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Brain behind beauty

Colin Todhunter talks to Anthony Loder, son of Hedy Lamarr described the most beautiful woman in the world. But not many know that she was also an inventor.

Hedy Lamarr was an extraordinary woman. During the 1940s, she was a huge Hollywood movie star and was regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world.

But, unlike her contemporaries, there was more to her than met the eye, a lot more. You may not know it, but her legacy is everywhere in India today. In fact, it has probably become part and parcel of your everyday life.

The inspirational Austrian-born, Hollywood icon Hedy Lamarr, is the inventor of the spread spectrum, the technology that underpins the workings of mobile phones and WiFi Internet connections.

Back in the 1940s, when she was at the peak of her movie career fame, she was also busy inventing the technology that would lay the basis for modern communications.

So the next time you pick up your mobile, you may like to give at least a passing thought to Austria’s finest export: the talented and intellectually astute Ms Lamarr.

Hedy Lamarr had learned about the latest in weapons technology at her first husband  Fritz Mandel’s munitions plants in Austria.

Later, in 1940, she met composer George Antheil in the US and shared with him what she knew about the design of remote-controlled torpedoes, which were vulnerable to detection and jamming.

Hedy came up with the frequency hopping concept and they developed a system, which enabled both the transmitting and receiving stations of a remote-control torpedo to change at intervals, only to have it rejected by the short-sighted Department of the Navy, who did not see the value of their efforts at the time. Antheil later credited the invention of the technology to Lamarr.

If Lamarr’s legacy as a movie star from the Golden Age of Hollywood is huge then her impact as an inventor is even greater. Over the past few years, mobile phones have taken India by storm.

Many of these new “mobile citizens” live in poorer and more rural areas with scarce infrastructure and facilities.

However, according to a recent study by the Bangalore-based Center for Knowledge Societies, mobile communication is helping transform economic and social life in rural India, creating greater access to social services and potentially impacting on transport, micro-commerce, healthcare, governance and education.  

A similar trend can be seen in the WiFi Internet market. The laptop market will double over the next two years.

Over 200 rural villages in Maharashtra have already formed a wireless Internet co-operative, establishing 50 WiFi ‘hotspots’ in their communities. The co-op has managed to raise more than $400,000 (Rs 20 million) to expand the reach of wireless Internet locally.

The WiFi market is predicted to grow from the current $41.57 million to exceed $744 million by 2012.

Hedy Lamarr’s son, Anthony Loder, recently granted me a rare interview.

Speaking to me from his home in Los Angeles, I asked him how he feels about the massive impact his mother's technology is having, particularly its influence in India, and whether he feels she has received due recognition for it.
 
How do you think the American public perceive Hedy Lamarr? Unfortunately, only a small percentage of people are aware of Hedy at all in the US now. She has given the world so much but I guess we live on an ungrateful planet.

She, like a lot of other creative people, had put in so much work. We live in an upside down world where celebrities get all the attention. But what they do is short term. And eventually, they will be forgotten about. It’s very sad. It’s a comment on the society we live in.

It has been a struggle all along to receive recognition for what Hedy achieved as an inventor. Even on a small scale. I am very proud of the technology that Hedy invented, more so than the film star part of her life, which in many ways ruined her life.

She received an Electronic Frontier Foundation Award in 1997 and you collected it on her behalf.

The EFFA was a very prestigious award to receive. Many high level people from the scientific community recognizing Hedy in that way was a very great tribute. It was a big accolade and to me it was a great honour.

Hedy felt that people gave out awards to make them feel better. But it’s not always like that. It’s a two way street.

How do you feel that Austria, Germany and Switzerland hold Inventor’s Day on November 9 to coincide with her birth anniversary?

I was not aware that those countries hold Inventor’s Day on Hedy’s birthday in honour of her. However, when I was in Austria I met with the minister of culture and asked why they had a monument to Gutenberg who invented the printing press and not for Hedy.

In a way they were honouring the written word and I couldn’t really understand why they were not paying tribute to Hedy in a similar way considering what she has done for the spoken word in terms of modern communications technology. But at least they now have an award in schools for the most promising student – the Hedy Lamarr Award.

Before she died in 2000, was she aware of the impact that her invention was having in the world?

Hedy appreciated that her technology finally caught on. It was first implemented in the Cuban Missile Crisis. In that respect, it was 20 years ahead of its time. She certainly knew that the military were using it to very good effect.

In fact, she received the Milstar award for frequency hopping. Her technology underpins the basis of the US government’s defense communications system. Three 28 billion dollar satellites now orbit our planet and allow the military to communicate and that stems from my mother’s technology.

However, she could not appreciate what the technology has done since her death and could not foresee the impact of WiFi.

Hedy felt good that her invention had contributed something useful, lasting and profound. Creativity can be profound and she liked the fact she was appreciated for her brains. She was very aware that beauty is fleeting.

Unfortunately, beauty is a short term value and modern society worships that kind of thing. Creativity is profound and its source and effort largely ignored and unappreciated .

By the end of 2008, three quarters of India’s population will be covered by a mobile network. Communities, both rural and urban, across India have also begun to embrace WiFi. This is a result of your mother’s invention. How does that make you feel?

I have always been attracted by India, its people and philosophies and would like to visit one day. Seeing India rise to a sound economic force is good for the world and good for India.

I know for instance that telephones have previously been rare in parts of the world and in India, but Hedy has essentially succeeded in connecting the planet. It’s great. Anything that raises the standard of living has got to be good.

I notice that there are two official Internet sites for Hedy Lamarr. I was particularly drawn to the hedylamarr.org site. I found it quite moving and very inspiring. How did that site come about?

Yes there is the hedylamarr.com site, mainly run by my sister, but I set up the hedylamarr.org site sometime ago because I thought that if people are taking the trouble to try to find out about Hedy, they should be given suitable information.

I suppose it was part of my mission to have her remembered. In a way that’s why we made the film Calling Hedy Lamarr in 2004 with the director Georg Misch.

We made it so my mother would not be forgotten. It unpeels the layers behind the persona created by the film industry. In a way it is partly about her son trying to make sense of his mother’s life.

Ten million people have seen that film and it would be really great if people in India had an opportunity to see it on TV. And in terms of her old films, I think Come Live With Me (1941) is the closest we get to the real Hedy, her true Austrian personality.

That’s were my interview with Anthony Loder ended. Hedy Lamarr once said that films have a certain place in a certain time period, but technology is forever. Her son is acutely aware of that.

I began this article by stating that Hedy Lamarr was an extraordinary woman. But I do not think she should be talked about in the past tense. Her legacy is all around us in our everyday lives. Quite simply, Hedy Lamarr is!