Monday, August 24, 2009

Hedy Lamarr - Actress, Inventor and An Inspiration

Secret Communication System involves frequency hopping that helps radio signals to hop between 88 frequencies and intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder to detect. (US Patent No 2292387 dated August 11 1942 and awarded to Hedy Kiesler Markey and George Antheil)

Hedy Kiesler Markey is none other than Hedy Lamarr whose picture is shown above and who was rightly called the ‘most beautiful woman in the world’. And George Antheil was an Avant Garde Music composer. Secret Communication System is the basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology that is used in WiFi, cordless phones and cellphones.

Her life is best captured from a line in this post:

“Not only was she the first actress to simulate an orgasm onscreen in 1933, but her frequency-switching device (now known as frequency hopping) developed with partner George Antheil, is the technology upon which the cell phones are built."

I first came to know the incredible story of Hedy Lamarr from my Physics professor. This particular professor had an amazing ability to tell stories on just about any topic related to Physics. And you guessed right, the attendance to his class was always full.

Hedy Lamarr was of Jewish parentage. She was drawn towards expressive arts at an early age and entered the world of films (German) in the 1930’s. She married a German arms manufacturer who was also a Nazi sympathiser. In addition, he was an extremely controlling man and refused to let her continue her acting career. Instead he took her to meetings involving military technology with his partners and technologists. Hedy picked up lot of ideas from these meetings. In 1937 she fled Germany and her husband for USA as she completely despised the growing fascist menace in Europe.She became a very famous actress with films like Samson and Delilah, Boom Town, Tortilla Flat and many more to her credit.

While she pursued her acting career, she wanted to help in the war efforts to defeat Germany. It was this burning mission that made her develop ‘Secret Communication System’ involving frequency hopping with her friend the music composer, George Antheil. The invention was seen way ahead of its time. In fact it was put to use successfully for the first time during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And now in cellphones.

Why am I narrating the story of Hedy Lamarr?

The story of Hedy Lamarr can be one of inspiration for people with a ‘creative’ persuasion.

Hedy Lamarr symbolises the magic that happens when creativity meets technology. Coming from an ‘Expressive Arts’ background, Lamarr and Antheil were highly intuitive. They could harness the potential of a phenomenon into a useful application. What is remarkable about her achievement is that it happened at a time when there was a very clear demarcation between arts and science.

That demarcation, at least pertaining to the digital world, is crumbling fast today. By digital I loosely mean all things internet, mobile and emerging media. It is user-friendly and with interesting possibilities for brands and marketing. More importantly, I foresee a new kind of role likely to emerge in technology companies in the near future. It is that of a ‘Creative Officer’.

As a budding entrepreneur (ahem!), I have come across young engineers in Bangalore with incredible product ideas. Some of them have also started full-fledged companies. However, they are struggling to make the much needed consumer connect for them to succeed. Creativity is the magic that can add ‘soul’ to their product and help it connect with the consumers.

Hedy Lamarr once said, “All creative people want to do the unexpected.” Have fun with technology and you can do the unexpected in which ever field you are in.

(Image courtesy)


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