PETER FROST recalls the actor – born 100 years ago – not as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ but as an anti-nazi and a great scientist
My recent obituary of Lauren Bacall surprised a good few readers. Most knew her as a film star but the other side of her life as a champion of progressive causes was obviously far less well known.
One or two of my fellow movie buffs suggested I tell the even less known story of Hedy Lamarr, not just because she was generally agreed to be the most beautiful woman in the world in her time, but as an anti-nazi, U-boat saboteur and inventor, sort of, of today’s mobile phones and wi-fi.
Hedwig Kiesler was born, exactly a century ago, into a boring bourgeois family in Vienna. The first world war came late to the city but when it did it would end the once mighty Austro-Hungarian empire forever.
Her father, a banker, had no preconceived ideas about what young girls should be interested in.
On long walks he explained to his bright and curious little girl the workings of all kinds of new and exciting inventions, steam-powered printing presses, electric tramcars, paddle-steamers on the Danube and the newest sensation, the Bioscope shows — moving pictures on the silver screen.
The young Hedwig had little problem understanding how these modern marvels worked. She could, it seemed, quickly grasp sophisticated technical concepts.
Rather than pursue a technical career, though, it was the silver screen that attracted her. She became an actor.
Still in her teens, she starred in the amazing 1933 film Ekstase (Ecstasy).
The film was made in three language versions — Czech, German and French. It chalked up several firsts in legitimate cinema — first nude scenes, first female orgasm, first sexual intercourse on screen.
The Czech romantic drama is about a young woman, played by Kiesler, who marries a wealthy but much older man. Leaving her brief loveless marriage, she takes up with a virile young engineer who becomes her lover.
The film was hugely controversial and very successful, mostly because of scenes in which Lamarr swims and runs through the countryside naked.
It made her an overnight star and like many a young star she married young and unwisely.
Fritz Mandl was a multi-millionaire arms manufacturer and an enthusiastic fascist. The Kieslers were a Jewish family but Hedy’s mother became a very public Roman Catholic. It certainly fooled the anti-semitic Mandl.
Once married he tried to stop his young bride making any more films, even buying and destroying all the copies of Ekstase he could find.
It didn’t take much of this behaviour, nor what Hedy saw happening to her own home country and neighbouring Germany, to make her feel trapped. She came up with a cunning escape plan.
Mandl would invite his cronies — scientists, weapon inventors, senior political figures and fascists — to dinner. Both Hitler and Mussolini were dinner guests. At the table would be his attractive and clearly dumb young wife.
She would flutter her eyelashes, act simple and stash away all kinds of useful classified intelligence. She reckoned it would buy her a new life somewhere in the future.
It worked. She threatened to expose her husband’s stupidity and he had no alternative but to let her go.
She dressed herself in all the many jewels her husband had bought her and headed first to Paris and then across the Atlantic. Keisler’s slightly lurid film reputation landed a Hollywood movie deal. She changed her name and headed for California.
Now, although all over the billboards as Hedy Lamarr, she never lost her early interest in all things technical.
Even between shoots at the studio or on location she experimented with all kinds of inventions. Among her many creations were a sweet Oxo-type cube to turn plain water into cola and a non-surgical skin-tautening technique — ironically much later in her career she would have much disastrous cosmetic surgery.
It was in WWII together with a musician neighbour named George Antheil that she had the idea that would change the way we all live today.
German U-boats had been harassing transatlantic convoys. They had killed many civilians including large groups of children.
The U-boat captains could block the radio guidance systems of allied torpedoes.
Hedy knew all about these systems and blocking them — she had often heard them discussed over the dinner table back in Vienna.
She knew that radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be jammed by broadcasting interference at the frequency of the control signal, causing the torpedo to go off course.
She concluded that using frequency-hopping — jumping from one frequency to another — would prevent jamming and let the torpedo hit its U-boat target.
But how could frequent and unpredictable channel hopping be arranged?
Antheil, her avant-garde composer neighbour, provided the answer from a somewhat unexpected source. He had experimented with automated control of musical instruments, including his music for futurist painter Fernand Leger’s 1924 abstract film Ballet Mecanique. This score involved multiple player-pianos playing simultaneously.
Antheil and Lamarr adapted a pierced paper piano roll to unpredictably change the signal sent between a ship and its torpedo to any of 88 frequencies.
Why 88? There are 88 keys on a piano. Both ship and torpedo would have the same code so it would be impossible for the U-boat to scan and jam all 88 frequencies.
Sadly the US navy was slow to adopt the idea, no doubt because it came from a movie star and a nutty composer.
Indeed when Lamarr applied to join the National Inventors Council she was told she could better help the war effort by using her celebrity status and her looks to sell war bonds.
Today Lamarr and Anthel’s spread-spectrum communication technology is the foundation for Bluetooth and many wifi, cordless and wireless telephones.
In 1997 their work was finally recognised. They were honoured with special awards for their “trailblazing development of a technology that has become a key component of wireless data systems.”
Not perhaps what you might expect from someone who was just the “most beautiful woman in the world.”
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 18 November 2014