According to Greek mythology, Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world. The wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, Helen either eloped or was kidnapped, (the sources are elliptical on the point), with (or by) the Trojan prince, Paris. The Achaeans (Greeks) set sail for Troy to bring her back. The resulting war with Troy lasted ten years, culminating in the Trojan Horse episode and the eventual fall, of the city of Troy.
“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.
In the 17th century, English playwright Christopher Marlowe referred to Helen of Troy as having “…the face that launched a thousand ships”.
“Was this the face that launched a thousand shipsThe Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
And burnt the topless towers of Illium
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss…”
The Austrian-born American actress and film producer Hedy Lamarr had such a face, and more. A movie star once described as “the world’s most beautiful woman”, she possessed an intellect in the very top percentile and the curiosity, of an inventor.
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, Austria, the daughter of Emil Keisler and Gertrud (Lichtwitz) Kiesler. Emil, a bank director with the gift of curiosity and the mind of an engineer, would take his daughter for long walks. He would point out various machines like printing presses and streetcars and explain, their inner workings. From the age of five little Hedy could be found, taking apart and reassembling her music box and other household gadgets.
Gertrud “Trude” was a concert pianist who introduced Hedy to the arts, enrolling her daughter in ballet and piano lessons, from an early age.
Blessed or perhaps cursed with exceptional beauty, the rest of the world ignored the brilliance of her mind. That face was what mattered. At 16, Hedy was “discovered” by theater and film producer, Max Reinhardt. She was soon studying acting and appeared in her first film role in 1930, a German film called Geld auf der Straβe (“Money on the Street”).
Hedy Keisler first gained public notice in the 1932 movie “ecstasy”, a controversial film censored in some nations and banned outright in others, for sexual content.
Austrian munitions dealer Fritz Mandl became one of Hedy’s biggest fans when he saw her in the play, Sissy. The two met and, in 1933, they married.
She was miserable.
“I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife … He was the absolute monarch in his marriage … I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own.”Hedy Mandl
The trophy wife expected to be seen and not heard, Hedy detested her husband’s associates, many of them, Nazi party members.
Always the gracious hostess, dinner guests never suspected how much she overheard – and understood – about the German arms industry.
In 1937 she fled, to London.
She would remain a “stateless person for sixteen years, becoming a naturalized US Citizen on this day in 1953.
In London, Hedy got her first big break in the motion picture industry when she met Louis B. Mayer. It was Mayer who persuaded her to change her last name. To distance herself, from “the ecstasy lady”. Hedy chose “Lamarr” in honor of the beautiful silent film actress, Barbara La Marr. There she met and dated for a time the American business magnate, Howard Hughes. Hughes, himself an engineer and born tinkerer, was as stricken as anyone else, by her physical beauty. Unlike the sewer that is Hollywood, Hughes understood the power of the mind, behind the pretty face.
Hughes encouraged her scientific curiosity. He brought her to his aircraft factories and showed her how his aircraft were built. He introduced her to scientists and engineers who explained to her, how things work. He bought her equipment, to work with. On movie sets, Hedy could be found in her trailer, tinkering between takes.
“Improving things comes naturally to me.”Hedy Lamarr
As a pilot and a businessman, Howard Hughes was interested in faster airplanes, to sell to the military. With an intuitive grasp of fluid dynamics and dissatisfied with the blocky appearance of Hughes’ aircraft, Lamarr bought books about birds, and fish. She studied the fastest among fish and the speediest of birds, combining aspects of the two for a new and streamlined, wing design. Hughes took a look at Lamarr’s sketches and said “Hedy, you’re a genius”.
Americans couldn’t get enough of the Austrian-born actress. On screen she radiated all the “old world” exoticism of a Dietrich or a Garbo but managed a magnetism and personal warmth unique, among the three.
Offscreen she was always exploring. Learning. Experimenting. Lamarr went on to invent a stop light upgrade and a tablet capable of transforming into a soft drink, much like Alka-Seltzer, but it took WW2 to bring about her most significant contribution.
In 1940, Hedy met the pianist and avant-garde composer, George Antheil. Every bit the polymath as Lamarr herself, the two had long conversations about – of all things – guided torpedoes. The actress had unique and personal insights into the darkness, of the Nazi war machine. Wasn’t such a guidance system susceptible to jamming, sending the projectile off-course?
The pair set about designing a frequency-hopping system to defeat such measures. The obstacles were considerable. To create such a system, both sender and receiver needed to switch frequencies, not only at the same time, but to the same setting. Lamarr’s “Secret Communications System” was patented in 1942 under her then-married name, Hedy Keisler Markey.
While classified as “Red hot”, Hedy’s “thing” proved technically difficult to implement in the field. In 1957, the system was adapted for use in a secret naval sonobouy. An updated version was installed on Navy ships during the Cuban missile crisis but, by this time the patent had run out. Hedy Lamarr never was compensated for her invention.
Today, “spread spectrum” technologies you’re probably using at this very moment, modern wonders such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS, are borne of the “Mother of Wi-Fi”. The Hollywood actress with a face that could launch a thousand ships and the mind, of an engineer.