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    Celebrity patents


    The thing about celebrities is, they love to celebrate. Themselves.

    When you consider that possession of a particular talent, however tenuous, can deliver fame and fortune on the magnitude experienced by Brittney Spears or Dr Phil, it’s easy to see why so many of the special ones who walk among us genuinely believe that they are direct descendants of King Midas.

    In December 2006, Google launched a Patent Search service that enables users to trawl through more than seven million US patents issued from 1790 to mid-2006. This got professional US photographer and recreational blogger David Friedman wondering how many patent authors were actually far more famous for other exploits. The answer, of course, is “plenty”.

    In a January 2007 post on his blog, Ironic Sans, Friedman pointed to 20 official US patents granted to celebrities of at least moderate renown.

    Some make eminent sense, such as Eddie Van Halen’s guitar-support contraption, Mark Twain’s “improvement in scrap-books”, Walt Disney’s animation-filming innovation, George Lucas’s toy Yoda design and even Harry Houdini’s diver’s suit.

    However, one can only imagine that Marlon Brando spent a little too much time in that cave filming Apocalypse Now for him to become so horrified at the inadequacy of existing drumhead tensioning devices that he devised and patented his own.

    Michael Jackson undoubtedly conceived his “method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion” as an on-stage spectacle, but it probably came in handy more recently as a method and means of avoiding court summonses.

    And ventriloquist Paul Winchell must have harboured a perverse desire to breathe extra life into his dolls for him to actually design and patent his own interpretation of an artificial heart.

    But one celebrity patent stands out from all the rest. Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-born silver-screen siren of Hollywood’s golden era, was considered by many to be the most beautiful woman of her time. She also attracted notoriety for being the first woman to appear nude in a mainstream feature film, Ecstasy (1933). While Hedy (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) certainly knew how to deploy her natural beauty to her advantage, she was also blessed with a first-rate analytical brain.

    In 1942, Lamarr and avant-garde composer George Antheil were granted a US patent for their “secret communications system”. It was designed to enable frequency changes in the radio control of military weapons (to avoid detection). However, the concept was well ahead of the technology of the day and was not used by the US military until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 – long after the original patent had expired.

    Lamarr’s “secret communications system” was the ancestor of “divided spectrum transmission” now used by mobile phones and wireless internet. During the Second World War, when Lamarr volunteered to move to Washington and work on her invention with the National Inventors Council, the US army told her she would be more valuable using her movie-star fame to help raise funds for the war effort. Lamarr acquiesced, selling kisses at events to those who underwrote war bonds worth US$25,000 or more. Apparently, she helped raise US$7 million in just one evening.

    Oh Hedy! We hardly knew ye.