Brain Pickings

How the “Most Beautiful Woman in the World” Invented a System for Remote-Controlling Torpedoes

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“When you talk to a sympathetic mind about technology, gender, age and experience disappear completely.”

In 1937, the dinner table of Fritz Mandl — an arms dealer who sold to both sides during the Spanish Civil War and the third richest man in Austria — entertained high-ranking Nazi officials who chatted about the newest munitions technologies. Mandl’s wife, a twenty-four-year-old former movie star, whom he respected but also claimed “didn’t know A from Z,” sat quietly listening.

Hedy Kiestler, whose parents were assimilated Jews, and who would be rechristened one year later by Louis B. Meyer as Hedy Lamarr, wanted to escape to Hollywood and return to the screen. From these dinner parties, she knew about about submarines and wire-guided torpedoes, about the multiple frequencies used to guide bombs. She knew that she had present herself as the glamorous wife of an arms dealer. And she knew that in order to leave her husband, she would have to take a good amount of this information with her.

Richard Rhodes’s fascinating new book Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, explores a golden age of creativity among artists in Europe and America, whose job was to entertain but who were inclined to something more, and the war’s effect on these brilliant, frustrated exiles.

An MGM studio portrait of Hedy Lamarr, 1938

Rhodes, author of four books about the creation of the atomic bomb, intersects Hedy’s story with that of American composer George Antheil, who lived during the 1920s with his wife in Paris above the newly opened Shakespeare & Co, and who could count among his friends Man Ray, Ezra Pound, Louise Bryant, and Igor Stravinsky. When Antheil attended the premiere of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, the composer invited him afterward to a player piano factory, where he wished to have his work punched out for posterity. There, Antheil conceived of a grand composition for sixteen player pianos, bells, sirens, and several airplane propellers, which he called his Ballet mecanique. When he premiered the work in the US, the avant-garde composition proved a disaster.

Composer George Antheil during the 1920s in Paris, when he was living above the newly founded Shakespeare & Co with his wife.

Antheil and his wife decamped for Hollywood, where he attempted to write for the screen. When Antheil met Hedy, now bona fide movie star, in the summer of 1940 at a dinner held by costume designer Adrian, they began talking about their interests in the war and their backgrounds in munitions (Antheil had been a young inspector in a Pennsylvania munitions plant during World War I.) Hedy had been horrified by the German torpedoing of two ships carrying British children to Canada to avoid the Blitz, and she had begun to think about a way to control a torpedo remotely, without detection.

Hedy had the idea for a radio that hopped frequencies and Antheil had the idea of achieving this with a coded ribbon, similar to a player piano strip. A year of phone calls, drawings on envelopes, and fiddling with models on Hedy’s living room floor produced a patent for a radio system that was virtually jam-proof, constantly skipping signals.

The patent filed in 1941 by Hedy and Antheil for a 'secret communication system'

Antheil responded to Hedy’s enthusiasm, although he thought her sometimes scatterbrained, and Hedy to Antheil’s mechanical focus as a composer. The two were always just friends and respected one another’s quirks. Antheil wrote to a friend about a new scheme Hedy was planning with Howard Hughes:

Hedy is a quite nice, but mad, girl who besides being very beautiful indeed spends most of her spare time inventing things—she’s just invented a new ‘soda pop’ which she’s patenting—of all things!”

In the center, Heddy Lamarr, with George Antheil to the right and his wife Boski Antheil to the left

Engineer Nino Amarena interviewed Hedy in 1997, and as he explains, her true interests were revealed immediately:

I never felt like I was talking to a movie star, but to a fellow inventor. When you talk to a sympathetic mind about technology, gender, age and experience disappear completely…”

Amarena went on to explain how the mind of the artist and the mind of the inventor were really quite similar:

More often than not, the inventive process follows a cascade of ideas and thoughts…unconnected and unrelated. It takes a clear state of mind…to suddenly and serendipitously see the connections between the unrelated concepts.”

(Cue in Blexbolex’s minimalist meditation on creators vs. inventors.)

Hedy’s Folly isn’t the story of a science prodigy or a movie star with a few hobbies, it’s a star-studded picaresque about two undeniably creative people whose interests and backgrounds unlocked the best in one another — the mark of true inventors.

Ed. Update: Reader Carmelo “Nino” Amarena, an inventor himself, who interviewed Lamarr in 1997 shortly before her death, writes:

Ever since I found out back in 1989 that Hedy had invented Spread Spectrum (Frequency Hopping type only), I followed her career historically until her death. My interview with her is one of the most notable memories I have of speaking with an inventor, and as luck would have it, she was underestimated for nearly 60 years on the smarts behind her beauty. One of the things she said to me in our 1997 talk was, ‘my beauty was my curse, so-to-speak, it created an impenetrable shield between people and who I really was’. I believe we all have our own version of Hedy’s curse and trying to overcome it could take a lifetime.”

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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