Key part for Dave Hughes in PBS documentary telling little-known side of Hedy Lamarr - as WWII inventor
And that's the idea.
A 1½-hour documentary, planned to air on PBS in fall 2016, will tell how 1930s-'40s movie star Hedy Lamarr, acclaimed as the “most beautiful woman in the world,” wound up co-inventing a wireless break-through that's still in use today.
One of the film's featured historians will be Westside resident Dave Hughes, whose rediscovery of the actress' accomplishment - more than 50 years later - led to her receiving a national award in 1997, three years before her death.
Hughes does not know how much screen time he will have in the flick. A crew from Reframed Pictures - a new company partly founded by actress Susan Sarandon - was in town July 21 and spent three hours interviewing him for the camera at the Black Box Theatre on Pecan Street.
Hughes said he would be surprised if more than 10 minutes is actually used, but director Alexandra Dean, interviewed beforehand by the Westside Pioneer, emphasized that “Dave is a key figure” in the documentary, which Reframed is making for PBS' “American Masters” series of documentary/biographies.
“With his military and technological side, he was the person perfectly situated to do this,” Dean said. “He found out the technology he was using was Hedy Lamarr's and got her recognized. She was living as a recluse and never thought that would happen.”
Now 87, Hughes has been known for years as a Westside civic leader, but it was his work in wireless technology, researching past advances under a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the early-1990s, that led him to Hedy Lamarr. She and her co-inventor, the equally unlikely avant-garde composer George Anthiel, had received a patent
Their intent was to have the Navy build a device using the system to prevent the Nazis from jamming American torpedo radio signals during World War II. However, the Navy never did so, as recounted in “Hedy's Folly,” a 2011 book by Pulitzer-prize winning author Richard Rhodes, who will also appear in the PBS film.
Nowadays, spread spectrum is an integral part of cutting-edge electronics (bluetooth technology, for example), with favorable aspects including wider bandwidth, reduced interference and enhanced communications security. But for many years, the originators of the idea were forgotten.
Hughes did find a former Navy contractor who had used the patent in the 1950s for a device that could triangulate
Beyond that, it's impossible to say how many modern innovations may have stemmed from the Lamarr-Anthiel patent. Still, it is a fact that no spread spectrum products ever existed before that time, Rhodes' book points out.
Hughes followed up on his NSF research by lobbying for Lamarr to receive the 1997 Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (Anthiel had already passed away by then.) Hughes himself had received the same award in 1993.
Hughes is also among those who have used spread spectrum technology. From 1984 to 2007, he co-owned the Old Colorado City Communications company, operating out of the Templeton Building at 24th Street and Colorado Avenue. During part of that time, before high-speed Internet was available on this side of town, spread spectrum allowed his business to provide a faster Internet capability than dial-up, using an antenna he'd placed on the three-story building's rooftop. “It was the only reason the Old Colorado City History Center had a website,” recalled Hughes, also a co-founder of the center and its former president. “Wi-fi could not cut through the trees.”
Born in Austria, Lamarr gained notoriety there as a teen actress, then married one of that country's major munitions manufacturers. This provided her initial insights into weaponry and fueled her hatred of the Nazis, Rhodes' book shows. (Note: The marriage ended in divorce, as did all six of her marriages.)
After she emigrated to America in 1938, her hobby, when she was not playing sultry movie parts, was inventing things. Part of her Hollywood home was even set aside for that purpose, Rhodes reports, “complete with a drafting table and lamp and all the necessary drafting tools.”
It was in reponse to Nazi submarine attacks on ships that she decided to invent
Frequency-hopping requires tight synchronization, and to handle such technical aspects, she turned to Anthiel, an American composer (also living in Hollywood at the time) who specialized in mechanical instruments, using multiple player pianos - 16 at one time on one of his works, Rhodes relates.
Her last name, as it appeared on the patent, was “Markey.” It was the name of her second husband, whom she had divorced two years earlier. Hughes was able to figure out the inventor's true identity in his patent research, in part because he had followed her movie career, admittedly having a crush on her when he was a teenager.
An Army veteran who served in Korea as well as Vietnam, Hughes also appreciated Lamarr in terms of her patriotism. Like many other movie stars of her time, she actively supported the military during World War II, helping sell millions of dollars in war bonds through public appearances and even dancing with servicemen at a Hollywood club created for the war effort.
A previous stab at a movie about Lamarr's inventive side occurred about five years ago. Hughes was also consulted on that attempt. It had the working name of "Face Value" and was to star Rachel Weisz as Hedy Lamarr. But it never went forward, Hughes said.
Alluding to Reframed Pictures (which she also helped found), Dean said the company's goal is “to make films that reframe the conversation - in this case, women in science. Hedy was so much more than a beautiful face.”
Dean added that a key focus of the film will be on the invention itself - “how did this come to pass that someone with a grade school education and a composer with no technical background developed this invention in a movie star's house?”
Westside Pioneer article