Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hedy Lamarr: Inventor

Hedy Lamarr(real name Hedwig Kiesler) was an Austrian-American actress celebrated for her great beauty and a major contract star of MGM's "Golden Age". During my childhood, she represented the popular image of beauty.

You can image my surprise to find in reading a review entitled “Brainy Beauty” by John Adams in The New York Times Book Review, 12/18/11 of new book, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes, Doubleday, 2011, that she was also an inventor.

She collaborated with George Antheil, known as a musical anarchist, to create new weapons systems.

“What drew Rhodes to the twin story of the Bad Boy of Music and "the most beautiful woman in the world" was their invention of a radio-controlled "spread spectrum" torpedo-guidance system, for which they received a patent in 1942.

That a glamorous movie star whose day job involved hours of makeup calls and dress fittings would spend her off hours designing sophisticated weapons systems is one of the great curiosities of Hollywood history. Lamarr, however, not only possessed a head for abstract spatial relationships, but she also had been in her former life a fly on the wall during meetings and technical discussions between her munitions-manufacturer husband and his clients, some of them Nazi officials. Disturbed by news reports of innocents killed at sea by U-boats, she was determined to help defeat the German attacks. And Antheil, arguably the most mechanically inclined of all composers, having long before mastered the byzantine mechanisms of pneumatic piano rolls, retained a special genius for "out of the box" problem solving.

Over several years the composer and the movie star spent countless hours together drafting and redrafting designs, not only for the torpedo system but also for a "proximity fuse" antiaircraft shell. In reality, their patent was an early version of today's smart bombs. The device as they made it employed a constantly roving radio signal to guide the torpedo toward its target. Because the signal kept "hopping" from one frequency to another, it would be impossible for the enemy to lock onto. To solve the problems of synchronizing receiver and transmitter, Antheil proposed a tiny structure inspired by the workings of a piano roll. This was a feat that years later would be used in everything from cell phone and Bluetooth technology to GPS instruments.

On Aug. 11, 1942, United States Patent No. 2,292,387 was granted to them for their design. But persuading the Navy to take it seriously proved insurmountable~ Pentagon bureaucracy, coupled with the fact that the design's co-inventor was a movie star, resulted in their idea being ignored. Hedy's folly may have been in assuming men in government might overcome their prejudice that a beautiful woman could not have brains and imagination. But she lived to see similar versions of her invention be put into common practice, and in 1997, Hedy Lamarr, at the age of 82, and George Antheil (posthumously) were honored with the Pioneer Award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.”

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