Pretty, sexy, and smart

One misstep of modern feminism is that we keep trying to make women choose between being smart and being pretty; we’ve all but stopped acknowledging that someone can be both.hedy1

I’d like to present a new role model for today’s young ladies: Hedy Lamarr. If you’re under 50, you’ve probably never heard of her, but back in her day all of America knew her name.

Hedy was a Hollywood starlet from the mid-30s through the 50s. She starred opposite some of the great actors of the time – Clark Gable, Charles Boyer, Spenser Tracy, Jimmy Stewart. She was also one of the early pin-up girls, and it’s not hard to see why her picture was found everywhere – she was voluptuous, beautiful, and fun.

One of her famous quotes was:

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

hedy3You’ve got to love a girl who can be rich and famous and not take it all too seriously. But you’re probably wondering why any of this makes her a good role model.

Turns out, Hedy had an impressive brain, too.

At a dinner party in 1940, she met a composer, George Anthiel, who was talking about the German submarines. They were so difficult to hit that the Allies were working on radio-controlled torpedoes. But this was inherently flawed, as it proved to be just as easy for the enemy to block the radio signals as it was to send them in the first place.

Hedy had an idea, jotted it down on a cocktail napkin, and shared it with George.

Hedy, not Hedley

The concept was called “Secret Communication System” but is better known today as “frequency hopping.” Both the sender and the receiver would rapidly jump between dozens of random frequencies, thus ensuring their communication couldn’t be intercepted and interfered with.

By 1942, Hedy and George had secured a patent and granted the Navy rights to use it.

hedy-newsThe idea lived far beyond the German subs, though. Thought the military still uses this system for missile guidance, the biggest impact is that her concept is the basis of all wireless technology.

If you’re reading this on a smartphone or over a wi-fi internet connection, it’s all because of Hedy.

So what do you think? Did being beautiful and elegant detract from one of the bright engineering minds of the century?



The Easy Research Paper

notepadFrom 3rd to 7th grade, I was in a special program that, among other things, required us to write several research papers each year. I’ve never minded that sort of work, so at first I threw myself into the task. By 7th grade, though, the one thing I had truly learned was this: small town libraries are the enemy of research.

This was pre-internet, of course, when you had to look everything up on index cards and then go on a scavenger hunt to find the book you wanted amongst scattershot approaches to Dewey’s system. My little library seemed to be 70% fiction, 20% periodicals (kids, that’s shorthand for 20-year old magazines that nobody ever wanted to read but were not allowed to be thrown away because some poor schmoe had meticulously indexed them and didn’t want to waste his work), and 10% non-fiction. So it was a great place to find paperback novels, but if you were there looking up a topic you’d better hope it was covered in the encyclopedias.

So back to my research class … for my final year, the teacher told us to pick a historical figure to write about, someone who interested us. She spent a long time giving examples, but all I heard was, “someone easy to find.” We had two weeks to pick our topic, but I went with the first person who came to mind, someone who would be well documented in both books and old magazines. I was set.

The project went as smoothly as I’d hoped and I’d finished mine ages before the due date. I spent most of those classes reading Cracked magazine while the other poor suckers desperately looked for anything written about Clara Barton’s youth.

Then came the twist. Our class, being extra-curricular, was in danger of losing funding, so they decided to put us on display for the school board. They decided to do a “People Fair” in the evening – attendance was mandatory – so we could present our research directly to the adults who would be deciding whether to continue the program.

Be Excellent, Ted

That would have been fine, but … Rather than having 30 kids drone on reading paper after paper (which only Bill and Ted could make cool), they got the idea of having us each dress up as our topic and spend the night answering questions in character.

I have no idea what anyone else’s reaction might have been to this; I was too busy staring at my desk thinking, “Oh no oh no oh no oh no.”

Amazingly, I was the only person in all the schools (this program spanned three districts) who had picked someone of the opposite gender, making me the only cross-dresser. I was not then the confident, easy-going chick I am today!

I wanted to fake a bout of small pox, but my mom convinced me it would be fun. She pulled together an outfit that even I had to admit was pretty impressive. And as a bonus, it was such a good disguise that if I kept my mouth shut people might not even recognize me.

Alas, they changed the game once again.

At the very last minute, someone changed the name from “People Fair” to “Heroes Fair.”  This is an important distinction. No one had ever said we had to like the person, only that we needed to learn about him. They’d certainly never implied that we needed to idolize anybody.

So on the morning of the event, they put up posters around every school and notices in all the local papers inviting parents, teachers, and random townsfolk to meet the Heroes at the fair.

And that, dear friends, is how I ended up at the one and only Inter-School Heroes Fair dressed like this:

Cross-dressing as Hitler
Cross-dressing as Hitler

There’s a lesson in there somewhere about not taking the easy path, but it kind of gets lost behind the swastika.

Leap Months

Tonight we’re getting a leap second, though nobody will much notice it. Leap days are boring. But once upon a time there was a leap month …

hl-roman-calendarEngland clung to the Julian calendar until 1752, when George II finally realized it made no sense to be on a completely different time scheme than all its neighbors and trading partners (pay attention, Indiana!). Naturally they and all their colonies (including America) switched to the Gregorian calendar. But the way they did it was just short of mesmerizing.

No friend to Virgos, England decided to chop two weeks out of September to catch up to the rest of the world. So their calendar that year jumped right from September 1st to September 14th. I imagine that was a nasty shock to the tenants whose monthly rent was suddenly due two weeks after it had just been paid.

It’s just a jump to the left …

The idea of an entire country (one that spanned the globe, no less) doing this time warp together gives me a warm glow.

It gets weirder, though, because in the Julian calendar the year did not change on January 1st. No, they counted the new year as starting from the first day of spring, so the year changed on March 25th. How crazy is that?

So the day after March 24, 1751 was March 25, 1752. This makes my head hurt.

As part of the law that created the Leap Month, however, they also decided to change years like everyone else, on January 1st. This means that not only were the dates 9/2/1752 – 9/13/1752 excised from the calendar, the dates of 1/1/1752 to 3/24/1752 never existed! By the time England got to the January that they would have called 1572, they were lock-step with the (frankly, less mind-twisting) new calendar that called it 1753.

The reason all this is so amusing to me stems from a story one of my professors told about researching his doctoral paper. He had gone to London to personally sift through old letters and diaries from this time and wasted weeks trying to figure out why the post office hadn’t delivered a single letter in the month that he thought was critical to his research. It wasn’t until he returned, dejected, that his mentor explained the time switch. Thirty years later, he was still bitter about the mysteries of the Julian calendar.

betsy_rossFortunately, historians have always done the crazy math for us so we never had to learn all this in history classes. But now when you read that Betsy Ross was born on January 1st, 1752, you’ll know that’s a convenient lie.

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