More Creatives With Multiple Talents

She is best known as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” but the late silver screen star Hedy Lamarr is remembered in some circles more for the inventive genius she brought to wireless communications, decades before its time.

Lamarr was an immigrant from pre-World War II Austria. She left behind a life that had included a rocky marriage to a wealthy munitions tycoon to pursue a dream of acting in Hollywood. She soon became a screen icon, but Lamarr was a whole-brain thinker whose intellectual curiosity craved more than simply expressing her creativity through acting. A chance dinner party conversation with composer George Antheil–another whole-brain thinker–about the rising power of Nazi Germany and the terror German submarines were posing to Atlantic ship traffic sparked a creative insight in Lamarr that would eventually lead to U.S. Patent Number 2,292,387, a patent on a “secret communications system.”

Silver screen icon Hedy Lamarr (image courtesy of Invent Now)

Lamarr was a seasoned dinner-table listener; that art had helped her gain some understanding of torpedo technology from that tycoon husband of hers, who among other things had sold munitions to Benito Mussolini. Lamarr knew that radio technology could improve torpedo guidance, but she also knew that radio communication can be easily intercepted or interfered with. So she and Antheil sketched out a system in which signals bounce from frequency to frequency in split-second intervals, with only sender and recipient knowing on what frequency to pick up each portion of the message. Outsiders could only obtain or block tiny portions of the overall signal. This breakthrough in communications technology is a precursor to the spread-spectrum radio technology that powers our cell phone conversations and GPS tracking.

Now this patent didn’t lead Lamarr to become a wireless technology titan. To begin with, the patent she shared with Antheil was quickly deemed top secret by a U.S. government now at war with Germany. But she was also too far ahead of her time. It would take decades for transistor technology to advance sufficiently to make practical use of spread-spectrum technology, and by then her patent was part of the public domain. But she has not been forgotten.

On May 21st I will be present when Ms. Lamarr is posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which honors the greatest inventive minds in history and is a partnership of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the innovative nonprofit Invent Now. She is one of fifteen members of the 2014 induction class; you can read all of their stories on the Hall of Fame website, and more about the patent office’s partnership with Invent Now on the agency’s website.

I’ve written before about the power of whole-brain thinking among creatives, most recently how Albert Einstein embraced the violin as a muse. More than three years ago I wrote a post titled “Creatives With Multiple Talents,” about how common it is for creative thinkers to have what creativity expert Douglas Eby and K-12 education specialist Tamara Fisher call “multipotentiality.” That post remains popular on my site to this day, perhaps in part because Eby later cited it in one of his books.

That post focused on creatives having what some would call multiple right-brain talents, in other words different forms of artistic expression. Those determined to view creative thinking as being hemisphere-specific likely would consider the scenario Lamarr sketched out in her patent application a product of her left brain. Readers of this blog know better. The engine that powers our multiple potentials is our entire brain, and the fuel is a combination of curiosity and a resistance to conventional thinking.

There will be many living inductees at the 2014 National Inventors Hall of Fame induction dinner. I know from past experience that the conversations at these events–which feature many past inductees as well–are stimulating, mind-expanding and unforgettable. That’s what happens when you gather a bunch of whole-brain, curious and unconventional thinkers in one room. Perhaps a dinner table conversation will produce a spark like the one Lamarr had at that 1940 Hollywood dinner, and we’ll see a new patent issued in a few years resulting from that conversation. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

Here’s a taste of the National Inventors Hall of Fame in a short video:

29 thoughts on “More Creatives With Multiple Talents

  1. What a great inspirational post Patrick. I dare say your post has stimulated a whole new era of inventive dinners, a great occasion to share and try out creative thinking. Really excited here!B


  2. Wow. Just… wow. That there are such brilliant people out there, with so much talent in so many areas… thank you so much for this post, Patrick. I like the world a little better today because of it.

    I’m in awe – and, if I’m completely honest, just a teeny-weeny bit envious. 🙂 I’ll never be a person like that, even in my wildest dreams (as anyone who’s seen me try to do maths will testify) but I’m darn glad there are so many people out there who are and will be.

    Why doesn’t the media get as excited about the Hedy Lamarrs and the Gary Michelsons and the Gertrude Elions as it seems to about the Katy Perrys and the Jennifer Lawrences and the Brad Pitts? Are we really all so dazzled by the commercial packaging that we don’t even think about what’s inside the box anymore? … And now I’m starting to sound like a grumpy old woman. I should probably eat some chocolate. And watch that video again.


    1. I accepted long ago that my talents don’t lie in invention; I’m quite content to simply hang out with people who do have that talent, and more importantly, apply that talent to learn and create. As to our obsession with celebrity, I’d far rather respect someone accomplishing something like the three you mention–artists all–than these “celebrities” who become famous because of a sex tape or an appearance on reality television. Now I’m sounding like a grumpy old man, but that phenomenon completely eludes me, the idea of being famous simply for being famous.


      1. Oh, the “celebrity” thing. I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s one of my biggest thorns, actually, at least with things of that nature. It’s why I rarely watch TV, and when I do, it’s almost never commercial, and even then, I’ve become so picky! What saddens me most is that, though we “old fogies” don’t “go there,” SO much of the population—young and old—feed it and want to emulate it. *sigh*


  3. Pingback: More Creatives With Multiple Talents | Stan Stewart's Non-Blog

  4. pjreece

    It`s unlikely that the Gary Michelsons of the world are going to out-glitz the Brad Pitts. Such is the way the human organizm is designed, it would appear. But then the most discerning among us have always lived in on our own island of sanity. Perhaps the most we can do is what Patrick has done — from our own platforms speak about true heroics as we see it.


  5. I just love the creative mind, and I agree—-it’s the WHOLE brain that really does the trick—at least if you want to do it well 🙂 Didn’t know this about Lamarr. I have to remember to tell my father. We happen to be a very inventive family, so that adds an extra touch of appreciation, I think! 😀 Thanks for another great post, Patrick 🙂


  6. Thank you for sharing the inspiring story of Hedy Lamarr, I wish the world could be more interested in the path of other whole-brain thinkers as well, because they are the ones who are changing our society. The words “curiosity” and “good listener” caught my attention: I think these are the main attributes of becoming a perceive person, so I’m trying to follow this in my life.
    Your post also makes me think of if there are multiple talents around me and I see that they are often the ones who are doubting and seeing their abilities as a disadvantage, because they don’t know in what to specialize. The art is maybe to find your main field and go deep in that?


    1. On that “listener” point, it’s hard to learn when you’re always talking! 🙂

      You’ve really opened an interesting conversation point on the challenge of finding one’s specialization. I was pleased to hear when I took my teenage son on some college visits to STEM-focused schools recently how the admissions officials kept emphasizing the importance of broad-based learning, noting how too much specialization can actually inhibit one’s ability to make needed connections. Perhaps a better broad understanding up front helps one make a better choice on where to go deep, and also gives that person the ability to pull back and go deep in another field, related or not, later in life.


      1. This is the approach I which high schools embraced—giving kids a taste of a variety of things—out in the REAL world—so they have some direction when picking a college. It would be nice, if the major one chooses is the one he/she begins his/her career with, but it’s often not. I do think that, especially with naturally curious, intellectually-insatiable people, you will naturally branch off into many different things anyway. I do know, though, that when you are capable of doing many things and enjoy them, it’s a struggle to pick “just one” until, whenever it happens you strike upon the one thing that is truly a passion. Still, you cannot stop the flow of creativity—thank God! 😀


  7. I never knew this about Hedy Lamar, although she remains one of my alltime favorites. Very interesting to read about whole brain thinking. That would indeed be a wonderful event to attend. I doubt I would sleep well after so much stimultation! 🙂


  8. Pingback: 5 Creativity Lessons from Hall of Fame Inventors | The Artist's Road

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