IMG MGMT: Life As A Woman, Hedy Lamarr

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[Editors Note: IMG MGMT is an annual image-based artist essay series. Today's invited artist, Michaela Melián, lives and works in Upper Bavaria. This fall her work will be exhibited in the show "See This Sound" at Lentos Museum Linz, "The Dwelling" at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, and "Different Places - Different Stories," a series of interventions in public spaces along the German/Dutch borderline. She is intensively working on the realization of "Memory Loops," a memorial audio project for the Holocaust victims of the city of Munich. The project will open in Summer 2010.]

Hedy Lamarr, legally Hedwig Kiesler, was born on November 9, 1914, in Vienna.

In 1933, in the movie Ekstase, she simulated the first orgasm seen onscreen in cinematic history; in another scene, she swims naked in a lake. From 1933-1937, she was married to Austrian munitions factory owner Fritz Mandl. Afterward, she emigrated to the USA.

MGM’s Louis B. Mayer extolled Hedy Lamarr as the most beautiful woman in the world. In her first Hollywood film, she established a new type of woman in the American cinema: the exotic, dark-haired, enigmatic stranger.

In her ex-husband’s Salzburg villa, the immigrant had seen plans for remote controlled torpedoes, which were never built because the radio controls proved to be too unreliable. After the outbreak of the Second World War, she worked on practical ideas to effectively fight the Hitler regime.

At a party in Hollywood, Lamarr met George Antheil, an avant-garde composer who also wrote film scores. While playing the piano with the composer, the actress suddenly has an important idea for her torpedo control system. Antheil sets up the system on 88 frequencies, as this number corresponds to the number of keys on a piano. To construct it, he employs something similar to the player piano sheet music that he used in his Ballet Mécanique.

In December 1940, the frequency-switching device developed by Lamarr and Antheil was sent to the National Inventors’ Council. A patent was awarded on August 11, 1942. The two inventors leave it to the American military to figure out how to use the device. Lamarr’s and Antheil’s Secret Communication System disappears into the U.S. Army’s filing cabinets.

Finally, in 1962, as the Cuba crisis brews the technology now known as frequency hopping is put to use. Its purpose is not to control torpedoes, but to allow for safe communications among blockading ships – whereupon the principles behind the patent become part of fundamental U.S. military communications technology. Today, this technology is not only the foundation for the U.S. military’s satellite defense system, but also used widely in the private sector, particularly for cordless and mobile telephones.

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