Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
Richard Rhodes, Knopf, 2012.
Of course we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but honestly, what are we to make of a Come Hither Hedy sliding down a golden torpedo? Is this supposed to encourage the sexy girls to bone up on calculus? Or the smart girls to reach for the feather boas? Work those propellers, baby! And what exactly are these inventions in the subtitle? I mean, judging from that golden torpedo, well, a guy could get the wrong idea. Or the right idea. Or, or….*
Okay, Americans love an underdog and what better scoop than the Hollywood starlet coming up with a high tech solution to a serious wartime need? The story’s been kicking around in one form or another since 1942, and for the short version, the details scarcely mattered, not when put next to the glam (hence the cover shot). Kind of disrespectful of the promised story of intellectual achievement, I would say. Kind of disrespectful of her lab partner George Antheil, too, which, along with the zing zing picture, may say something about the convoluted state of current sexual politics.
What’s it all about, Hedy? Let’s start at the beginning.
Daughter of a Viennese businessman, she dropped out of school at sixteen to go into showbiz, scandalously in the Hungarian art flick Exstase where she appeared both naked and, well, in ecstasy. A year or so later, she married an Austrian arms manufacturer Fritz Mandl. Her role in his life was to be decorative while he had the boys over for dinner to talk shop. Boys like Mussolini, Goering, and the top munitions makers of Central Europe. It was a tiresome life and he was a tiresome man and she left after two years. She contrived to meet Louis B. Mayer in London. Good luck, that, and in 1937 went to Hollywood, renamed Hedy Lamarr and became seriously big box office, largely by virtue of being eye candy. But eye candy with a retentive memory.
Story goes that is she was bored by Hollywood society and preferred good old European intellectual conversation. And, we are told, tinkering. Well okay, there are a lot of garages in America. Show us what you’ve got, invention-wise.
A tissue holder with a place to put used tissue. A bouillon cube that would when dropped in water make a soda drink (Fizzies, some of us will remember). For this latter project, Howard Hughes lent her two of his chemists and if the project got anywhere, Rhodes does not say. Pretty small beer, in any event, charming and harmless.
An American in Paris, one of the pre-war avant gardists, his medium being music. He was most notable for the Ballet Mecanique, a symphony of synchronized player pianos and an airplane propeller. Not exactly riot starting, like Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, but not for lack of trying. Antheil lived with his Hungarian wife in a garret above Shakespeare and Co. and hung out with the moveable feasters. A far cry from his native New Jersey, and not at all what his parents had in mind when he left to study music in Philadelphia.
By the late thirties he had returned to America. Nothing much was going on with his music, but he had found a new passion – endocrinology. On the basis of reading some discarded texts, he was inspired to write a book : Every Man His Own Detective, A Study in Glandular Criminology, 1937. For the less technical, he also wrote a pseudonymous novel Death in the Dark, published by Faber and Faber (T.S. Eliot’s firm, Eliot being the protege of Antheil’s old Paris pal Ezra Pound. As I said, a colorful fellow).
He expanded to the popular market by writing for Esquire, louche as ever, essentially charting women by – well, glands. “Glands on a Hobby Horse,” “Glandbook for the Questing Male” and “The Glandbook in Practical Use.” This didn’t go but so far either, and so it was off to Hollywood to write musical scores for the talkies.
Which gets us back to Ms Lamarr. She and George were at a dinner party and the subject was breasts. His story was that she had read his articles in Esquire and taken then seriously. She wanted enhancement, though he thought them “fine…, real postpituitary”.
Conversation turned to the war and the war effort. She wanted to do her part for the war effort, put all those nights of boring business conversation to use. According to Rodes, she “first thought of a torpedo that was remote controlled.”
So had the US Navy as far back as 1930. What else?
“To solve a problem she foresaw of torpedo control by radio: jamming.”
Here we get onto thin ice, since Ms Lamarr never really discussed this (her autobiography tends more towards the salacious than the scientific), leading Rodes to speculate:
“Hedy may have bought [the Philco Radio] or received one as a gift in 1939, the first year of its manufacturers. With Mystery Control hands, changing stations on her Philco radio from across the room, she could easily have conceived the idea of using radio to control a torpedo, changing its direction remotely just as she changed radio stations.
“But conceiving a new used for an existing invention that is substantially the same as the old is not usually a patentable idea. Nor did Hedy thing it so. She took her idea a step further, not to make it patentable, merely but to solve a problem she foresaw of torpedo control by radio. Jamming. How she knew that set frequency radio controls systems were easily jammed she never said.”
We’re going from subjunctive to indicative pretty quickly here. He continues:
“Hedy’s idea, entirely original, is yet clearly related to the eighteen different frequency of German glide bombs (assuming she knew of this technology) and the eight different station selection of the Philco Mystery Control”
Problem is, the idea of frequency hopping had been around at least as early as 1929 when Polish engineer Leonard Danilewicz (who among other things built the German’s Enigma coding machines for the British) came up with the notion. Similarly Swiss inventor, Gustav Guanella, and two Telefunken engineers Paul Kotowski and Kurt Dannehl, who proposed to hide voice signals under a rotating “noise wheels.”
Rodes does back down a bit and offers a simpler explanation, that this was something she “heard over the Mandl dinner table”.
What about the patent, then, who deserves the credit? Ms Lamarr did say that she had no idea how to implement her idea, but left that up to George. George, by contrast, says that she was intimately involved in every step. Who to believe?
Well, George, short of cash, was writing in his 1945 memoir; she was being interviewed by an engineer in 1997. Draw your own conclusions.
And George did fiddle about with the matter (his contrivance aped the player piano roles he used to great effect in Ballet Mecanique). For drawing up the patents, however, they enlisted the help of Professor Samuel Stuart Mackeown of Caltech’s Radio Development Section. Draw your own conclusions.
Patents are easy, implementation is hard. George brought their stuff to the National Inventors Council, a group of patriotic engineers and tinkerers who self-appointed to gather ideas from the public and pass them on to the government for evaluation and implementation. Sort of the slush pile of the war effort. George refers to sending off “no less than three ‘Secret Weapons gadgets’…[for which we] have in due time received our serial numbers pending the war departments complete investigation.“
Records lost, which could be indicative, except for the proximity fuse (again, something discussed in Germany in the 1930s). One reason would have to be redundancy. Amateurs come up with the idea of the proximity fuse; more conventionally trained men, Sir Samuel Curran and W. A. S. Butement, in England and Merle A. Tuve in America were on the case already.
So we have ideas already in the air, possibly discussed in the presence of Ms Lamarr, which she and her partner with the aid of a Caltech professor wrote up into a patent and failed to get past a review board. Commendable effort and not unimpressive, two thumbs up, but not the same as inventing an entire technology from scratch. But we’re trying to sell books here; thus making sure that George is not on the cover and thus putting Ms Lamarr in the most flattering light possible. In so doing, both subjects and readers are short changed. Both principals are wildly interesting people and this one small episode is almost the least of their doings.
As it is, Hedy’s Folly is a fathers day book or perhaps something to encourage the daughter to consider the possibilities of a career in science (or at the very least, the pitfalls of a career in showbiz) – but let’s leave it at that.
*Interestingly, the Large Print edition, suitable for small children and easily shocked geriatrics, has a decidedly more demure shot of Hedy on the cover. But still no mention of George.
For a more skeptical but still generous take on the story, see Tony Rothman‘s Everything’s Relative: And Other Fables from Science and Technology (cited in the bibliography but not in any of the footnotes).
For its sheer oddness, try to get a hold of Antheil’s 1945 autobiography, Bad Boy of Music.
Stephen Shearer’s Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr (New York: St. Martins Press, 2010) is the most current Lamarr biography.
Ms Lamarr’s autobiography Ecstasy and Me: My Life As A Woman is silent on the subject of her technical work, more suited for the Fifty Shades of Gray audience. She apparently liked her men just as her husband Mandl liked his women.
Well, recall that he was Jewish. He saw the writing on the wall and began laying the path for his exodus as early as 1937. He sailed to New York City in 1939 and soon settled in Argentina, claiming to be a refugee from fascism. There he started up any number of business concerns, including an indigenous arms manufacturing and, ever starry eyed, a film studio (story was that he was blackballed at the Jockey Club – anti-semitism, presumably). He was able to return to Austria during the cold war and re-establish the family business, selling arms around the world. His last wife (he had had seven) was the daughter of one of the July 20 conspirators against Hitler.