Heroes of History – The Film Star Inventor

It is a common misapprehension that an individual cannot be beautiful and possess above average intelligence, this is a view that many had of one of the most aesthetically pleasing actresses of her day, Hedy Lamarr.

Lamarr was born in Vienna, Austria on the 9th November 1914, at the age of 12 she won a beauty contest in her home town and perhaps that established her career as being a pretty face and nothing more. After taking acting lessons, she started appearing in films in her native Austria, one of her most notorious roles having been as the neglected younger wife of an older man in the movie “Ecstasy”. The title is certainly not a misnomer as this picture became infamous due to her having simulated an orgasm on screen and also numerous close up nude and partially clothed scenes – which incidentally, she said afterwards were not of her own volition and that she had been tricked by the director, Gustav Machaty.

At the age of 18 she entered into her first marriage -there were to be six in total – with the arms dealer, Friedrich Mandl, 15 years her senior. This was not a union that her Jewish descendent parents were particularly enamoured of due to Mandl’s links with not only Mussolini, but also the Nazi regime and Hitler in particular. Whilst this marriage was not to last and he is reported to have kept Hedy a prisoner, it did introduce her to science as she was privy to the meetings and consultations that Mandl had with his weapons developers.

Fast forward to the outbreak of World War 2 and Lamarr was in the United States and working as an actress for MGM – having been scouted in London after her escape from Vienna – and whilst her application to join the National Inventors Council was turned down (“your fame is better used to sell war bonds little lady” ok, so I’m paraphrasing there but you get my drift), it didn’t stop this amazing woman inventing. One of the men that she dated in-between husbands was the aviation hero Howard Hughes, and it was in fact he who recognised Lamarr’s gift for inventing and put his entire team of scientists and engineers at her disposal after she presented him with a sketch of a much faster aircraft by creating a hybrid of the fastest fish and the fastest bird.

It was during WW2, and in 1942 that Hedy heard of the problems facing the US Navy with regard to their torpedoes and the Axis forces managing to jam the radio signal that controlled their trajectory. She contacted her friend, George Antheil, and between them they came up with an invention that is known as frequency hopping or “spread Spectrum”, which enabled the radio signal to jump around frequencies and to stop the possibility of it being jammed. On the 11th August 1942 they were granted US Patent 2,292,387 and decided to gift it to the US military for use against the enemy. Whether it was Lamarrs beauty, the fact she was a woman or just the fact that the US military did not accept help from outside sources, they did not use it, but waited over 20 years before the concept was rediscovered and utilised during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This meant that Hedy (and George for that matter) did not ever receive a cent in payment for their idea and even more shocking, did not receive any recognition until more than fifty years later – by which time Hedy was an elderly recluse and unable to capitalise upon her genius. The invention of frequency hopping is what enables us to
have things like Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth today, so without the questioning mind of Hedy Lamarr, we would be both tied by cables and lost…..

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