April 10, 1953 Not Just a Pretty Face

“All creative people want to do the unexpected” – Hedy Lamarr

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”.

Abduction of Helen, Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria

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 ships
And burnt the topless towers of Illium
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss…”

The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe

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.

March 10, 1876  The Speed of Sound

For all of Mark Twain’s abilities, he wasn’t much of an investor.  The man turned down a ground-floor opportunity to invest in the telephone, in favor of a typesetting machine which actually made setting type more complicated, than the age-old printer’s method of setting type, by hand.

As the son of a speech pathologist and husband to a deaf wife, Alexander Melville Bell was always interested in sound. Since the profoundly deaf can’t hear their own pronunciation, Bell developed a system he called Visible Speech in 1864, to help the deaf learn and improve elocution.

220px-VisibleSpeech-illustrationsÉdouard Séguin, the Paris-born physician and educator best known for his work with the developmentally disabled and a major inspiration to Italian educator Maria Montessori, called the elder Bell’s work “…a greater invention than the telephone by his son, Alexander Graham Bell”.

As a boy, the younger Bell developed a method of carefully modulating his speech and speaking into his mother’s forehead, a method which allowed her to “hear” him, fairly clearly.  The boy followed in his father’s footsteps, mastering his elder’s work to the point of improving on it and teaching the system at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes (which operates today as the Horace Mann School for the Deaf), the American Asylum for Deaf-mutes in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts.

539001It was Alexander Graham Bell who first broke through to Helen Keller, a year before Anne Sullivan.  The two developed a life-long relationship closely resembling that of father and daughter.  Bell made it possible for Keller to attend Radcliffe and graduate in 1904, the first deaf/blind person, ever to do so.

Keller used a braille typewriter to write her first autobiography in 1903, dedicating The Story of My Life, to her life-long friend, benefactor and mentor:  “To Alexander Graham Bell, who has taught the deaf to speak and enabled the listening ear to hear speech from the Atlantic to the Rockies.”

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CREDIT: “[Alexander Graham Bell with Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan at the meeting of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, July 1894, in Chautauqua, N.Y.]” [1894, printed later]. Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
A natural inventor, it was Bell’s 1875 work on electrical telegraphy, which led to the telephone.  Bell heard a “twang” on the line while working , leading him to investigate the possibility of using electrical wires, to transmit sound.

Rival Elisha Gray was working on a similar concept, and filed a caveat (statement of concept) on February 14, 1876, mere hours after Bell applied for patent.

Bell’s device first produced intelligible speech on March 10, that same year.  His diary entry describes the event: “I then shouted into M [the mouthpiece] the following sentence: “Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you.” To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.  I asked him to repeat the words. He answered, “You said ‘Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you.'” We then changed places and I listened at S [the speaker] while Mr. Watson read a few passages from a book into the mouthpiece M. It was certainly the case that articulate sounds proceeded from S. The effect was loud but indistinct and muffled”.

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Many of Bell’s innovations came about, much earlier than you might expect.  One of his first inventions after the telephone was the “photophone,” a device enabling sound to be transmitted on a beam of light. Bell and his assistant, Charles Sumner Tainter, developed the photophone using a sensitive selenium crystal and a mirror which would vibrate in response to sound. In 1881, the pair successfully sent a photophone message from one building to another, a distance of over 200 yards.

Several innovations would later build on this accomplishment to produce the modern laser.

0bcb9e63f5In September 1881, Alexander Graham Bell hurriedly invented the first metal detector, as President James Garfield lay dying from an assassin’s bullet. The device was unsuccessful in saving the President, but credited with saving many lives during the Boer War and WW1.

That was the year in which Bell’s infant son Edward died of respiratory problems, leading the bereaved father to design a metal vacuum jacket which would facilitate breathing. This apparatus was a forerunner of the iron lung used in the ’40s and ’50s to aid polio victims.  As many as 39 people still used an iron lung to breathe, as late as 2004.

The telephone was a commercial success, but that wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Looking for investors for his new enterprise, Bell approached Samuel Clemens in 1877, as a potential investor.  Better known as Mark Twain, the author declined the opportunity, believing the market to be confined to bridge-to-engine room communications, onboard maritime vessels.

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Mark Twain

One of the towering figures of American literature, Samuel Clemens achieved considerable financial success during his lifetime but, for all his abilities, didn’t have much of an eye for opportunity.  Mark Twain turned down a ground-floor invitation to invest in the telephone, choosing instead to buy into a typesetting machine which complicated the setting of type, compared with the age-old printer’s method of setting type, by hand.

Alexander Graham Bell’s creation would change the world but, to the end of his days, his work with the deaf gave him greatest satisfaction.

Bell would sell his invention, to finance his work on devices to aid the hearing-impaired.  He didn’t keep a phone on his desk, considering the thing to be an interruption and a nuisance.

Later in life, Alexander Graham Bell described his work with the deaf, as “more pleasing to me than even recognition of my work with the telephone.”

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