Hedy Lamarr, Old Hollywood sex symbol, had a brain. It’s a fact that may be nearly as overlooked as the inventor’s wartime creation: landmark technology that was a precursor to Bluetooth.
It’s not surprising that she’s known best for her sultry persona, given her film role that made everyone sit up and take notice. In 1933’s “Ecstasy,” a Czech film, she raised eyebrows and drew condemnation around the globe when she appeared nude in one part of the film and simulated an orgasm in another.
Lamarr is seen going skinny-dipping and, still without a stitch on, chasing a runaway horse. The orgasm scene comes later, and, yes, she does smoke a cigarette afterward. “Ecstasy” is considered the first theatrically released movie to feature an actress simulating an orgasm on screen.
Take that, Meg Ryan.
Now, Richard Rhodes has revealed the nerdy side of this legendary beauty and superstar.
His new book, “Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” tells about the invention and how her role in its creation was long ignored.
In a recent interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Rhodes said Lamarr was the type of person who “was constantly looking at the world and wondering how can that be fixed, how can that be improved.”
During an early, unhappy marriage to an Austrian arms dealer, Rhodes said, Lamarr would sit at dinner parties given by her husband for Nazi generals, listening to them talk about weapons. With her interest in science, he said, she listened closely to the weapons talk.
Lamarr later escaped that marriage — although not by dressing up as one of her maids and jumping out a window. That story was a fabrication by Lamarr, the author said. She did, however, book passage on a ship with Louis Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and by the time the ship reached its destination, she had a seven-year, $3,000-a-week contract with the film studio.
“Algiers” (1938), with Charles Boyer, followed soon after, and Lamarr became a huge star.
Lamarr’s invention came about, Rhodes said, because “she was keenly aware of the coming war. She was glued to the newspaper, reading the stories. … 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.’ “
Her idea involved making a radio signal “hop around from radio frequency to radio frequency,” Rhodes said, to interfere with signal jamming. Thus, a torpedo could be radio guided with less fear of having the signal jammed.
She and a partner obtained a patent, then gave it free of charge to the U.S. Navy. Brilliant, yes?
The Navy “basically threw it into the file,” Rhodes said. Later, however, the idea of frequency-hopping was resuscitated by the Navy, and “then the whole system spread like wildfire. The most well-known application today is Bluetooth.”
So why isn’t Hedy Lamarr the Inventor a famous name?
The patent had expired, Rhodes said, plus, during most of the device’s life it was a military secret. By the time it came out, it had gone through many permutations with input from various sources.
“She was simply lost in the noise.”
Written by Amy Hubbard for Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2011.
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