Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr / Illustration: Anna Sanchis

Her name was Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. The thirties found her studying engineering in Austria, at that time it was an unusual activity for a girl of good family (and beautiful, to boot). But she gave up mathematics for the performing arts and became an actress. She was the cause of uproar, appearing naked on the silver screen for a few disquieting minutes in the movie Ekstase (1933), the first full nude to appear in a commercial film. The arms manufacturer and Austrofascist, Fritz Mandl, took a fancy to her, married and then enslaved her due to his jealousy. Hedwig ended up fleeing to France, first of all, and then on to the United States, where she resumed her acting career under the stage name that would make her famous worldwide: Hedy Lamarr, the dazzling star of the forties.

And also the less well-known inventor. Married to Mandl had enabled her to catch her husbands’ friends letting their tongues run carelessly, which, years later, allowed her to pass on some supposedly well-guarded German technical secrets to the Allies. But, what is more, she also invented the frequency hopping technique, which she patented in 1942 under the name of H. K. Markey, i.e., initials of her name and maiden name, and surname of her new American husband. The invention had applications in making radio-controlled torpedoes harder to detect and, with the development of electronics, in missile guidance, wireless Wi-Fi data communications and third generation telecommunications.

«Above all, Hedy Lamarr was interested in sinking German submarines. She was an actress who, deep down, wanted to be an inventor. And she was»

Hedy Lamarr detested the Nazis. Her film viewers, however, ignored these inclinations along with her technological abilities and preferred looking at her legs (in a manner of speaking). Meanwhile, above all, she was interested in sinking German submarines. All this was learned later, when she was a little old lady retired in Orlando (where she died in 2000 aged 86). So, in fact, she was an actress who, deep down, wanted to be an inventor. And she was.

Who invents things, then? Rarely movie vampiresses, obviously. And, nowadays, hardly anyone in particular. Research is increasingly a joint effort and technological process. The nineteenth century brought us well-known and renowned inventors: Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone (1876); Thomas Alva Edison, the phonograph (1877) and the incandescent lamp (1879); Guglielmo Marconi, the radio (1897)… They all belonged to the heroic age when people investigated alone or in small groups that did not feed off the discoveries of others. Everyone remembers their names and merits, however, hardly anyone knows that we browse the internet thanks to our contemporary Tim Berners-Lee (born 1955) and inventor of the World Wide Web (1989). This is because Berners-Lee could not have done anything without the CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), where he worked, or without the prior existence of the Arpanet created (1969) by UCLA (University of California – Los Angeles) and the WAN network, launched (1983) by the NSF (National Science Foundation).

One could argue that, nowadays, science discovers phenomena, technology implements solutions and industry creates products. Invention has almost become analogous to extravagance as recognized in popular language, which, quite unfairly, gives the term a bizarre or half joking connotation. In the fifties and sixties the outlandish and very famous inventions that the fictional Professor Franz from Copenhagen published in the TBO magazine (the Spanish equivalent of Rube Goldberg’s machines) buried the remains of the respectable inventors of the nineteenth century.

It’s a shame. Now that the Bologna process has managed to elevate the status of some conceptual relics by renaming them, couldn’t we set up a Master for inventors? We’ll just have to make do with the annual International Inventor’s Day, celebrated on the 9th of November, the day that Hedy Lamarr was born.

© Mètode 2010 - 65. Online only. Nano - Spring 2010

PhD in Biology, socio-ecologist, and president of ERF (Barcelona, Spain).