Beauty and Brains: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr

11564538I love old Hollywood movies (preferably black-and-white ones), and so Hedy Lamarr was not unknown to me. Famously called “the most beautiful woman in the world” by MGM Studios, Lamarr was a successful actress with an illustrious life. What is not quite so well-known is the fact that she was also a successful inventor.

“Hedy invented as a hobby. She didn’t drink and she didn’t like to party, so she took up inventing.”

Hedy invented all sorts of things, like a tissue-box attachment for the disposal of used tissues and bouillon-like cubes that would create a soft drink when mixed with water. She filmed two or three movies a year, which left her plenty of time to come up with ideas of how to make the world less chaotic.

Hedy conceived of her most important invention in 1941, in the dark years between the German invasion in Poland in September 1939 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 […]. She wanted to help her newly adopted country and saw the need for a weapon to attack the German submarines that were devastating North Atlantic shipping. It’s characteristic of her confidence in her inventive gift that she believed she could devise such a weapon and help change the course of the war.

The biggest problem with torpedoes at the time was the lack of control. The people firing torpedoes had little control over the exact path a torpedo would take once it was fired and equally little control over the moment of detonation. Radio-control over weapons was also little developed, the biggest problem being the ease with which a radio signal could be jammed. In short, remote-control weaponry in general, and torpedoes in particular, was rather useless in the late 1930s.

Hedy set out to change that. For her system to work, she needed three “players”: the ship that fires the torpedo, the torpedo itself, and a plane observing any necessary course correction to ensure the torpedo hits its target. The three players would communicate with each other at pre-set times via radio, always at different frequencies, and observe radio silence in-between. The groundbreaking idea was the “frequency hopping” that would prevent any possible jamming of the radio control. It took about a year to develop a functional plan for this radio-controlled torpedo, apply for a patent, and offer it to the U.S. government.

Sadly, the Navy rejected the idea, and the patent for the radio-controlled torpedo expired in 1959 without ever being used. The military did use Hedy’s idea to develop some weapons using what is now called spread-spectrum communication, but since weapons development is a secretive business, not much was known about Hedy’s work until the deregulation of the technology in the early Eighties. It wasn’t until a retired U.S. Army colonel started to explore whether wireless digital communications could be used to connect rural schools and did due diligence for a grant from the National Science Foundation that he first found out and told people about Hedy’s contribution to today’s existence of cell phones, Wifi, Bluetooth technology, GPS devices, and anything else that is wireless—which all use frequency hopping to operate without interference.

I am by no means an expert in technology and how all of these things work (I usually simply call it “magic”), but the nerdy side of me rejoiced at reading about all that. Richard Rhodes certainly exceeds at presenting lots of technological information in a way that ensures an average person can understand and appreciate it. He is also very clear about the attribution of ideas and the timeline of events that might have led to the incredible progress in early spread-spectrum technology.

The one “flaw”—if you want to call it that—is the misleading title of the book. Because while there is no doubt that Hedy was an incredibly smart and inventive person, she had a very necessary partner in the development of her radio-controlled, frequency-hopping torpedo: George Antheil. Antheil, the self-professed “bad boy of music” of the first half of the 20th century, had composed a rather unsuccessful ballet that relied on the simultaneous playing of pianos. The technology he used for the synchronization of the pianos was the same technology used to synchronize the communication between the above-mentioned ship, torpedo, and airplane. Hedy and George met regularly to discuss and fine-tune their invention, and the patent they submitted for this invention is called the Lamarr-Antheil patent.  The book divides its attention very fairly between Hedy and George, except, of course, when it comes to the cover and title. It seems that there, George couldn’t compete with the “most beautiful woman in the world.”

I read this book for Doing Dewey’s Women in Science event this month.

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22 comments

  1. This sounds so interesting! I love that the inventor (or co-inventor) in this case is so surprising! What a great pick for reading about women in science history. Definitely going on my to-read list 🙂

  2. So interesting, I didn’t know that Richard Rhodes had written a book on Hedy Lamarr (from the Atomic Bomb book to Hedy I guess). Nor did I know that she was an inventor in her spare time. Wow. thanks!

  3. Fascinating! I hadn’t heard of her either, but I also find it so interesting that Hedy was a beautiful movie star and had a second career as an inventor with her work contributed to the technology we used today.

  4. How intriguing! Add me to the list of people who had no idea about this side of Hedy Lamarr’s life. I really love those old Hollywood movies too. I don’t know if you’re a podcast person, but if so you might like You Must Remember This – they cover profiles of various movie stars and stories on the studios, all from Hollywood’s golden age. There’s a link here if its of interest:

    http://www.youmustrememberthispodcast.com/about/

  5. Fascinating! I’m sure that’s the same technology as the Federation use to fight the Borg in the 24th century! #StarTrekNerd Sounds more useful than the tissue-box attachment… unless of course one is in a house without bins…

    • That Startrek stuff went straight over my head, but I am sure you are right. I agree with you on the tissue-box attachment, although it might come in handy if you are traveling as a hitchhiker through the galaxy.

  6. Haha! I also call it “magic”. But, of course it’s not, and this is very cool. So glad you found this book and read it for the challenge! I have to confess that I didn’t even know she was a movie star or was once considered the most beautiful woman in the world, so I’ve just learned a truckload of stuff. 🙂
    I have a feeling I won’t be fitting my book in by the end of March. Hopefully, I’ll get to it anyway!

  7. This is so cool! I am going to have to look out for this one – it sounds like something I’d love. I had a chuckle when I saw that the author won a Pulitzer for writing about the atomic bomb. Something tells me he was surprised to find himself writing about a movie star later!

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