Monday, November 05, 2018

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

“The average woman would rather have beauty than brains, because the average man can see better than he can think.”

-- Anonymous

I signed up for Google Analytics for this blog.  One thing I noticed was that a lot of people that read my posts are doing so on a mobile phone.  (When I checked yesterday, mobile users accounted for 74 of readers.)  If you’re reading this on a tablet or a cell phone and are using wi-fi or cellular data, you have Hedy Lamarr to thank for that.  It’s because of her that we now have secure, reliable wireless communication.

The documentary covers Lamarr’s life starting with her film, Ecstasy.  She was known for looking beautiful.  She could act, sure.  But her main draw was that she looked good in front of the camera.  What most people didn’t know was that she was an inventor.  She even made a tablet that, when dissolved in water, would produce flavored water.  (The tablet was done in by the fact that different cities have different amounts of impurities in their water.)

Her big contribution came during the war.  There seem to be different stories, but the one I heard had her watching a player piano.  Radio-controlled torpedoes were susceptible to being jammed, either deliberately or accidentally.  Thus, it was difficult to steer the torpedoes with any accuracy.  While looking at the piano, she got the idea to change frequencies randomly, thus improving the reliability.  She and George Antheil even got a patent.  They were willing to let the Navy use the technology, given the appropriate fee, but Lamarr was told that she could put her talents to better use by selling war bonds.

The documentary comes about due to an interview that was thought lost.    I wonder if a documentary about Lamarr would have been made had it not been found.  It’s a story that people should know about.  It’s a sad fact that people who deserve the credit often don’t get it.  Nikola Tesla got a car named for him.  Alan Turing had a test named for him.  Even still, both inventors aren’t really household names.  Even with Lamarr, most people would know her solely as an actress.

Lamarr never got any money from her invention.  The Navy held on to the actual patent document and Lamarr wasn’t able to renew it.  By the time the technology made its way to wider use, it had expired.  Interestingly, the Navy did use it to some extend and should have paid for that use.  Whether you know Lamarr as an actress your know use wireless communication regularly, I’d tell you to watch this documentary.  You’ll never be able to look at the wi-fi logo the same way again.

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