Beauty is a tricky gift for a woman. It can open doors to winning beauty contests, finding boyfriends, lovers, and powerful patrons, but it can also slam doors in your face if your ambitions rise above being someone’s trophy. As Rosalind Russell warbled years ago in the movie Wonderful Town “Just throw your knowledge in his face; He’ll never try for second base…” The amazing beauty of Hedy Lamarr brought her international fame as a movie star, but when she used her talents as a mathematician and inventor her contributions werepushed aside by military leaders who couldn’t believe a beautiful actress could possibly devise a useful system for thwarting attacks. And when she died in 2000, her obituary in the New York Times devoted only two short paragraphs to her scientific and mathematical interests. Far more space was given to a description of her legendary beauty, her modestly successful film career, and her six marriages.
The story of how Hedy Lamarr came to live in Hollywood was not an unusual one for the 1930s when the movie capital was a beacon to so many European artistic exiles. She had been born in Vienna as Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler, the daughter of a prosperous banker and his concert pianist wife. As an only child she was encouraged by her devoted parents to develop her interests in art and science. She studied drama, decided she wanted to become a Hollywood actress, and while still a teenager talked herself into a small role in a film. At 16 she dropped out of school and determined to become a movie star. Her startling beauty eased her way into films and she made the movie Ecstasy, which made her famous, more because of the brief nude scenes than because of her acting.
Soon she was being courted by Friedrich Mandl, one of the richest men in Austria, and the owner of a munitions factory. By the time she was 19, Hedy was married and living a life of luxury, but the price she had to pay was Mandl’s insistence that she give up her career. She later described her life with him as being “like a doll in a beautiful, jeweled case”. She left the world of the theater and gave dinners for businessmen and their wives. She wasn’t interested in munitions or weapons, but she heard many discussions about these subjects which later provided the basis for her inventions.
By 1937, Hedy had suffered enough from the restrictiveness of her marriage with Mandl. She wanted to return to acting and finally worked up the courage to do that as well as to file for divorce and to escape to London. From there she booked passage for America on the same ship that Louis B. Mayer was traveling on. Her beauty and her popularity with the male passengers persuaded Mayer that she would be an asset to his movie studio, so he offered her a contract.
Life in Hollywood was not quite as easy or as much fun as she had expected. She had to learn English, lose some weight, and wait until Mayer found suitable roles for her. She was not very interested in the socializing that was a part of Hollywood life. She didn’t drink and she was concerned about the war looming over Europe. Instead of spending her time at parties, she set aside a corner of her living room as her “inventing” space. Her hobby was trying to come up with ideas for new gadgets that would make life easier. She also became absorbed in the idea of doing something to help the war effort and this was where those long dinners in Germany finally paid off.
After meeting the composer George Anthill, she joined with him in trying to devise a way to prevent the enemy from jamming the radio signals that American ships and planes used to communicate with one another. She and Anthill devised a way to use frequently changing or “hopping” frequencies that would make American messages sound like gibberish to the listening Germans.
The two inventors patented their device in 1942 and Hedy Lamarr offered it to the Navy Department, but it was turned down. We’ll never know why the Navy didn’t recognize the value of the invention, but perhaps it had something to do with the fact that one of the co-inventors was a woman, and a spectacularly beautiful woman at that. How could she possibly know anything about engineering or math?
Whatever the reason, it wasn’t until after the war that the device Lamarr and Anthill invented was used by the military in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Since then it has been used to develop cell phone technology and other electronic devices. All of this happened after the patent had expired, so neither Hedy nor Anthill ever earned a penny from their invention.
In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation presented Hedy Lamarr with a special Pioneer Award and she became the first woman to receive the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award.
To find out more about Hedy Lamarr and her extraordinary life, you really should read Hedy’s Folly: the Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes. It will give you a whole new perspective on glamorous movie star life. The book is available on Amazon.com and no doubt at your local public library.
Almost every day of the year has been declared a commemoration of one individual or another and most of us ignore them. This week brings a day that should be celebrated more than most—Ada Lovelace Day on Oct. 15, 2013. The celebration will take an unusual form in some places. At Brown University in Rhode Island, students will honor Ada Lovelace by writing articles for Wikipedia. To understand this Wikipedia party, you may need some background.
Who was Ada Lovelace and why is she celebrated? You can still get a few arguments about whether she deserves the distinction, but she certainly had an unusuallife. She was born in England in 1815 and was the legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, quite a feat in itself because the famous poet fathered all of his other children with women who were not his wife. Still, being born legitimate is not an achievement for the baby, who has no choice in the matter. Ada Lovelace (born Augusta Ada Byron) had to be an unusual woman to earn a reputation of her own and gain lasting fame. And she was.
Despite having an irregular upbringing with a mother so focused on hatred for her husband, Byron, that she had little time for her daughter, Ada Lovelace had a good education. Her mother encouraged tutors to teach Ada mathematics as a way to ward off the tendency toward madness that she believed affected Lord Byron and his family. Ada took to numbers and became a competent mathematician as well as mastering several languages.
Ada Lovelace moved in high social circles. She became Baroness King when she married William King. The couple had three children, but Ada still had time to continue her friendships with both men and women. She became an avid gambler and tried to find mathematical models to help her and her friends find formulas which would increase their winnings. That, unfortunately, didn’t work and she went deeply into debt. However love of mathematics continued.
It was her friendship with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, a first attempt at a computer, which led to her developing an algorithm to allow the analytical engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It was this which led to her being considered the first computer programmer.
Scholars have debated how much of the programming work was done by Ada and how much by Babbage, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whether or not she actually was the world’s first programmer, she certainly achieved far more than anyone would have expected of a 19th century woman. And all that she achieved was done before she died of cancer at the age of 36.
It is very fitting that we now have an Ada Lovelace Day celebrated every year in mid-October. The day is dedicated to honoring the past achievements of women in science, engineering, technology and mathematics and to encouraging young women to enter these fields.
You might wonder what Ada Lovelace has to do with Wikipedia, but the connection is the gender-bias that has resulted in having far more men than women represented in the encyclopedia. Not only are women under-represented in Wikipedia, they are also under-represented in technology and scientific studies. Girls today have very few role models who inspire them to enter the STEM fields of study. Let’s hope the students at Brown University will come up with some articles that may inspire young girls today and in the future to become the scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians that are needed to keep our future growing.