Inspired, in part, by player piano rolls and an early remote controlled radio (Philco’s “Mystery Control”) Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil invented and patented in the early 1940s a “Secret Communication System” that used frequency, hoping encryption as a way to prevent enemy forces (the Axis Powers, primarily Germany, in World War Two) from knowing the location and path of projectiles, such as torpedoes. Unfortunately the Navy dismissed their invention, then made it classified, and it languished for many years. Eventually other inventors used frequency hoping and referenced Lamarr and Antheil’s patent and it became one of the foundations of G.P.S., WiFi, and Bluetooth. Even though Lamarr’s invention was rejected by the American armed forces and she was not yet an American citizen, she passionately sold war bonds and helped raise millions of dollars for America’s war effort. While working long days and nights as an actor and movie star, Lamarr also worked on projects in her laboratory. Inventions came easily to Lamarr. Inspired, in part, by swift swimming fish and fast flying birds Lamarr improved the aviation (transforming the shape of plane wings into the shape of bird wings) design of airplanes belonging to her friend Howard Hughes. Munkacsi’s portrait, a glass plate negative (3 1/2″ x 4 11/16″), surprisingly not well-known, of Lamarr was made for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. In 1938, when the above photo was made, Lamarr, not yet fluent in English, starred, along with Charles Boyer, in her first American movie, “Algiers.”
The New York Times, October 1, 1937
A few elements are missing from the above account. Lamarr and many of the people in the “entertainment world” were fleeing the Nazis. Lamarr wasn’t able to get a ticket for the Normandie, so she disguised herself as a governess accompanying a ticketed youth to get passage. She had already turned down an offer from Louis B. Mayer, but was offered a lucrative contract because her dazzling appearance on board the boat left Mayer and many male movie stars ecstatic.
Inspired, in part, by the Munkacsi portrait and the extraordinary movie Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, this blog post presents a few images of Lamarr. (A poignant yet amusing page spread featuring an auction of Lamarr’s property from Weegee’s “Naked Hollywood” book has been edited out, but is worthy of a parenthetical comment.) The movie illuminates the fascinating and complex life of Lamarr. The narrative structure is provided by a series of phone interviews recorded on cassette tapes and conducted by journalist Fleming Meeks. Towards the end of the movie Lamarr says: “People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered… The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway… Build anyway.” (“NPR: ‘Bombshell,’ The Double Identity Of Hollywood Star Hedy Lamarr“)
Match, March 9, 1939 (2007.86.9)
PM, November 17, 1941, p. 23