By Aparna Narayanan

Through years of existence, man has come to believe that aesthetic beauty and intellectual congruence are mutually exclusive and that one learns sooner or later, to settle for the one most significant to them. But when these two qualities co-exist, they collide with conformity to lead into something that no man could dream of resisting. Although rare, one could not deny the existence of personalities possessing such qualities.

One such example would be the Austrian-American actress Hedy Lamarr( 1913-2000). Born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, she is most remembered for her incongruous mixture of mathematical talent and her coveted aesthetic beauty. She joined a famous acting school during her late teens and some people thought her to be the most beautiful actress in Hollywood. In 1933 she starred in the movie Ecstasy, a Czechoslovak film and revealed to the world all her beauty. On August 10 1933, 19 year old Hedy married Friedrich Mandl, an arms manufacturer. Mandl took her to meetings with technicians and partners, where she learned about military technology. In her autobiography, Ecstacy and Me (1966) she mentioned that Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler attended Mandl’s extravagant parties. She also stated that she fled to Paris disguised as one of her maids, to obtain a divorce from Mandl. An embellished version of the story states that she attended a party wearing all her expensive jewelry and drugged Mandl with the help of a maid, and later escaped with the jewelry.

She is said to have met her co-inventor George Antheil in the summer of 1940, when they were neighbors in Hollywood. Together they invented a technique for spread spectrum communication and frequency hopping necessary for wireless communication. The idea behind their invention was to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect. Being a composer, George experimented with his music for Ballet Méanique. Here he had coordinated sixteen synchronized player pianos to play simultaneously. He took inspiration from this musical piece to suggest synchronization of rapid changes in radio frequencies. Lamarr’s contribution to the invention was the concept of “Frequency Hopping”. It means transmitting a signal over a random series of frequencies and switching between these frequencies at split-second intervals. The receiver is synchronized with the transmitter and hence ensuring effective recovery of the transmitted signal. This signal might contain commands for directing the torpedo. Eavesdroppers will hear only random blips hence making the detection of these signals by enemies harder. Even if an attempt was made at jamming the signal, it would knock only a few bits out. Frequency hopping is used extensively in Military communication systems. They applied for a patent on “A secret communication system” in 1941. Their frequency hopping idea is also used in Wi-Fi network connections and CDMA used in wireless telephones.

Hedy Lamarr once quoted that “Hope and curiosity about the future seemed better than guarantees. That’s the way I was. The unknown was always so attractive to me and still is”. Her intelligence hidden behind a scintillating exterior goes on to show that her beauty was anything but a façade. A woman like her is sure to instill hope in the hearts of those men whose every dream involves a blend of beauty and intellect; something that everyone talks about,yet hardly ever finds.

Information Source:

American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Spring 1997, Volume 12/Number 4