Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hedy Lamarr: Geek Sex Symbol

When most people today think of sex symbols for science fiction, fantasy, comic book, and horror geeks, such names as Jessica Alba (star of various genre films and  the TV show Dark Angel), Kate Beckisale (star of the Underworld film franchise),  and Milla Jovovich (star of various genre films). If they're knowledgeable about science fiction, fantasy, and horror films they might also think of Fay Wray, Sybil Danning, Caroline Munro, and Barbara Steele, among others. That having been said, there is one name that might not occur to anyone but geeks: classic film star Hedy Lamarr.

On the surface it might seem unusual for Hedy Lamarr to be beloved by fans of of science fiction, comic book,  fantasy, and horror, even though during her lifetime she was often considered "the most beautiful woman in the world." After all, she was not a scream queen with many horror movies to her credit such as Fay Wray, Evelyn Ankers, Anne Gwynne, Gloria Stuart, or Hazel Court, nor did she have key roles in popular science fiction, fantasy, or horror films the way that Ann Francis, Barbara Rush, Julie Adams, or Raquel Welch did. Indeed, Miss Lamarr never starred in a film that could be considered to belong to the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Nonetheless, she is a sex symbol popular with geeks. In fact, of actresses from the Golden Age, Hedy Lamarr may be the most popular geek sex symbol short of Fay Wray.

Miss Lamarr's status as a geek sex symbol may not seem that unusual when one considers that many geeks, especially older geeks, are also classic film buffs and connoisseurs of vintage pop culture. This makes perfect sense when one considers how many horror fans were introduced to the genre through the classic Universal horror movies of the Thirties and Forties (not to mention the films Val Lewton produced for RKO in the Forties), science fiction fans were introduced to the genre through such classic films as Forbidden Planet (1956) and Metoropolis (1956), and many comic book fans sought out the old movie serials of the Thirties and Forties featuring well known comic book characters. Having watched genre films from the Thirties and Forties, many geeks then started watching movies from that era in other genres. Before long many science fiction, horror, comic book, and fantasy geeks became full fledged classic movie geeks, and would most certainly have encountered the heavenly Hedy Lamarr along the way.

Here I must point out that movies would not be the only gateway into the world of classic film among comic book, science fiction, fantasy, and horror geeks. During the Sixties and Seventies many novels from the old pulp magazines were being reprinted. For that reason many geeks of a certain age grew up reading pulp novels featuring such characters as Doc Savage, The Shadow, and The Spider. These geeks would naturally seek out other material from the Thirties and Forties, including Old Time Radio and classic films. Again, sooner or later these geeks would see Hedy Lamarr on the screen and she would have the same effect she had on many men--they would be utterly enthralled.

Of course, this does not explain why Hedy Lamarr, an actress who never appeared in a science fiction, fantasy, or horror film, would be more loved by geeks than other screen beauties. While Hedy Lamarr was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, so too were Vivien Leigh, Gene Tierney, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly, yet none of them has the following among geeks that Miss Lamarr does. Even Marilyn Monroe, often counted as the most popular sex symbol of all time, is not loved as much by geeks as Hedy Lamarr is.

One of the reasons that comic book fans, if not science fiction, fantasy, and horror fans, are so enthralled by Hedy Lamarr is that she provided the basis for one of the most iconic comic book villains of all time. The creative team of the comic book character Batman in the earliest years (creator Bob Kane, creator Bill Finger, and artist Jerry Robinson) were all film buffs. After all, Batman himself was based in part on Douglas Fairbanks' classic swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro (1920) and the 1930 mystery film The Bat Whispers. Jerry Robinson initially created Batman's archenemy The Joker based on a playing card and further refined the character's appearance after Bob Kane showed him stills of Conrad Veidt from The Man Who Laughs (1928).

Motion pictures, and more specifically Hedy Lamarr, would provide the inspiration for Batman's second best known opponent. Bill Finger and Bob Kane based The Catwoman on a combination of Bob Kane's cousin Ruth Steel and actress Hedy Lamarr, with a bit of Jean Harlow thrown in for good measure. It would seem that Jean Harlow may have contributed little more to the character than her personality, as  illustrations of Catwoman from the Golden Age of Comic Books look remarkably like Hedy Lamarr. Both had oval shaped faces crowned by a head of long, wavy, dark hair. Both also had smouldering eyes (well, Catwoman's eyes were as smouldering as Golden Age comic book illustration would allow) and full, pouty lips. Despite changes in artists over the years (as is well known, Bob Kane employed many ghosts), Catwoman would continue to resemble Hedy Lamarr until the Sixties when a certain Julie Newmar played the character on the television series Batman. Regardless, it is because of Hedy Lamarr's influence in the creation of Catwoman that actress Anne Hathaway studied Miss Lamarr for her role as the villain in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

Of course, this does not entirely explain the Hedy Lamarr cult that exists among geeks. After all, other comic book and comic strip characters have been based on famous actresses. Silent film star Louise Brooks, the centre of her own celebrity cult, would provide the basis for no less than two comic strip characters: Dixie Dugan and Italian comic strip character Valentina. Lola Lane, who played fictional reporter Torchy Blane in series of movies in the Thirties, provided part of the inspiration for Superman's girlfriend Lois Lane. Bob Kane always claimed that Marilyn Monroe (before she was famous) was the model for Batman's on again, off again girlfriend Vicki Vale. Brigitte Bardot apparently provided the inspiration for French comic book character Barbarella. While Louise Brooks, Marilyn Monroe, and Brigitte Bardot do have their fans among geeks, it would appear that they have nowhere near the following among geeks that Hedy Lamarr does.

It would seem that the primary reason that Hedy Lamarr boasts a large following among science fiction, fantasy, comic book, and horror geeks is that she achieved something very few actors, male or female, ever had. Quite simply, she invented something that would revolutionise modern society. It was in 1941 that Miss Lamarr had an idea of a new torpedo guidance system. Radio guided torpedoes had been tested during World War I and were later improved upon in the Thirties. The problem with guiding a torpedo through radio signals is that if the enemy located the signal, they could effectively jam it. In that case, the torpedo would not reach its target. Hedy Lamarr's idea was to have both the radio transmitter and radio receiver for torpedoes hop from frequency to frequency, thus making them much harder to jam.

In June 1941 Miss Lamarr took her idea to her neighbour, composer George Antheil, who had utilised automated control of pianos in his composition Ballet Mécanique. Together they developed a means of frequency hopping that utilised a piano roll of the type used for player pianos to shift or "hop" between 88 different radio frequencies. It was on 11 August 1942 that Miss Lamarr and Mr. Antheil were granted US Patent 2,292,387 for their "secret communication system." Unfortunately, Miss Lamarr and Mr.Antheil's invention would not be implemented by the United States Navy, who argued that the equipment necessary for it would be too bulky (George Antheil argued that it could be small enough to fit inside a watch). The United States Navy would eventually utilise Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil's invention during the blockade of Cuba in 1962. Their idea of frequency hopping would provide the basis for such modern day technology as mobile phones, GPS, Wi-Fi, and many other technologies.

To a degree Hedy Lamarr's idea of frequency hopping was hardly new. Nikola Tesla had intimated at it in patents he had filed in 1900 and 1903. In  his book Wireless Telegraphy German physicist  Johannes Zenneck also referred to hopping frequencies. Various other patents for frequency hopping would be filed in Germany and the United States in the Twenties and Thirties. That having been said, Miss Lamarr and Mr. Antheil's patent would be rediscovered in the Fifties when various companies were developing CDMA or code division multiple access, a channel access method used for GPS and the basis for various channel access methods used by mobile phones (such as cdmaOne, CDMA2000, and WCMDA). While others may have conceived of frequency hopping before Hedy Lamarr, arguably it was Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil's patent that would have the most impact on modern wireless technology. In other words, much of today's technology, from Wi-Fi to mobile phones, might not exist had it not been for Hedy Lamarr! Sadly, neither Miss Lamarr nor Mr. Antheil would ever make any money from it.

Miss Lamarr was quite serious about inventing. She had an entire room in her home devoted to inventing, including a drafting table, tools, reference books, and everything she needed for her hobby. What is more, the "secret communication system" Hedy Lamarr developed with George Antheil was not her only invention. She also developed an anti-aircraft shell fixed with a proximity fuse that would use radar to detect the target and detonate at a predetermined distance away. It was never put into practical use. Miss Lamarr also invented a better box for facial tissues (such as Kleenex) and a new sort of traffic light, but neither of these inventions got very far.

It is perhaps primarily because Hedy Lamarr invented a secret communication system that would form the basis for modern wireless technology that she has become a sex symbol for geeks. First, while all science fiction, fantasy, and horror geeks are not necessarily fans of technology, enough are that there are huge cults in geekdom dedicated to the personalities who had a hand in developing that technology, from Ada Lovelace to Alan Turing. Many geeks would love Hedy Lamarr simply for having developed the idea of frequency hopping. The fact that she was also one of the most beautiful women in the world raises her to the status of a sex symbol among geeks. Second, many geeks are drawn to intelligence in a woman as much as beauty. Hedy Lamarr had a talent for maths from childhood and an innate grasp of the possibilities of technology. What is more she was able to apply her intelligence not only to the invention of a secret communication system, but also other inventions as well. Given that Miss Lamarr was as intelligent as she was beautiful, she is then perhaps the perfect sex symbol for geeks.

Hedy Lamarr was one of the most beautiful women in the world. She also provided inspiration for one of the most iconic comic book characters of all time, Catwoman. She also invented a secret communication system that would provide the basis for our wireless technology today. While it may not seem obvious on the surface why she would appeal to science fiction, fantasy, and horror geeks. once one looks at her life and her career as an inventor it becomes obvious. Fay Wray was beautiful and could scream better than anyone. Hazel Court had an astounding figure. But it was Hedy Lamarr who was the perfect combination of beauty, brains, and a talent for mathematics and technology.


Toby O'B said...

That's Hedley!!!!

Bobby Rivers said...

I so dig your writing.