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'Most Beautiful Woman' By Day, Inventor By Night

Nov 22, 2011
Originally published on November 28, 2011 9:56 am

At the height of her Hollywood career, actress Hedy Lamarr was known as "the most beautiful woman in the world." For most of her life, her legacy was her looks.

But in the 1940s — in an attempt to help the war effort — she quietly invented what would become the precursor to many wireless technologies we use today, including Bluetooth, GPS, cellphone networks and more.

An Unlikely Beginning

A new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes sets out to rewrite America's memory of Lamarr. Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, chronicles her life and the inventive side that is not often mentioned.

Rhodes tells Rachel Martin, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered, that Lamarr had been fascinated with science as a child growing up in Austria, but pursued acting instead. Her first break into Hollywood came when she heard Louis Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios was scouting for actors.

"She went to see him in London. He wasn't willing to offer her a very good deal, so she said no and walked out, having great confidence in herself," Rhodes says.

When Lamarr found out Mayer was headed back to the United States, she bought a ticket for the same boat.

"Once she was aboard, she found a way to make him long for her — after all, she was an actress. And before the ship landed in New York, she had a much, much better contract — the equivalent of about $3,000 a week for seven years," he says. "Within a year, with the appearance of her in the film Algiers opposite Charles Boyer, she was a superstar."

Un-Hollywood

Rhodes says Lamarr was most often cast based on her looks and had few lines. She quickly grew bored in Hollywood.

"Hedy didn't drink. She didn't like to party," he says. "Her idea of a good evening was a quiet dinner party with some intelligent friends where they could discuss ideas — which sounds so un-Hollywood, but Hedy had to find something else to do to occupy her time."

Rhodes says she had a drafting table installed in her house and started inventing. Among her projects was an improved stoplight and a tablet that, when dissolved in water, created a soda similar to Coca-Cola.

"She laughed later and said, 'Well, it never really worked.' It probably tasted like an Alka-Seltzer tablet, which is basically what it was," he laughs. "But she was constantly looking at the world and thinking, 'Well, how could that be fixed? How could that be improved?'"

Inspired By War

As she was inventing, Rhodes says, Lamarr was simultaneously glued to the events of World War II. When German submarines began targeting passenger cruise liners, he says, she felt compelled to invent something to help the Allied cause. She zeroed in on torpedoes, which were powerful weapons but hard to control. Rhodes says she thought that if they could be radio-guided, there was a better chance they would hit their target.

"She understood that the problem with radio signals was that they could be jammed. But if you could make the signal hop around more or less randomly from radio frequency to radio frequency, then the person at the other end trying to jam the signal won't know where it is," he says. "If they try to jam one particular frequency, it might hit that frequency on one of its hops, but it would only be there for a fraction of a second."

Thus, her take on "spread-spectrum radio" was born. Lamarr and her co-inventor, composer George Antheil, submitted their idea to the National Inventor's Council and received a patent for their "Secret Communication System" in 1942. They were anxious to share their invention with the Navy, but got a lackluster response.

"The Navy being the Navy, if it hadn't been able to make a torpedo that worked, obviously it wasn't going to be receptive to ideas coming in from outside," Rhodes says. "The Navy basically threw it into the file."

Untouched For Years

The Navy classified the patent as top secret and it remained untouched for years. But after World War II, the Navy was interested in developing a so-called "sonobuoy" that would use sonar to detect submarines in the water and transmit the information to an airplane above. However, it needed a way to jam-proof the signal between the buoy and the plane.

"They resuscitated the idea of frequency-hopping and built it into the sonobuoy. And after that, the whole system just spread like wildfire," Rhodes says.

The military and private companies all started developing their own technologies around Lamarr's invention. Today, vestiges of her frequency-hopping technique are found in most digital devices that communicate wirelessly.

But Rhodes says Lamarr's contribution was "lost in the noise" for decades. In the 1990s when she was in her early 80s, one of the pioneers of wireless communications for computers came across Lamarr's patent and realized she'd never been honored.

"He started the ball rolling so that one of the major communications organizations would give her one of its awards. She by then had had so much bad plastic surgery that she didn't like to go out in public so she received the award by telephone," he says. "When they called her up to tell her she would get the award her first words were, Hedy Lamarr being Hedy Lamarr, 'Well, it's about time.'"

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At the height of her Hollywood career, Hedy Lamarr was known as the most beautiful woman in the world. And for most of her life, her legacy was her looks. But a 1941 news article revealed one of her hobbies.

RICHARD RHODES: (Reading) Hollywood, California, September 30th. Hedy Lamarr, screen actress, was revealed today in a new role, that of an inventor. So vital is her discovery to national defense that government officials will not allow publication of its details.

MARTIN: That's Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes, reading from his new book about Lamarr called "Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr." That discovery the article mentioned? A landmark invention in wireless communication that paved the way for a lot of technology we use today, like GPS and Bluetooth. Rhodes says Lamarr always loved science but spent most of her early adult life trying to escape an unhappy marriage to an Austrian arms dealer.

RHODES: He gave her jewels. He gave her gold. He gave her everything she could possibly want, except her freedom.

MARTIN: When World War II started, Hedy's husband began manufacturing weapons for the Germans. When Nazi generals visited their home, the conversations focused on weapons, and Hedy listened in.

RHODES: With Hedy sitting at the dinner table, hardly anyone ever speaking to her, but she's smart and she's interested in technology. And she listens as she begins to think, how can I escape this domineering, paranoid husband of mine?

MARTIN: So Richard Rhodes, eventually, Hedy does escape. She leaves her husband, right?

RHODES: She escapes - not quite as dramatically as she always told the story. She really didn't dress up as one of her maids, drug the maid, put the maid in her clothes, and jump out the window. In fact...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: A little artistic license in the retelling of that.

RHODES: Yeah. It made a good story. There was, in fact, a divorce proceeding under way in Vienna. She heard that Mayer, of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, was scouting for actors and actresses. She went to see him in London. He wasn't willing to offer her a very good deal. She said no and walked out, having great confidence in herself. Found out that he was going to sail back to the United States, and bought passage.

And once she was aboard, she found a way to make him long for her, let's say. After all, she was an actress. And before the ship landed in New York, she had a much, much better contract - the equivalent of about $3,000 a week for seven years. And within a year, with the appearance of her in the film "Algiers" opposite Charles Boyer, she was a superstar.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that. She does become a big star. She becomes an icon. At what point does this start to lose interest for her? At what point does she return to thinking about science and invention?

RHODES: Well, there were two converging events here. One is, people who made movies in those days typically only made maybe three movies a year, so they had a lot of down time. And Hedy didn't drink. She didn't like to party. Her idea of a good evening was a quiet dinner party with some intelligent friends where they could discuss ideas - which sounds so un-Hollywood, but Hedy had to find something else to do to occupy her time. And she took up inventing.

And she invented, for example, with a little help from Howard Hughes, one of her boyfriends, she invented a little tablet that if you dropped in a glass of water, would dissolve and produce a Coca-Cola, if you will. She laughed later and said well, it never really worked. But...

MARTIN: Yeah. What did it taste like?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RHODES: Probably taste - like an Alka-Seltzer tablet, which is basically what it was. But she was constantly looking at the world and thinking, well, how could that be fixed? How could that be improved? The other part of her coming to this important invention in her life was that she was keenly aware of the coming war. She was glued to the newspaper, reading the stories about what was going on. And particularly, when German submarines began torpedoing passenger liners, she felt at that point: I've got to invent something that will put a stop to that.

MARTIN: So explain what she actually invented.

RHODES: She thought if a torpedo could be radio-guided, you could be much more sure that it would take that ship or submarine out. But she understood that the problem with radio signals is that they can be jammed. The idea that she came up with was if you can make the signal hop around, more or less randomly from radio frequency to radio frequency, then the person at the other end trying to jam the signal won't know where it is.

If they try to jam one particular frequency, it might hit that frequency on one of its hops, but it would only be there for a fraction of a second.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Richard Rhodes about his new book. It's called "Hedy's Folly," telling the story of Hedy Lamarr, the silver-screen bombshell who was also an inventor. So what happened to her idea?

RHODES: So she submitted it to the National Inventors Council. They liked the idea a lot. Hedy and her companion in invention worked together, and got a patent for what was called a secret communication system, which was just this frequency hopping idea. And they gave the patent, free of charge, to the United States Navy. And the Navy, being the Navy, if it hadn't been able to make a torpedo that worked, obviously, it wasn't going to be receptive to ideas coming in from the outside.

MARTIN: Mm.

RHODES: And the Navy basically threw it into the file.

MARTIN: And was it ever to be revived?

RHODES: So after the war, the Navy was interested in developing a sonobuoy, a buoy that would sit in the water and, using sonar, detect possible submarine activity below it. And then they needed a jam-proof signal to go from the buoy to the airplane overhead that was receiving the information. And they resuscitated the idea of frequency hopping and built it into the sonobuoy. And after that, the whole system just spread like wildfire. The most well-known application today is Bluetooth.

MARTIN: So you're saying if Hedy Lamarr was responsible for the technology that ended up giving us Bluetooth wireless technology today, why isn't she credited for that?

RHODES: The patent itself had expired. During most of its life, it had been a military secret. By the time it came out, it had been permutated through all of these Navy technologies developed by other companies at other places at other times, and she was simply lost in the noise. However, in the 1990s, when Hedy was in her early 80s, one of the pioneers of wireless communications for computers came across all this information and realized that Hedy had never been honored for her invention, and started the ball rolling so that one of the major communications organizations would give her one of its annual awards.

When they called her up to tell her that she would get the award, her first words were - Hedy Lamarr being Hedy Lamarr - well, it's about time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RHODES: But she, I'm sure, was delighted that finally, she did receive some recognition for her invention.

MARTIN: Richard Rhodes is the author of "Hedy's Folly: the Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr." He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Richard Rhodes, thanks so much for talking with us.

RHODES: Thank you. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.