member Charles Kettering advised that she could help with the war effort better by using her celebrity to sell bonds.

Personal life and death

As gifted as she was, Hedy was never able to find a romantic relationship that suited her - she would be married six times. She became a naturalized citizen in 1953, and through to 1970 she was still being offered scripts, commercials, and stage products. None of these projects appealed to her however, and in 1981 she retired to Miami Beach in Florida.

Hedy died of heart disease and heart failure in January of 2000.

Quotes:

"Men are most virile and most attractive between the ages of 35 and 55. Under 35 a man has too much to learn, and I don't have time to teach him."

"American men, as a group, seem to be interested in only two things, money and breasts. It seems a very narrow outlook."

"The ceremony took six minutes. The marriage lasted about the same amount of time, though we didn't get a divorce for almost a year."

"It's funny about men and women. Men pay in cash to get them and pay in cash to get rid of them. Women pay emotionally coming and going. Neither has it easy."

Sources:
  • Immigrant Inventors Past and Present, Newsletter Fall 2010, The Vilcek Foundation, 2010.
  • "Most Beautiful Woman" by Day, Inventor by Night, NPR Staff, NPR.org. November 22, 2011
  • Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, Philip Rhodes, 2011
  • Hedy Lamarr, Famous Scientists: The Art of Genius. 2016.

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