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A Toast to Hedy Lamarr

The friends and subscribers of Nature’s Heart are (not surprisingly) nature lovers. Whereas the main interest is our avian natural heritage we love everything to do with the South African “bush”. We do a great deal of “observing”, and we come to interesting conclusions and lessons – some probably misdirected, but very personal. Personally, I love to consider the incredible design and optimisation of created life, and I love stories that are related to this facet. Recently, I wrote a blog referring to kingfisher beak design being used as a model for train aerodynamics.

Here I relate a super story from the golden age of cinema, and a celebrated glamour queen.

Yes, I confess to enjoying the cinema. It is therefore perhaps surprising that my favourite (current) actress is Anna Faris, who is usually not taken too seriously. She makes me laugh.

Yet the actress that still gets my greatest “off-cinema” attention is one Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. She was at her acting peak during the 1940s.

Yet again I must confess – my affection is not for her acting prowess, which in todays language was a little inhibited (stodgy?), although not in the sexual sense; she was after all the first actress to simulate an orgasm on the silver screen! Neither was it her legendary beauty, where many regarded her as the “most beautiful woman in the world” (which could not have been too shabby considering she was competing in the era of Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman). She lived in a manner that was larger than life, having affairs with men like JF Kennedy and Howard Hughes besides marrying (and divorcing) six times, and although she led the glittering lifestyle of a celebrity millionaress, she was arrested for shoplifting small value items. All this gave rise to memorable witticisms and quotes that live on today. (One has to make special note of her fifth divorce where she had the temerity to send a body double to the court hearing).

Yet she has a special appeal to me because she is the inventor of spread spectrum technology, so critical to communication in a bandwidth limited world (and more so to the military in the presence of hostile ECM). This I had known from my university days. What I was unaware of was the many other ideas and inventions that she spun out. These became most effective when Howard Hughes gave her access to a laboratory. Her inventions among other included a new soda drink, and a new aircraft wing design for higher speed flight (critical in the 1940s, remember the first operating jet fighter squadron only entered service in 1944, yet the sound barrier was broken in 1947). It is this latter invention that intreagued me most.

In the first place, Hedy always seemed to identify particular very significant problems and resulting needs. She knew that wing design was essential to the military effort, and probably encountered discussion on the subject during her liaison with Howard Hughes. But equally, her solutions were completely out-of-the-box thinking. Hedy turned to nature for an answer. She decided to study birds and fish, and noticed the difference in body, wing and fin design depending upon the animal characteristic speed.

Her concept integrated the wing and fin design impressions from the fastest of the animals to arrive at a very advanced wing design that could be considered a swept wing approach. It would take the allies years to realise the advantage of the design, and they really only implemented it after captured German aircraft prototypes and captured engineers were interogated/analysed. Howard Hughes surveyed Hedy’s design and proclaimed her a genius.

All the same the military would never use anything that they did not originate. In fact her spread spectrum torpedo guidance design concept was never used when needed in WW2, and first saw service with the US Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Eventually, late in life Hedy Lamarr was recognised through the Invention Convention's BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award in 1997. Then she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

This story makes me wonder if we gloss over our many “bush” experiences, and are not fully submersed in the action taking place around us. We can learn and apply so much by good observation. In December, we visited the Kruger National Park. As always the cars buzzed around looking for lions and leopards. We were alone in stopping and observing a young bateleur devouring a recently killed young impala lamb. It was mesmerising, and honestly posed more questions than we could answer. My personal view is shared by no-one! I believe the bateleur killed the impala (despite the presence of a tawny eagle offering a different viewpoint). I took the Hedy Lamarr approach and had a good look at those talons to formulate that opinion! I know Hedy Lamarr would also have enjoyed the wing design…

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