Inventor Hedy Lamarr at work at her other job, movie star. While she was starring in movies like Samson and Delilah, Lamarr was also busy at her drafting table and makeshift lab in her Hollywood home, inventing such things as an improved stoplight, a tablet that dissolved in water turned the water into a cola-like soft drink, and an unjammable guidance system for torpedoes that became the basis for the technology behind satellite communication systems, GPS, cell phones, and broadband wireless networks, a story Richard Rhodes tells in his new book Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
Somewhere along the bandwidth as I surfed the web the other day, taking advantage of technology pioneered by the inventor Hedy Lamarr, I came across an article delivering the news that intelligent people aren’t all ugly.
Never thought they were.
But there was more to it. Apparently, there’s a correlation between intelligence and attractiveness. Good looking people are likely to be smart.
Now this one goes against the grain. Actually, what I should say is that contradicts a stereotype, which is that the hunkier or more babe-alicious the dopier. You know, dumb blondes and lunkheaded male model types. This is easily refuted by the existence of certain movie stars and professional athletes. On the other hand, the existence of certain other movie stars and professional athletes would seem to prove it. Ironically, at least from the point of view of movie stars with brains, it’s the movies that push the stereotype, if only for the fun of turning it on its head with some version of the librarian taking off her glasses and letting down her hair or the nerd taking off his shirt to reveal a six-pack. I don’t know anyone who applies it to real life.
I do know that there are plenty of men for whom intelligence in a woman is if not repulsive then a definite turn-off. It doesn’t matter how objectively attractive she is, to these men a woman who reveals her intelligence without apology or self-deprecation is simply by definition as plain as a lab coat and sexy as a spreadsheet.
Hedy Lamarr, movie star, inventor, and in her day reckoned “the most beautiful woman in the world,” understood these men and knew how to deal with them. The way to be beautiful, in real life and in front of a camera, she liked to say, was to “stand still and look stupid.”
What? Oh, yeah. You read that right. Inventor.
The reason your neighbor in the next apartment can’t change the channel on your TV with his remote, the reason your cell phone receives calls intended for you and not any of the millions of other calls buzzing through the air around you, is frequency hopping, these days more commonly called spread spectrum technology. And as I understand it---and there’s a good chance I don’t---that technology exists as a result of a guidance system for torpedoes Lamarr co-invented during World War II.
The story of Hedy Lamarr, Inventor, and of her invention is the subject of Richard Rhodes’ short but informative and lively new book, Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
Hedy invented as a hobby. Since she made two or three movies a year, each one taking about a month to shoot, she had spare time to fill. She didn’t drink and she didn’t like to party, so she took up inventing. When she was a girl, her father, a Viennese banker, had encouraged her interest in how the world worked, taking walks with her and explaining the mechanics of the machines they encountered. As a young woman, before she emigrated from Austria to the United States, she married a munitions manufacturer and listened in on the technical discussions he held with his Austrian and German military clients. She also had a keen sense of the world’s large and small failings, some of which she decided she could fix. In Hollywood she set up an inventor’s corner in the drawing room of her house, complete with a drafting table and lamp and all the necessary drafting tools.
In the early days of World War II, before the United States entered the war, Lamarr outraged and heartbroken by German U-Boat attacks on civilian ships, including two that was carrying children away from the dangers of the London Blitz to safe haven in Canada---in one of the attacks 77 children died---determined to invent something that would give the Allies an effective defense against the submarines. She put her head together with that of the composer George Antheil, a polymathic friend who had an instinctive grasp of any field he put his hand in outside of music, and they came up with what they called their secret communication system for a radio-guided torpedo.
The idea for a remote-controlled torpedo wasn’t new. What Lamarr and Antheil invented was a way to make the signal guiding the torpedo unjammable.
It worked like this: Guiding a torpedo by radio was relatively easy and simple. The problem was that the command signal followed a set path, that is, it ran along a particular frequency and if the enemy figured out what that frequency was he could send a signal back along it disrupting your signal. But what if the enemy couldn’t figure it out because your signal wasn’t following the same path all the way? What if your signal kept changing frequencies as it went? What if that if and when the enemy detected it, it jumped to another frequency? He wouldn’t even know where to begin to guess where it went.
Hedy’s idea was simple to state: if a radio transmitter and receiver are synchronized to change their tuning simultaneously, hopping together randomly from frequency to frequency, then the radio signal passing between them cannot be jammed. Hedy called this idea “hopping of frequencies,” a grammatically German translation of the German compound word Frequenzsprungverfahren, “frequency hopping process”---in colloquial English, “frequency hopping.”
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler, the doted-upon only child of a Viennese banker and his wife, assimilated Jews, who indulged and encouraged their daughter in all her interests and enthusiasms, one of which was the theater and another movies. She was confident, self-possessed, self-centered without seeming self-absorbed or selfish or self-infatuated. Guilelessly opportunistic, when she saw a chance she went after it without scheming or guilt. She could be defiant and rebellious, but in her defiance and rebellion she didn’t seem either defiant or rebellious. She was determined but reasonable. She was apparently able to get whatever she wanted out of people simply by asking them for it and then explaining why they should give it to her and how they were going to do it. We must do this my way, because my way is the right way, let me tell you why. Her confidence and high spirits carried the day, but she usually triumphed because, except in the case of her first marriage, she had excellent judgment and really did know what was best for her and for the people who had to depend on her.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that when she decided to become an actress she simply walked out of her high school and into a theater and told the director he had just cast her in his play. When she was offered a part in a movie filming in the mountains far from home, she took it and went without her mother who was her usual chaperone. That movie turned out to be Ecstasy in which she now famously but then notoriously appears nude and orgasms spectacularly in a not all that subtle sex scene. When her parents found out and threatened to die of shame, she explained to them that they needed to adopt a more detached attitude when it came to her acting and they came around almost immediately, although uneasily, to her professionally insouciant point of view. She was seventeen, by the way.
Later, when the American movie mogul Louis B. Mayer came to Europe scouting for talent to bring back to Hollywood and became smitten with her, offering her a contract with the expected strings attached, she turned him down flat, then made friends with his wife whom she enlisted in helping to convince Mayer to make her another, better offer with no strings.
She was independent, self-reliant, ambitious, talented, and apparently destined for a brilliant career. And then in what seems like a blink she gave it all up to get married at the age of nineteen to a millionaire arms manufacturer with very pragmatic and self-interested Nazi sympathies who fell madly in love with her in exactly the same way a collector of fine silver falls in love with a Paul Revere original tea pot.
Frederich Mandl was young but still thirteen years her senior. He was successful and powerful, a commanding and charismatic figure, and by Lamarr’s account very sexy. He was also a bully and tyrant and Lamarr should have seen what was coming. To an extent, she did. She resisted him at first, but then gave in all at once, to her almost immediate regret.
Mandl made a gilded cage out of their home and locked her in.
This part of her story has a happy ending. No spoiler there. She was able to “escape” and maker her way to Hollywood. How she freed herself from the marriage is something of a mystery of her own making. Mandl never liked to talk about it. Lamarr gave conflicting highly dramatic accounts, making her path to a divorce sound like a romantic and thrilling adventure straight out of the movies. However much plotting and scheming and fleeing in the dead of night with just the clothes on her back it took and whether or not Lamarr was right to worry Mandl would come after her and drag her back and re-lock her in her cage, somewhere along the line she probably worked her usual magic, making him see that what she wanted was for the best and to give up and let her go.
The important part as it relates to Hedy’s Folly, however, is that while she was married to Mandl she was privy to all the latest and secret developments in weapons manufacture. By taking her own advice, Rhodes suggests, and “standing still and looking stupid” at dinner and cocktail parties, the temporarily Frau Mandl was able to listen in on the what should have been private conversations of engineers, scientists, weapons designers and inventors and absorb information and lessons she would later put to use in her own inventing career, particularly when she went to work on her torpedo guidance system. She was essentially spying on the Nazi war machine and her beauty was her disguise. These men probably took it as given that intelligence in a woman was inversely proportional to her looks and therefore a woman as gorgeous as Hedy could not be smart enough to understand what was being discussed and so they were free to talk about anything in front of her.
As a character, Lamarr comes alive vividly in the early chapters of the book where Rhodes can show her in action, which mainly means in defiance and rebellion against her parents, against the producers and directors who gave her her first parts on stage and in the movies, against L.B. Mayer when he thought he was bringing her to Hollywood while she was bringing herself, he was just the horse she’s riding in on, against her bully of a husband.
But Rhodes is defining her in opposition and in contrast to other people. We feel we know her, think we see her, because we know and can see her effect on others.
Once he gets her to California, though, she begins to go out of focus and, for long periods of time, drift right off camera.
Rhodes is the author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, one of the best narrative histories ever written, near the top of my list of indispensable books for understanding who we Americans are hand how we got this way. Any ten pages of The Making of the Atomic Bomb is packed with more information, incident, character, and historical analysis than many whole books by other well-regarded nonfiction writers. With that in mind, Hedy's Folly reads like a chapter or two, padded out, in book of wider scope. What I'm saying is that there's plenty of information, incident, and character in Hedy's Folly, but the history seems short-changed. It feels as though there’s a larger story to be told, it’s just not clear what that story is or how Hedy's folly fits in it.
That story may be the biography of Hedy Lamarr but that would be the biography of a movie star and Rhodes is happy to leave that one to someone else to tell. (Like Stephen Michael Shearer, whose Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr was published this past fall.) the trouble is that the story of Hedy Lamarr the inventor is the story of someone who worked mostly alone, mainly to please herself, and then didn't talk about it. If she wrote letters about her life as an inventor or kept a diary or wrote a memoir, Rhodes doesn't appear to have had access to them. Her autobiography was ghost written and she more or less disavowed it. There are still people alive who knew her and would have lots to tell us about her, but it’s likely they knew the movie star. They’d have seen her at work, but as an actress, not as an inventor. Most of them probably didn't even know that she was an inventor or take her inventing seriously if they did, not seriously enough to quiz her deeply about the work and then write down what she told them or showed them.
The only everyday witnesses to her life as an inventor were her children, who were too young to understand what she was up to except making their homelife a little more fun and interesting than the lives of other kids they knew, and her co-inventor, George Antheil.
Antheil did write letters. copious letters and a lot of them, and he did write a memoir. Bad Boy of Music. The title tells you something, doesn’t it? He was a sharp-eyed and intelligent observer, he wrote well, he had a scientific as well as an artistic mind and he could easily have become a biologist, a psychiatrist, a physicist, or an engineer. He even wrote a very well-received and best selling mystery novel and could have gone the way of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.
He was just the partner you’d have wanted Lamarr to have if you hoped for an insightful and detailed portrait of her at work at her drafting table. The trouble is that while Antheil was a keen observer of people, the person he was most interested in observing was himself.
And, Rhodes speculates, he was jealous and resentful when it came to his co-inventor. She was beautiful, world-famous, and rich. He may have felt things came too easily for her and to her, especially money. Antheil was a critically acclaimed composer. He was well-regarded among classical musicians and in Hollywood where he made a name for himself composing the scores for movies like The Plainsman, Angels Over Broadway, and In a Lonely Place. He worked hard and he was regularly employed as a composer, teacher, and musician, but none of it paid him much money or enough money and he and his wife were constantly broke. Inventing was just one iron he had in the fire and not the one he expected or even wanted to make his fortune. When he did write about his work with Lamarr it was to make clear how important his contributions were, sometimes at Hedy’s expense.
Not that he should have been relegated to a supporting role. He’s the leading man of this story. But he’s a lead with no one to play off of. His leading lady is often off screen, her actions and thoughts reported on but not dramatized for us to see. Antheil was smart, resourceful, committed to his art, charming---too charming for his own good or rather for his wife’s continual happiness. He philandered with brio. He could have been the subject of a book of his own. He was. As I mentioned, he wrote a memoir and it was a bestseller. But we miss her.
Hedy’s Folly is a primer on the nature of invention for layfolk. Lone geniuses do go into their basement and garage labs and come out shouting Eureka or at least muttering, Son of a gun, it just might work. Rarely, though, do they come out with a gizmo, dohicky, or thingamajig that is immediately applicable, practical, and marketable. Most inventions are to a degree either improvements on others’ previous inventions or components that need to be put to work with components invented by others or improved on by others in order to be of any use. When you’re looking at a new device or machine you’re usually looking at an assemblage of inventions.
Some of these inventions are, as I said, improvements, but some of them are the result of an inventor looking at another inventor’s invention and seeing applications and uses the original inventor did not see or could not make work and adapting it to a different purpose. This is what happened with Lamarr and Antheil’s secret communication system. They didn’t invent cell phones and Bluetooth and broadband internet connections. Their work was adapted and reapplied by later inventors. This is important to understand not in order to diminish their achievement but to appreciate it for both its creativity and importance after you learn that what they did invent was never actually put to use.
This is where you might think that powers-that-be or certain men among the powers-that-be didn’t take the work of an actress seriously. That wasn’t the case. The United States government was thrilled with Hedy’s invention. But the Navy never got around to trying it out in their torpedoes because it had another, more pressing problem they had to solve first. Guiding torpedoes to their targets wasn’t the concern. The problem was that once they got there, the torpedoes didn’t blow up.
Sixty percent of the Navy’s torpedoes were duds, Rhodes reports. They’d strike their targets and then…nothing. Well, they’d penetrate the hulls, but then…nothing. Enemy ships would return to port with torpedoes sticking out of their iron plating like arrows. Torpedoes set to detonate below a ship’s keel and scuttle it in one blow passed quietly underneath and kept going until they ran out of gas and sank.
While trying to deal with that, the Navy filed Lamarr and Antheil’s now classified patent away. Seventeen years later, in 1959, the patent expired. But spread spectrum technology remained a government secret well into the 1970s. And this is where Hedy Lamarr’s part in the story of her own invention ends.
But secret doesn’t mean forgotten or ignored.
Enter a slew of other inventors, adapting and reapplying what Lamarr and Antheil meant to put to work sinking German and Japanese submarines.
As I said, Hedy’s Folly feels like a small part of a much larger story---because it is. Rhodes only touches on that story here, but Hedy’s Folly is still an important and useful, not to mention enjoyable book, not least because it alerts us to the news that a movie star and a classical composer were unsung heroes in the effort to defeat the Nazis. Hedy Lamarr’s life and work, onscreen and at her drawing table, are reminders that there’s much more to being beautiful than “standing still and looking stupid.”
Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes, published by Doubleday, is available from Amazon in hardback and kindle editions.
Read an excerpt.