[David Strom's Web Informant] Hedy Lamarr, the first geek movie star

David Strom david at strom.com
Tue May 29 14:12:00 EDT 2018


Web Informant, May 29, 2018: Hedy Lamarr, the first geek movie star

The story sounds almost like a Hollywood plot, except it is true: A young
starlet doing nude scenes as a teenager, goes on to invent a critical
wartime technology that is ignored by the US Navy but ultimately forms the
basis of WiFi and cell phones that we use today. Of course, I am talking
about the life and times of Hedy Lamarr, the subject of a 2017 documentary
film called Bombshell <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6752848/?ref_=nv_sr_1>that
is available from the streaming services.

Astute WI readers will realize that this isn't the first time I have
mentioned Lamarr. She was also the subject of a 2011 biography from Richard
Rhodes
<http://www.amazon.com/Hedys-Folly-Breakthrough-Inventions-Beautiful/dp/0385534388/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1324210672&sr=8-1>.
I heard Rhodes back when he was promoting his book. Rhodes is the author of
many intriguing history of science works, including the story of the
Manhattan Project, and his book is worth reading. So is the film, which is
also based on a 1990 taped interview that was recently found.

She is a fascinating study in how someone with both beauty and brains can
not necessarily make the best of both thee worlds, but was constantly
reinventing herself.

The movie traces her acting career and has various clips, including scenes
from the provocative film Ecstasy, the one cited earlier that began her
career and was banned by Hitler eventually. Lamarr was even the basis of one
character in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBmkyDTX08Y>.

Both the film and the book show how one of Lamarr’s many inventions, which
she developed with her music composer neighbor George Antheil, came about
through an odd inquiry. Lamarr was interested in a boob job and Antheil had
written about early efforts in that area, again presaging another important
intersection of Hollywood and technology. The duo went on to get a patent
in 1941 for a new technique for frequency-hopping radio communications.
While not taken seriously at the time, it ultimately was deployed by the
military in the 1960s during the cold war. While the technique involved
piano rolls, the basis of frequency hopping continues to be used as part of
spread-spectrum radio communications that are in common use today. Along
the way, Lamarr made many movies and married and divorced six husbands, the
first of whom was a Nazi arms merchant that got her interested in
developing new technology for the war effort once she fled to America. She
lived to be honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation a few years
before she died in 2000.

It is hard for many of us to grok a movie star with her trips to the patent
office and test tube rack in her trailer on the movie set, but she was the
real deal.

Lamarr once said that “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is
stand still and look stupid.” She was anything but.
Comments always welcome here: http://blog.strom.com/wp/?p=2695
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