Hedy Lamarr: A beauty with brains

Mamata Pandya

From Hollywood to Bollywood, beautiful faces define the world of cinema and glamour. The clichéd belief is that beauty and brains inhabit two different worlds, “and never the twain shall meet!”

It was therefore a pleasant surprise to read about a movie superstar who combined a career in films with a lifelong passion for invention. This was Hedy Lamarr who was once known as the most beautiful woman in the world.

Hedy was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on 9th November 1914 in Vienna. It was then Austria-Hungary and World War I had just begun. Hedy was the only child of her Jewish parents. Her father was a bank director, who adored his daughter and encouraged her curiosity. They often took long walks and he would discuss with her the working of different mechanical objects – from printing press to street cars. Hedy’s young mind was fascinated with the mysteries of machines. When she was five-years-old, she took apart and reassembled her music box to find out how it worked. Her mother, a concert pianist, introduced her to the arts; and she started ballet and piano lessons from a young age. Hedy thus grew up in an environment that nurtured both her scientific and artistic temperaments. She was also endowed with stunning looks.

Before the young girl could further explore her scientific interests, it was her beauty that attracted the attention of film director Max Reinhardt, who invited her to Berlin to study acting. She got her first small role in a German film when she was just 16 years old. In 1932, her role in the controversial film Ecstasy, drew wider attention to Hedy as an actress.

In 1933 she married Austrian ammunitions dealer Fritz Mandl. It was an unhappy alliance; Hedy felt trapped under her husband’s total control and in her role as hostess to his circle of friends, which also included unscrupulous businessmen and members of the Nazi party. But even as she played the beautiful wife and hostess, Hedy’s sharp mind was following the dinner conversations and absorbing knowledge of arms and ammunitions.

Desperate to escape the stifling life, she managed to reach Paris, disguised as a maid, and then made her way to London in 1937. An introduction to Louis B Mayer of the famed MGM Studios was her stepping stone to Hollywood. Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler transformed into the European beauty Hedy Lamarr, who charmed American audiences with her accent and mystical grace.

Hedy soon found herself in the famous Hollywood social circuit. Among the many illustrious people she met was Howard Hughes. Hughes was a high-flying American business magnate, investor, record-setting pilot, engineer, film director, and philanthropist. The two became good friends. Hedy’s attraction to Hughes was not so much for his wealth and name, but for his interest in innovation that appealed to her bottled-up inventive streak. Hughes took Hedy to see his airplane factories, showed her how the planes were built, and introduced her to the scientists behind the process. He also recognized Hedy’s passion for the mechanical and encouraged her in this. He gifted her a set of equipment that she kept in her trailer on film sets and tinkered with between takes. She continued to have her ‘inventing table’ at home. Hughes shared with Hedy his dream to make faster planes which he could sell to the US military. Hedy got deeply engaged in the project, researching fish fins and bird wings to understand how they were designed for maximum speed and efficiency, and she made engineering sketches for a new wing design for Hughes’ planes. Hughes was very impressed with the designs and called Hedy a “genius”.

Hedy continued to live two parallel lives. She was a celebrated Hollywood star in public, but was also a tinkerer and inventor who often spent evenings at home studying research texts and working at her drafting table to create inventions to improve current designs. She claimed that “improving things comes naturally to me”. Rather than star-studded parties, she enjoyed ideating with a small group of friends.

It was at the start of the 1940s when the United States was on the brink of being pulled into World War II that Hedy felt the strong urge to put her innovative mind to work overtime. One story goes that her Jewish mother who had managed to escape from Austria to London was waiting to cross the Atlantic to the US and at the time the American ships were in danger of being torpedoed by enemy forces. Another version is that Hedy was deeply disturbed by the fact that children had perished in torpedo attacks while on board ships intended to take them to safety.

Hedy was aware that the Nazis were hacking the radio systems of the Allies’ ships to track and attack them. She drew upon her knowledge of war weapons to work on inventing a remote-controlled torpedo and develop a method to improve the United States’ weak torpedo guidance systems. She knew that radio frequencies were the key to the solution – but the single radio frequencies that were being employed for torpedo guidance at the time were ineffective in escaping Nazi surveillance. She worked to create ‘a secret communication system that could not be hacked’. The system utilized changing radio frequencies to prevent enemies from decoding messages. Multiple radio frequencies were used to broadcast a radio signal, which changed frequencies at split-second intervals in an apparently random manner. To anyone listening, it would just sound like noise. But the signal would be clear if both the sender and receiver hopped frequencies at the same time.

Hedy worked on this system with an unlikely partner. This was music composer George Antheil who was known for his experimental compositions. Antheil, like Hedy, was an inventor at heart. As the war loomed the two began sharing concerns, and once when playing the piano together, the idea of the extraordinary new communication system emerged. The torpedo and the guiding vessel would change radio frequencies very rapidly in an identical pattern, controlled by a device similar to a paper roll in a player piano. In this way, the vessels could communicate with each other in a secure manner that could not be intercepted by the enemy, thereby allowing the torpedo to find its intended target. And thus Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum Technology was born.

After its creation, Hedy and George sought a patent and military support for the invention. They were awarded a patent in August 1942, but the US Navy decided against implementing the new system. The patent remained classified until 1981, and during that time was only used in military technology such as sonar or satellite communications. Hedy was disappointed, but she continued to support the war efforts of her adopted country by using her celebrity status to sell war bonds. She became an American citizen in April 1953.

Hedy continued with her passion for invention and even till she passed away at the age of 85, she was inventing things: a fluorescent dog collar, modifications for the supersonic Concorde, and a new kind of traffic light, among many others.

It is believed that Lamarr’s Frequency Hopping innovation was the forerunner of today’s wi-fi technology and other wireless communications like GPS and Bluetooth. It is difficult to relate a famous movie star and acclaimed musician with the same technology that now brings movies to our very fingertips.

Hedy Lamarr’s name will always be primarily associated with her beauty on the silver screen. But so much more interesting and inspiring is her other side that illustrates that beauty and brains can coexist productively. As her son said after her death, “She would love to be remembered as someone who contributed to the well-being of humankind.”

The author worked at the Centre for Environment Education in Ahmedabad for over three decades, where she was engaged in instructional design for educators and children. She is now an independent consultant, editor, writer, translator, storyteller and blogger. She can be reached at mamata.pandya@gmail.com.

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