“Just stand there and look stupid.”
It’s what they told her to do, so she did. It made her world famous.
You may not have heard of Hedwieg Kiesler today, but in 1938, the film mogul Louis B. Mayer called her ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’.
But fame and looks are fleeting, and eventually she faded into obscurity.
Or did she?
If you own a mobile phone or use a Facebook or Instagram account – you owe it to her.
Hedwig Kiesler was the only child of a prominent Jewish banker from Vienna. At school, she excelled at mathematics.
It wasn’t her intelligence but her looks that caught the eye of the third richest man in Austria, an arms dealer called Friedrich Mandl. He soon became her first husband.
Then Mandl discovered his trophy wife had appeared in a low-budget Czechoslovakian film that showed her swimming in a lake, naked. There was also a sex scene which, although tame by today’s standards, shocked audiences in the 1930’s.
The film – ‘Ecstasy’ – was banned everywhere, of course, which made copies of it extremely valuable. Even the Italian dictator, Mussolini, used all his clout to get a copy.
Mandl was less enthusiastic about his new wife’s unmathematical past and tried to buy up as many copies of the film as he could.
It took time out of a packed schedule that Mandl could ill afford. At the time he was busy developing a new technology for radio-controlled torpedoes for the Nazis.
Meanwhile, his wife was supposed to be mere decoration at his dinner parties when he entertained leading Nazis, including Hitler himself, and explained his new invention.
But Hedwig was Jewish. She hated the Nazis.
In 1937, she sold her jewelry, drugged her maid, disguised herself in a servant’s uniform and escaped from Austria.
It was a smart decision.
The following year, the Nazis seized Mandl’s factory. Mandl, who was himself half-Jewish, was forced to flee to Brazil.
Hedwig resettled in Paris. It was there that she met Mayer, the Steven Spielberg of the age. Mayer was struck by her beauty and promised to make her a star.
He was as good as his word. She signed a long-term contract and, as the glamorous Hedy Lamarr, appeared in more than 20 films with stars like Clark Gable, James Stewart, Judy Garland, and Bob Hope.
But Hedy had another talent that most people did not see: her brilliant mathematical mind.
In 1942, at the height of her fame, she decided to use her smarts to help the war effort.
At the time both the Nazis and the Allies were using single-frequency radio-controlled technology to help torpedoes find their targets. But the enemy could easily find this frequency and “jam” the signal.
Hedy, remembering all the things she had heard at Mandl’s dinner parties, collaborated with her Hollywood neighbor, musician George Anthiel, on a system to solve this problem. Anthiel had just found a way to synchronize melodies across twelve player pianos, producing stereophonic sounds no one had ever heard before.
No, I don’t understand what that means either. But I’m not Hedy Lamarr.
Applying this same technology, she was able to encode a radio message across a broad area of the wireless spectrum. If one part of the spectrum was jammed, the message would still get through on one of the other frequencies – in effect making it unjammable.
On August 11, 1942, U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 was granted to Antheil and “Hedy Kiesler Markey”, her married name at the time.
But the U.S. Navy were not interested. In fact, this new technology was not adopted until 1962, after the patent had expired, when it was finally used by U.S. military ships during the blockade of Cuba.
Yet it was to become one of the most important patents ever issued by the US Patents Office.
Why? Because it became the foundation of ‘spread spectrum technology’. You use this every day when you log on to wi-fi or make calls with your Bluetooth-enabled phone.
Without the woman who was once told to just stand there and looked stupid, you couldn’t take selfies in Time Square, send text messages or post Facebook pictures of your cat.
More than just a pretty face, then. At last, in 2014, Hedy was finally inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.
Over to you, Kim Kardashian. Get thinking.
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if you like stories about famous women of the twentieth century …
“If you’ve ever wanted to walk the streets of early twentieth century Shanghai, Berlin, London, or New York, then you will love the wide landscape of this novel. All the big cities come to life with all the political and economic intricacies of that time. From the grittiest of inhabitants, to the most decadent and smug, Falconer gives you a view into the turmoil of the Great War”. *****