- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

The late Hedy Lamarr, the raven-haired actress of yesteryear Hollywood fame, was more than just a film star. Her millions of fans never knew it, but she also was an inventor credited with helping develop a device intended to keep the enemy from jamming radio-controlled weapons in World War II.
Born Eva Kiesler in Austria, the anti-Nazi actress, who became an American citizen, received a patent along with composer George Antheil in 1942 for the device based on a concept still used in different form today.
The very concept of women as inventors holding patents in their own names is little publicized today compared to the amount of ink and airtime given to female entertainers.
If and when such women receive recognition, at least some of the credit will go to the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, part of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Its mission is to promote and encourage American inventors and the inventive spirit in every guise.
"As a cultural product, inventions reflect society," notes center Director Arthur Molella. "It's dangerous to confine inventions just to widgets. We have a technological core and range outward."
The Lemelson Center's range is broad enough to extend to such prosaic but intriguing subjects as an exhibit on the bicycle in all its forms and another, called "Invention at Play," opening in July, that will explore the similarities between the way children play and the creative processes of innovators in science and technology.
To this end, the center's 15-member staff works especially hard to include in its educational efforts groups, such as women and minorities, traditionally neglected in scientific fields a mandate determined initially by center founders.
Funding for the center, housed on the museum's first floor next to the Hands-on Science Center, came from the Nevada-based Lemelson Foundation almost serendipitously in 1995 following an encounter with Mr. Molella, then a museum historian and curator of science. The late Jerome Lemelson was an inventor with more than 500 patents in his name who was supported for years by his wife Dorothy, an interior decorator who lives in Oregon. The two philanthropists gave $40 million to start an endowment and pay for activities and programs that are national in scope and frequently directed toward women and minorities.
"His view of philanthrophy was on a broad scale," says Mrs. Lemelson, talking by telephone from her home in Oregon about her husband's motivation for the center and the foundation that supports it. "He wanted to make people feel the country was not gaining strength in every way and that invention was something that will propel you constantly into the next era and beyond. My focus really was on individuals." Both believed strongly in the value of education at a young age.
The location in the National Museum of American History made sense, given the institution's overarching mission to promote and protect this country's heritage in the areas of science, technology, sociology and culture. (Before a name change in 1980, its official title was the National Museum of History and Technology.)

Miss Lamarr may never have visited the place she died in Florida two years ago at age 87 but her memory and contribution to science are preserved in materials collected by center historian Joyce Bedi that seem especially poignant in view of celebrations this month of Women's History Month.
A section on the center's Web site (www.si.edu/lemelson), "Exploring the History of Women Inventors," written by Ms. Bedi, states that the history of female inventors in America "is as long as that of their male counterparts." It began with an early patent granted by English courts in 1715 to Sybilla Masters, thought to be the first woman inventor in the Colonies, for a method of making cornmeal from maize. Following the custom of the time and for many decades, if not centuries, thereafter, the patent was given in her husband's name.
By 1910, largely because of women's secondary position in society, Ms. Bedi writes, they were responsible for less than1 percent of all patents, doubtless a legacy of the 19th century, when legal rights for married women were virtually nonexistent.
As that situation gradually changed, so did the number of successful female inventors. By 1900, 75 percent of patents issued to women were profitable. A university-educated woman named Beulah Henry was so prolific that she was known as "the Lady Edison." Among 49 patents she accumulated between 1912 and 1970 were ones for an ice-cream freezer, a handbag and a parasol with changeable snap-on covers to match wardrobe changes.
Miss Lamarr's idea, Ms. Bedi explains, first surfaced in suggestions to her first husband, an Austrian munitions dealer (she eventually married and divorced six times) about the design of a radio-controlled torpedo. It was an idea that she revived later in conjunction with George Antheil's experiments in electronic music using synchronized player pianos.
Miss Lamarr mentioned "frequency hopping" as a way of outwitting torpedo-jamming devices. The design she and Antheil proposed had a transmitter using slotted-paper rolls such as those used on a player piano to send out changing frequencies in a pattern of signals that could be recognized only by a receiver mounted on the torpedo. The system wasn't used immediately, Ms. Bedi writes, but when the patent expired, the military adopted the idea for the anti-jamming technology used today.
Present-day female inventors featured in a video at the center called "She's Got It" have produced such devices as a battery-operated cooling system for the interior of orthopedic casts, a water bike that incorporates a physical-therapy feature, the Snugli device for holding a baby close to a parent's chest and a method for growing "environmentally friendly" cotton.

A recent event, March Madness for the Mind, which took place all over the museum's first floor, is an example of the center's hands-on encouragement of the creative spirit among young people, America's potential future engineers and inventors. In conjunction with the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), another Lemelson Foundation project, the center displayed inventions by 19 student teams from around the country.
On show were a credit-card-size automatic epinephrine-injecting system for people with serious allergies who often need immediate treatment away from home; a home heating system said to reduce electric power consumption by 50 percent; a watch that measures amounts of sun exposure; and a simple transmitter and receiver system able at the push of a button to locate up to five easily misplaced household objects.
Kristin Komorowski, 23, and Lia Sutton, 18, students at Massachusetts' Hampshire College who met in an industrial design class that is part of a Lemelson Assistive Technology Development Center on campus, worked together to create two devices of use to sports-minded people with special needs. One, called a SportPort, is an "assistive gear transporter" that enables skiers with minimal or no use of their legs to more easily tote a monoski on an adjustable wheelchair attachment. A second invention enables people with lower-limb disabilities to more easily control a mountain board (a kind of modified snowboard with wheels) on treacherous snow slopes.
"I learned that after this I can do anything," said the smiling Miss Komorowski, an information design major from Cleveland. "You learn that [for a woman] so many things can stop you, that it takes determination. You just push on."
"It's a very creative process," volunteered Miss Sutton, of Queens, N.Y.words guaranteed to cheer the Lemelson Center staff and anyone involved with the foundation's outreach programs geared to attracting young people most of all.
"Inventions tend to be a man's game," Mr. Molella concedes. "Simply the circumstances of life have made it difficult for women." When young visitors to the museum are presented with the possibilities open to women in the profession, he says "the girls' eyes light up."
The center doesn't only concentrate on present-day ventures. Inventor archives, which are part of the museum's greater holdings, contain the papers of Earl Tupper of Tupperware fame and the records of the Western Union company among other gems of American historical lore. It's not unusual, either, for hopeful inventors to knock on the center's door asking for help and, from there, be directed to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.


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