Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hedy Lamarr: Not Just Another Pretty Face

‘On a recent evening, sitting home alone suffering and brooding about my treatment at the police station because of an incident in a department store, and being replaced by Zsa Zsa Gabor in a motion picture (imagine how that pleased the ego!) I figured out that I had made – and spent – some thirty million dollars. Yet earlier that day I had been unable to pay for a sandwich at Schwab’s drug-store.’

Thus begins the autobiography of Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood film actress and, unknown to most of the world, the woman who created the patent that would lead to cell phones, WiFi, and other wireless technology.

Unfortunately for Hedy, few people were interested in her brain power. All they cared about were her looks. As a teenager acting in Berlin, she was dubbed, ‘the most beautiful woman in Europe.’ During her reign as a Hollywood actress, she was known as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world.’ Hedy had a different take on it. "My face has been my misfortune . . . a mask I cannot remove. I must live with it. I curse it." Her words sound almost like lines from a B movie.

Hedy was born on November 9, 1913 in Vienna, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her real name was Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. Her father was a banker, her mother was a pianist. Hedy studied piano and ballet, but it was her face that made her fortune. Even as a teen just starting out in film, she landed major roles, and then along came Ecstasy, a film in which she did some nude scenes and, using only her face, portrayed a woman having an orgasm so well, many people thought it was real. Hedy claimed it was simply her director ‘poking her in the bottom with a safety pin.’

That same year, at age 19, she married a 32 year old arms manufacturer, Friedrich Mandl, but marriage didn’t turn out the way she imagined. Friedrich kept her a virtual prisoner locked up in his castle. He put an end to her acting career, and bought up every copy of Ecstasy he could, to prevent others from seeing it. Hedy had little contact with the outside world. Her social life was curtailed to the lavish parties Friedrich threw, where she played the charming hostess to the likes of Hitler and Mussolini, and to being dragged to his business meetings where the talk was all about military technology.

Unknown to the men at those meetings, Hedy understood everything they talked about. While they may have imagined her to be nothing more than the pretty young thing Friedrich was obsessed with, she was sitting there listening and learning. Hedy was a high school dropout, but she hadn’t left school because it was too difficult. She had a natural talent for math and science and had always been a tinkerer. She left school to become production assistant to Max Reinhardt, a famous German director. It was quite an opportunity, especially for a teenager, although one has to wonder at Max’s motives. It was he who dubbed her the most beautiful woman in Europe.

Needless to say, Hedy wasn’t happy in her marriage. After five years of being squashed under Friedrich’s pressing thumb, she knew she had to get away. She disguised herself as a maid and slipped out of the castle. She made her way to Paris and got a divorce, then headed to London where she met Louis B. Mayer. He signed her up and changed her name, and her life as a Hollywood actress began.

In the summer of 1940, Hedy met her neighbor, George Antheil, a concert pianist turned film composer, who had been experimenting with the automated control of musical instruments. He was known for his Ballet Mecanique, a musical score in which multiple player pianos and xylophones were all synchronized to play at the same time. As they chatted, the conversation turned to the war and weapons, which Hedy knew a lot about, thanks to her controlling ex-husband, and before she knew it, they were talking radio controlled torpedoes, jamming, and frequency hopping.

Hedy went home and her and George’s conversation went with her. She couldn’t get it out of her head. After thinking about it for some time, she returned to George and told him about this idea she had about protecting radio controlled torpedoes. As it stood, all the enemy had to do to make a torpedo ineffectual was to jam the radio signal that operated it. And with only one signal being used, it was easy to find. But if multiple radio frequencies were used, the enemy would have a harder time finding the right frequency, which would make jamming much more difficult.

Together, they worked on Hedy’s idea and came up with a piano roll that changed between 88 different frequencies (the number of keys on a piano). They submitted their idea to the patent office in June, 1941 and received a patent for it (US patent 2,292,387) in August, 1942. They presented their idea to the Navy, but it was shot down. The Navy felt ‘it was too bulky and unreliable to use with a torpedo,’ even though Antheil told them it could be miniaturized to fit inside a watch.

"In our patent Hedy and I attempted to better elucidate our mechanism by explaining that certain parts of it worked like the fundamental mechanism of a player piano. Here, undoubtedly, we made our mistake. The reverend and brass-headed gentlemen in Washington who examined our invention read no further than the words "player piano."

"My god," I can see them saying, "We shall put a player piano in a torpedo."

Twenty two years later, after the patent had expired, the Navy used the idea during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1998, Wi-Lan Inc., an Ottowa wireless technology developer, ‘acquired a 49% claim to the patent from Lamarr (Antheil had died) for an undisclosed amount of stock.’ They didn’t have to give her anything. Her patent had expired. But they chose to do the ethical thing. Hedy and Antheil’s frequency hopping was an early form of spread spectrum communication technology, which brought us cell phones and WiFi.

After filing her patent, Hedy tried to join the National Inventors Council but was told she could do more by selling war bonds. They didn’t take her seriously because she was not only a woman, but a beautiful woman, and if a woman had any brains at all, they would have to be in the head of someone far less attractive. So Hedy went and sold war bonds, bringing in $7,000,000 at a single event. It’s said she sold kisses at $50,000 a smack.

Hedy continued on in her acting career and, in nine years, made eighteen movies. She married five times and had two children, and was twice arrested for shoplifting, once in 1966, after her career had fizzled, and again when she was 78 years old. It seems this multi-talented woman could not manage her own finances.

After her autobiography came out, (which may have been written because she needed the money. It came out a year after her first shoplifting incident) she sued her publisher, claiming her ghost writer had invented several anecdotes, including one that claimed she’d slept with a man in a brothel during her escape from Friedrich. She lost the case. On another occasion, she threatened to sue the producers of Blazing Saddles because Harvey Korman’s character, Hedley Lamarr , was constantly referred to as Hedy. They settled out of court. And in the mid ‘90's, she sued Corel, who had used a Corel-drawn image of her on their packaging. They, too, settled out of court.

In 1998, she was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation Award in recognition of her patent, to which she replied, "It’s about time," and in 2003, Boeing ran recruitment ads featuring her as a woman of science. They did not mention her acting career at all.

Hedy had gained instant fame at the age of 19 for being beautiful. She would be 84 before the world acknowledged her intelligence. She lived only two years after being recognized for her contribution to spread spectrum communication technology, and died of natural causes in her Florida home on January 19th, 2000. She was 86 years old.


I'm Jet . . . said...

I was hoping someone would write about Hedy's fascinating story. You told it quite well, B!


Mur said...

Maybe now that I know more about her, I'll stop immediately thinking of Harvey Korman as "Hedley Lamarr" in Blazing Saddles. The woman deserves more.