Beauty v Brains: Inventing technology from Hollywood

When Eleanor Roosevelt was asked if she had any regrets about her life she replied “Just one. I wish I had been prettier.” Anonymous

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that if she had to pick between brains or beauty – she’d pick the latter. Or at least, I’ve thought she did for the past few years after a co-worker repeated it to me. Ever since, this sentiment followed me around, especially as I sat down with my most recent voluntary read: Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr by Richard Rhodes.

A contemporary, of Eleanor Roosevelt albeit younger, – Hedy Lamarr received the crowning claim of “the most beautiful woman in the world” early in her young acting career. A native of Austria she was drawn to theater early. Her first film, Ekstase (Ecstasy) debuted in 1933 that captured the public’s attention both for her beauty, acting, and nudity. The scandalous role she played included a nude scene that today would earn the film a mere PG-13 rating, but at the time brought shame from a judgmental audience. The film did manage to capture the attention of a 33-year-old Fritz Mandl, the third wealthiest man in Austria – with ties to the Nazi party. As a precocious only child, she lived a life of freedom and independence; however, the controlling man used her as a trophy wife and she became isolated and bored with the luxury that surrounded her. However, during this unhappy marriage that she would eventually flee to pursue a career in Hollywood, her access to high-ranking military officers would be the catalyst she needed to alter the way we live our daily lives in 2012.

Known for her beauty in Hollywood, she did not partake in much of the party scene and was happiest at home – inventing. George Antheil, an American composer who had recently returned from Europe, shared this ‘tinkerers’ hobby as he had experienced success with his Ballet Mécanique in Europe to positive reviews.

This piece, he rigged mechanical instruments to synchronize and play the cacophonous compilation of sounds. The mechanical expertise of Antheil and the dinner conversations between Nazi military officials in 1930s Germany led to the duo filing a joint patent that would prevent ‘jamming‘ in a radio guidance system for torpedos aiding in the Allie war effort of WWII. Her idea:

“if a radio transmitter and receiver are synchronized to change their tuning simultaneously, hoppping together randomly from frequency to frequency, then the radio signal passing between them cannot be jammed.” (147)

The innovation of frequency hopping, avoided message interception while simultaneously avoiding an ‘overload’ of the system. The troubles and delays came with precisely describing the patent’s method of practice – and possibly why she didn’t receive notoriety. This patent, kept classified by the Defense Department, laid down the foundation of the devices we use today: cell phones, Bluetooth networks or GPS devices. In the December of 1980, the FCC report, Potential Use of Spread Spectrum Techniques in Non-government Applications‘s key point: “Spread spectrum techniques offer a unique method of sharing a common band between multiple users without requiring the users to coordinate their transmissions in that way,” (207). As a result, the FCC allowed spread-spectrum communications to operate without a license – therefore, inventors from novice to experts could innovate without the expense and delay of the FCC approval process.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Hedy Lamarr, yet my grandparents had. It captured my attention that this beautiful celebrity could be a cerebral celebrity as well – even if it wasn’t known widely at the time of her acting success. Is that warranted? She said once that she couldn’t understand why she never received any credit for her contribution to telecommunications, even though it’s used all over the world (210). So much about her story claims potential for an amazing screenplay at some point: war, sex appeal, the golden age of Hollywood, etc – but which part is the most worth of admiration – her beauty and independence or her inventions? What does this mean to me as a woman following science and technology issues of my day – where is the substance of value to this field? I hold admiration for her accomplishments – but am I in awe because she was also attractive and controversial? Which part makes the better story? Does it really matter?

In a time when women continue to make strides in equality in the work place without making excuses or the gaming industry or politics these issues percolate, but where’s the balance 98-years after such a profound dynamic woman’s birth?

Lauren Barnett

Lauren graduated from the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 2008 with a BA in Mass Communication. Upon graduation, and at the suggestion of a friend, she moved to Philadelphia to explore the 'real world' outside of academia. Ousting herself out of her comfort zone and plopping herself in the middle of a diverse city with thriving culture, she found work in a pizza restaurant, which was quickly followed by a return to the academic world, with a position on a peer-reviewed science journal. Simultaneously, Lauren worked closely with a youth literacy, after-school program, participating in the local art scene, hoping to one-day return to an academic setting separate from images of dissected nude mice. As a first year student in the CCT program, Lauren's interest currently include from net neutrality, education and technology, and the new role of journalism in the era of the Internet.