Tuesday, 28 April 2015

From after-sex cigarettes to wifi: the story of Hedy Lamarr

"Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid".
Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) was one of the most famous celebrities of her time, not only thanks to being an exotic brunette in a world of blonde movie stars but also because she became the first actress to simulate an orgasm on a mainstream, non-pornographic film at the tender age of 18, with her after-sex cigarette and everything! Although this wasn't the only thing in which she was a pioneer, as her life looks a lot like a movie itself.

Yes she was quite a lot of a pioneer, this was happening in 1933, before naked people were invented!

In 1933, right after her famous sex scene, she married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy fascist arm manufacturer who used to throw parties in his house in Austria, often attended by both Mussolini and Hitler who were unaware that Hedy came from a Jewish family. Mandl wasn't very happy that his wife was an actress, and besides spending a big deal of time and money in buying as many copies of Hedy's films as he could in an attempt to avoid their public viewings, he was jealous to the extent of not allowing her stay alone at home and making her accompany him to his military technology meetings with scientists and officials, in which he would often joke about how ignorant she was, about her inability to understand what they were talking about, and openly talking in front of her of top secret plans and designs. But she wasn't stupid at all; on the contrary, she was quite intelligent, she had studied a bit of engineering before joining the film industry, and she got interested in the matter and learned as much as she could from those meetings while she also designed a plan to escape her husband: one night she convinced him of how cool it would be to wear all the jewellery she owned for a dinner they were attending, and once at the dinner she vanished. A few days afterwards, she was on a ship on the way to America, using the identity of one of her assistants. And as everything in life needs coincidences in order to happen, guess who was in that ship too! Louis B. Mayer, the very famous film producer, a huge fan of Hedy and also the co-founder of the Metro Goldwyn-Mayer. Needless to say, by the end of the trip, Hedy had already signed a contract with MGM that led her to work with superstars like Clark Gable, Charles Boyer, Spencer Tracy or James Stewart. And while all this was happening, she never ran out of scientific curiosity.

Definitely not the kind of lady you expect to fix your internet connection

Shortly after arriving to Hollywood she became very famous, but she was a bit frustrated as all her film roles were too predictable and she was quite bored by the lack of acting challenges, with her always playing your typical exotic tempting brunette. Certainly the experiments she carried out at her home lab were way more exciting than her life under the spotlights, as she had set a workshop in one of the rooms in her house where she would read engineering books, draw, and design devices that included stuff like an improved traffic light. So in 1940, with the German submarines attacking ships full of people trying to flee the nazis, Hedy started wondering if she could do something about it, given her interest and everything she had learned at those meetings with officers and scientists she used to attend in Austria. That way she began tinkering with the idea of a secret communication system that could guide torpedoes by means of a frequency that couldn't be intercepted.

Anyway, she kept those experiments and ideas for herself... until she met George Antheil at a party. This guy was a famous American avant-garde composer and pianist who also made music for TV and Hollywood films, and whose most famous composition is the Ballet Mechanique. It is a “ballet” in which machines were on stage instead of human dancers, moving and making noise. It was written for sixteen self-played pianos, three regular pianos, xylophones, sirens, and even airplane propellers. Hedy and George became good friends who shared common interests beyond Hollywood, and after their conversations about science and technology, Hedy started to wonder that, if self-played pianos were, in some way, “programmed” to play one note after another, why couldn't radio frequencies that were driving torpedoes do something similar. Given that, within the same musical instrument, the difference between two different notes is purely a difference of frequency, her idea made a lot of sense: at that time it was very easy to broadcast interference at the unique frequency of the control signal causing torpedoes to go off course, and using more frequencies would therefore make it more difficult to interfere. 

So they invented a system in which both the transmitter and the receiver simultaneously jumped from frequency to frequency, based on a self-played-piano-like strip devised by Antheil, that would “unpredictably” change the frequency of the signals between the control center and the torpedo, so that someone trying to intercept the signals couldn't be able to get anything, given that they wouldn't know in what frequency the signals would be or what spectrum they should look at. Interestingly, the range of frequencies was 88, exactly the same number of frequencies a piano has (they generally have 88 keys). This frequency-hopping idea would serve later as a basis for the modern spread-spectrum communication technology that made bluetooth, wifi and CDMA (used in cordless phones) possible. The system was patented in 1942, although Hedy Lamarr never got any money from it. 

With this patent in hand, she tried to join the National Inventors Council several times, but she was told that, if she wanted to help with the war, she'd rather participate in a war-bond selling campaign, making use of her celebrity status. Which she did, and for a few months she would make public appearances in which she'd call a “random” guy among the audience up on stage. After flirting with him for a bit, she'd say to the public that she would kiss him if they bought war bonds, and when enough were purchased, she'd give the guy a kiss after which he'd go back into the audience... until their next public appearance -needless to say, he was always the same guy and also part of the show.

Hedy Lamarr lived 86 years during which she had three children, got married five times, starred in more than thirty films, and put the basis for a technology without which you probably wouldn't be reading this right now.

More on this story

The famous very first cinema sex scene -it is probably the very first cinema post-sex cigarette scene too,  from the film "Ecstasy" (1933)

The Ballet Mechanique as it was originally conceived: to accompany an experimental film (1924) with cinematography by Man Ray. 

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