The Morning Forum of Los Altos audience heard about the owner of a patent for a breakthrough invention that helped the U.S. military during World War II and is still in use today. Members also heard about the life of the “most beautiful woman in the world.” The subject of both was the same – actress Hedy Lamarr.
Richard Rhodes, author of 24 books on a wide range of subjects, discussed the life of “Hedy Lamarr – Inventor” at the March 5 Morning Forum.
Born Hedwig Kiesler of wealthy Jewish parents in Vienna in 1913, Lamarr was exceedingly fond of her father, and they spent many hours walking through Vienna as he pointed out features and explained how things worked. Her Catholic upbringing was filled with music and the arts. She attended a finishing school – from which she ran away. She was beautiful, famously noting that all you had to do to be glamorous was to “stand still and look stupid.”
According to Rhodes, her dream was to be a movie star. So at 16, she walked into the largest movie studio in Vienna and asked for a job. They gave her one, and she worked her way up from script girl to a starring role in “Ecstasy.”
At 19, she married Fritz Mandl, owner of armament factories and the third-richest man in Austria. He used her as a “trophy” wife, Rhodes said, displaying her at social affairs with businessmen from Austria and Germany, where there was much technical talk about ammunition. He kept her confined in lodges and mansions.
“I live in a golden prison,” Lamarr said.
In 1937, Lamarr left Mandl, went to London, where movie mogul Louis B. Mayer was staying, found out what ship he would be taking home, booked passage on it and arrived in New York with a movie contract including a handsome weekly salary in hand.
She became a hit in Hollywood, Rhodes said: “She was young and fresh and different – with an Austrian accent.”
But Lamarr didn’t like Hollywood life, despite her success in films. She didn’t drink, Rhodes said, and found parties boring. She married a total of six times and paid a lot of alimony because of her great wealth.
So, she decided to become an inventor, Rhodes noted. She had a drafting table built and stocked up on tools and technical books. She came up with a few trivial inventions: a tissue dispenser box with disposal attached, a tablet that would turn a glass of water into a soda and a stool that would rotate a bather in a shower.
Meanwhile, the U.S. remained neutral in the expanding war. Germans were torpedoing passenger ships, and Lamarr was aghast when a ship carrying 294 people, including 82 children, was sunk.
The Germans had developed a “gliding torpedo,” but the U.S. Navy was behind in technology. According to Rhodes, Lamarr said they should have been talking to her – she could have answered all their questions about the German system, based on what she learned listening at Mandl’s dinner parties.
As an inventor, she developed the idea of controlling the direction of a torpedo by radio frequency, undetectable because it was constantly changing. The process involved “frequency hopping.” Rhodes said Lamarr was issued a patent in 1941, called “Secret Communication System,” under her married name at the time, H. Markey. Frequency hopping is a concept still in use today. Ships used it during the Cuban missile crisis. Today, car phones depend on it, as does GPS.
Many years later, Rhodes said, someone looked up the old patent and discovered that H. Markey was indeed Hedy Lamarr. Finally, in her 80s in 1997, she was recognized for her invention and awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation prize.
Morning Forum is members-only series lecture series held at Los Altos United Methodist Church. For membership details and more information, visit www.morningforum.org.