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A Starlet's Secret Life--as an Engineer

Technology: Hedy Lamarr is being honored for advancements in military communications.

August 30, 1997|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hedy Lamarr, the star of such films as "The Heavenly Body" and "Dishonored Lady," secured her place in history more than 60 years ago as the first woman to romp naked across the screen in a feature film.

Now 82, she is again raising eyebrows for revolutionary work of a very different sort: her little-known contributions to technology that are being used today in military communications.

In 1940, Lamarr, who had learned about weaponry through her marriage to an arms manufacturer, joined with the avant-garde composer George Antheil to invent an anti-jamming device for radio-controlled torpedoes.

The Navy ignored the advice. But years later, after the patent expired, the Lamarr-Antheil idea was independently advanced by other scientists and helped form the basis for the anti-jamming technology now used in the U.S. military's $25-billion Milstar defense communications satellite system.

Lamarr's role in "frequency hopping," overlooked for decades, is now as hot with technology enthusiasts as pinups of Lamarr were with World War II servicemen.

Schematic drawings of her patent appear on Internet Web sites. The actress, who never won an Oscar, is being showered with awards from inventors groups. Her most recent tribute will be accepted by her son Sunday at the Invention Convention in Pasadena.

Lamarr, who lives outside Orlando, Fla., is reluctant to speak to reporters, according to her son, Anthony Loder, who declined to forward a request for an interview.

The inventors who selected Lamarr for the annual Pasadena showcase's "Bulbie" award were surprised when they read about her work in technical publications.

"My mouth dropped wide open," said Showcase Chairman Stephen P. Gnass.

The tale begins with the plight of a young woman trapped by an older, domineering husband.

As a teenage actress in Vienna, Hedy Kiesler married a millionaire arms maker named Fritz Mandl. Mandl was obsessed with his young bride, keeping her constantly at his side.

So at an age when she might have entered a university, Hedy was instead listening in on her husband's discussions of weapons systems with his engineers, soaking up the latest information on munitions, she wrote in her autobiography.

Although Mandl kept Hedy near him as a trophy wife, her mind was sharp--her parents had hired private tutors throughout her childhood and put her in elite private schools in Vienna--and she retained much of what she heard.

Hedy soon lost interest in her husband, and was disturbed by his arms sales to Nazis. Afraid of losing his wife, Mandl employed the household servants as guards, placing Hedy under virtual house arrest.

One day when Mandl was on a trip abroad, Hedy slipped sleeping pills into her maid's coffee and, dressed in a servant's uniform, headed straight for a London-bound train.

In London she met studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a $500-a-week MGM contract and gave her the name Hedy Lamarr.

Her influence on America began even before she took her first Hollywood part.

Lamarr was already notorious for her nude role in the 1932 film "Ecstasy." The Czech production was banned in the United States until 1935, when U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Learned Hand ruled it could be released.

In Hollywood, she played roles opposite Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable and was popular as a femme fatale in parts such as her title role in "Samson and Delilah."

Critics of the day thought her acting ability was limited, but Lamarr's look was copied by actresses and moviegoers alike. She inspired the center-parted brunet hairstyle popular with women throughout the 1940s, including Virginia Blythe, mother of a boy later known as Bill Clinton.

It was at a dinner party in 1940 at the home of actress Janet Gaynor that Lamarr engaged composer Antheil in a discussion on the perils of Nazism.

According to an article in Forbes magazine, Lamarr told Antheil of an idea she had for a device to protect U.S. radio-guided torpedoes from enemy attempts to jam them.

Lamarr thought a signal could be broadcast over a series of quickly changing frequencies. The signal could be picked up by a receiver within the torpedo that would automatically switch frequencies to match the transmitters.

Intrigued, Antheil suggested that they develop the idea together. Lamarr agreed, and scrawled her phone number in lipstick across the windshield of Antheil's car.

A wildly experimental composer long before the likes of John Cage and Philip Glass, Antheil had once scored a composition for 16 synchronized player pianos, two electrically driven airplane propellers, four xylophones, four bass drums and a siren.

Now, he proposed controlling the frequencies for the transmitter and receiver with paper rolls like those controlling player pianos: The couple's design specified the use of rolls perforated with identical patterns to match the split-second hops in radio frequencies. The number of frequencies to be used, 88, matched the number of keys on a piano.

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