Hedy Lamarr: inventor?
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This is Hedy Lamarr.
This is Thomas Edison.
What do they have in common?
THEY WERE BOTH INVENTORS!
History popularizer Richard Rhodes devoted a book to exploring Hedy’s most renowned excursion into what we normally think of as Edison’s bailiwick. It’s called Hedy’s Folly. The author makes no attempt at objectivity but portrays his subject exactly as she would have wanted to be portrayed. Following a lead established by other writers, he sets out to convince us that “Hedy in Vienna, George [Antheil] in Paris and then the two of them meeting up in Hollywood to invent a fundamental new wireless technology makes a remarkable story …” Now neither Hedy nor her collaborator had had any training in wireless technology nor even in science, yet the breakthrough attributed to them – which goes under the name “frequency hopping spread spectrum” – is currently used in military and radio control applications and in consumer products that go under the name “bluetooth”; and its purview is sometimes extended by Hedy’s fans to encompass the entire realm of cell phones and WiFi.
So, take that, Edison!
From the looks of your fellow inventor, you didn’t need to expend all that perspiration after all.
On the other hand…
if you’ve been led to conclude as I have that the judgment of history is always wrong, you’ll be inclined to take a step back, ask who Hedy Lamarr was, what she knew, and what exactly she did contribute to the development of wireless technology.
She was born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna in 1914 and left school at the age of 16 to follow a career in acting, landing small parts on the stage before going to Berlin to become involved in films. She muddled along with modest success until she attained instant fame by appearing naked in some of the scenes of a 1933 Czech film called Ecstasy.
The manner by which she achieved her renown – which her parents learned of only after the movie came out – would cling to Hedy and color people’s perception of her for the rest of her life. It was of course her attractiveness that led to her being invited to do nude scenes, and that same quality naturally drew the interest of the men she encountered. One of them was an Austrian industrialist and munitions manufacturer named Friedrich Mandl who persuaded her to marry him later in the same year that Ecstasy was released – also, by the way, the year in which Hitler came to power in Germany. After the marriage Mandl tried in vain to buy up all the copies of Ecstasy in order to have them destroyed. Hedy meanwhile found herself in charge of a household frequented by some of Austria’s richest and most influential men. It was a situation that would have delighted most women of ambition, of which Hedy was certainly one, but in this as in many other matters she proved to be quite different from most women. In fact she developed a distaste for her husband and the life into which he’d led her, resulting in a divorce after four years of marriage. Even before it took effect though, Hedy was off to Paris and then to London where she encountered U.S. film mogul Louis B. Mayer. He knew of her from her appearance in Ecstasy and invited the strikingly beautiful 22 year old to come to Hollywood. She arrived in October of 1937 and was awarded a boffo part in the movie, Algiers, with Charles Boyer. Over the course of the next dozen years she appeared in 19 films opposite such major stars as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, Robert Taylor and Jimmy Stewart,
Hedy capped her movie career in 1949 with her most commercially successful role, playing Delilah to Victor Mature’s Samson in Demille’s version of the biblical epic. But whatever positive qualities Hedy had were undermined by her penchant for making bad decisions. In her personal life this led to a string of sexual adventures and failed marriages; in her professional life to an attempt to transcend the crowd-pleasing popularity she’d achieved with her natural attractiveness by exercising greater control over the movies she became involved in. As things turned out, her success as Delilah was followed by a series of box office disappointments that gradually undid the degree of stardom she’d attained; and in contrast with actresses who managed to bounce back from temporary lulls, Hedy was never able to regain her former prominence. Few interesting roles came her way after 1951, and by the time her sixth and last marriage ended in 1965 her career had been in the doldrums for a long time.
She made headlines the following year by being arrested for shoplifting. The charge was dropped, but with the help of a couple of ghost writers she capitalized on her time in the spotlight by turning out an autobiography called Ecstasy and Me. In it she came across as self-absorbed, self-indulgent and sex-obsessed, and although she’d approved the contents of the book before it was released, she turned around afterward and disavowed everything in it, suing her publisher in the process. In fact she did relate many of its incidents quite differently on other occasions. In 1991 she was again charged with shoplifting and again let go. She lived out her life in relative seclusion, succumbing to heart disease at her home near Orlando, Florida in 2000 at the age of 85. Her later years bring to mind the travails of some other female stars of her era: Betty Hutton, for example, Veronica Lake and Rita Hayworth.
Enigmatic as Hedy was, one of the most intriguing things about her was that during the period of her maximum allure, she devoted a lot of her spare time to inventing things. A scientific lightweight she may have been, but the ideas she came up with depended on curiosity and imagination rather than technical competence. At one time or another she delved into such diverse realms as reconstituting soda pop from a pellet (a la Alka Seltzer), better designs for traffic signals and tissue boxes, and methods for tightening the skin. The idea for which she was awarded a patent, however, and whose subsequent revelation led to a curious renewal of fame in the 1990’s, lay in a field for which people of her background seem particularly ill suited. It was to making the weapons of war more deadly that Hedy and her musically inclined collaborator set their hands at the end of 1940.
Hedy had been in Hollywood for three years. Although the United States stayed on the sidelines when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Hedy’s emotions became engaged with the plight of the Allies and especially the vulnerability of their ships to German U-boats. Given the fact that torpedoes were the primary means by which the Germans were sinking Allied ships, it’s curious that Hedy sought to improve the effectiveness of those devices rather than of measures designed to counteract them.
From 1933 to 1937 Hedy had been married to a munitions manufacturer, so she’d had contact with people familiar with military matters in general and submarine warfare in particular. She later recalled a conversation she’d had in 1936 with a German engineer involved in designing torpedoes that could be steered remotely after launch. Since torpedoes run under water, radio wasn’t a suitable means of guidance; a wire that unreeled from them during transit was the method most commonly employed. Glide bombs were a form of torpedo dropped from airplanes. They’d been introduced by Germany in World War I, and since they traveled through air they could be and were adapted to radio control during World War II. In seeking a patent, Hedy constructed a scenario in which torpedoes were launched from a ship and directed to their targets by a shipboard controller who could turn the torpedo’s rudder left or right with radio signals. Since radio didn’t propagate through water we’re led to wonder if Hedy intended the torpedoes to stay on the surface. Whatever she had in mind, the patent application made it clear that the recommended measures could be used to enhance the security of any device controllable by radio, whether on land, sea or in the air.
The deficiency of radio for wartime purposes to which Hedy addressed her attention was its vulnerability to interception and jamming. The solution she came up with was to vary the transmitted frequency in a pattern that would be unpredictable to an enemy. A commercially available radio of the time may have suggested the idea by allowing any of eight preset frequencies to be selected or changed from a dial on a remote control device.
The use of radio to guide devices from a distance had been invented and explored by others, so Hedy couldn’t hope to patent that part of her plan, but for any application in which radio control was appropriate, varying the frequencies in the way she described would make interception difficult or impossible. Therefore when she submitted a request to the patent office it was under the title, “Secret Communication System”. You can’t patent an electric light by noting that sending electricity through a wire will make it glow; and you can’t patent a secret communications system by noting that varying the frequency it uses will prevent jamming. You have to provide an application of your idea that’s capable of accomplishing a purpose you describe. That’s what Hedy set out to do by showing how her anti-jamming strategy could be used to make the remote control of torpedoes more secure. One of the things her idea relied on was that the sending and receiving radios always had to be tuned to the same frequency. A method for achieving that coordination was supplied by a man Hedy met almost by chance and who came to be listed as her collaborator.
His name was George Antheil (ANT-hile) and he was a composer.
Fourteen years Hedy’s senior, he’d been born in the United States, but his immigrant parents had raised him to speak German as well as he spoke English. He spent his childhood immersed in music to the virtual exclusion of other subjects, and by the age of 22 he’d become sufficiently accomplished as a pianist and composer to set his sights on joining the avant garde in Paris. He succeeded to the extent that he soon found himself among such cutting edge composers as Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud and Auric. It was a time when outrageousness could be made to substitute for musicality in getting the public’s attention. George was invited to play some of his more outré piano pieces at the opening of the Swedish Ballet in Paris in 1923. One of the concert’s backers arranged for George’s performance to trigger a riot of the sort that had brought fame to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ten years earlier. George hadn’t been informed of what was going to happen, but he was unfazed by the furor he caused and even amused by it. And why not? Three years later he was able to capitalize on what he’d gone through to achieve the peak of his fame by staging a performance of his own Ballet Mecanique.
George’s score called for a variety of noise makers – saws, hammers, bells, and airplane propellers – along with conventional instruments and 16 synchronized player pianos. As things turned out, he was forced to cut the number of pianos to eight and have them played conventionally; but that proved adequate for his purposes. At its premiere in Paris Ballet Mecanique created a stir of just the sort George had hoped for, although it did fall short when he tried it again in New York. In researching the orchestration he’d intended to use, George spent a lot of time at the Pleyel piano factory learning about player pianos and how they worked – knowledge he was subsequently able to draw on in designing a device to implement a new approach to musical notation he’d come up with, in which a moving scroll guided a pianist’s fingers to the appropriate keys. He called the invention SEE-note and attempted to have it patented, but his efforts came to nothing.
George continued to knock about Europe for another half dozen years before moving back to the United States during the depths of the Depression. Outrageousness no longer offered a route to fame, and George’s musical innovations drew little interest. When an opera he’d labored over flopped at Julliard, he lapsed into a period of inactivity. His need for income eventually drove him to look for work in Hollywood. He arrived in 1936 and over a period of years was able establish himself as a writer of movie music – conventional by his earlier standards but suited to its purpose. By the time he met Hedy in August of 1940, he’d completed scores for the Demille films, The Plainsman and The Buccaneer. In spite of those successes, demands for his talents remained sparse.
Hedy and George were introduced at the home of a mutual friend. They found they had a lot in common. Like George, Hedy was an accomplished pianist, familiar with life in Europe and in Paris in particular. She spoke German and English, had a strong sympathy for England in its struggle against Germany, and was possessed of a curiosity that was wide-ranging but unschooled. It also happened to be the case that although George was married, he never passed up an opportunity to be around attractive women. From the similarity of their interests and perhaps for reasons more personal, Hedy and George wound up spending a lot of time together; and the concern they shared about the war in Europe led them to devote some of that time to exploring Hedy’s ideas for weapons improvements.
George’s attempts to get SEE-note patented had given him experience that proved relevant. His technical background was slight, but if there was one thing he knew something about, it was how a player piano worked. What it did was convert perforations cut in a paper scroll into the notes the piano played. The scroll was wide enough to accommodate 88 positions across, one for each of the piano’s keys. As the scroll was pulled over a horizontal bar with 88 openings, a vacuum in the bar allowed each perforation to be sensed by the flow of air it induced when it lined up with an opening. That flow was used to trigger a hammer into striking the key corresponding to the perforation’s position. If a player piano could be made to translate perforations into audio frequencies, a similar machine could surely be designed to translate perforations into radio frequencies. In the former a flow of air would cause a hammer to strike a particular key, in the latter it would cause a switch to enable a particular condenser.
In preparing to stage his Ballet Mecanique George had not only learned how a player piano worked but how to synchronize one piano with another. If each was equipped with an identically perforated roll that was put in motion at the same moment and kept moving by motors of the same speed, the two pianos would continue to play the same notes at the same time. While a piano roll had to accommodate 88 different notes, a secret communication system didn’t need anywhere near that number of frequencies. The example described in Hedy’s plan was limited to four frequencies for actually conveying information to the torpedo and three others to confuse a potential interceptor. What was needed then, was a paper ribbon wide enough to accommodate seven perforations – more like a teletype tape than a piano roll. One ribbon would control the frequency of the sending radio while an identically punched one would control that of the receiver. If both were set in motion by the launching of the torpedo, and they were advanced by motors of the same speed, the frequencies of sending and receiving radios would remain in sync. It all sounded plausible, but George never invested the effort it would take to build a prototype and put his design to a test.
There were additional details to be taken care of. A patent agent employed by the inventors located an electrical engineer to provide broad-brush schematics of the sending and receiving radios, with a separate condenser shown for each of the transmitter’s seven frequencies and each of the receiver’s four. The legal firm of Lyon and Lyon supplied patent attorneys to get the application into the proper form and make sure it presented each of its claims with the right level of detail. The proposal was submitted to the U.S. patent office on June 10, 1941 at the same time it was making its way to the War Department under the auspices of the National Inventor’s Council – with a push from some of George and Hedy’s high-placed friends. It wasn’t until early 1942, two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, that the inventors heard anything back. The Navy had taken a look at their plan but rejected it. Hardly surprising under the circumstances. With the nation suddenly finding itself at war, investigating novel weapons designs wouldn’t have been high on the War Department’s list of priorities. Plus which the Navy didn’t use radio controlled torpedoes or have any plans for developing them, and the improvements known to be needed for their torpedoes were of an entirely different nature.
And, let’s face it, George’s contribution was a liability rather than an asset. The vacuum-based sensors used in player pianos were adequate for a bulky item that stood on the floor of a living room, but they’d been developed in the course of the preceding century in which electricity wasn’t available in the home, so they relied on foot pedals for the required power and currents of air rather than electricity to transfer forces. When multiple frequency radio was being expanded by other developers later on, the few who’d been made aware of George’s scheme were never tempted to use it.
Nevertheless there was some good news for the inventors. Six months after the Navy turned their proposal down, it was assigned patent number 2,292,387. Relying on different criteria from those of military evaluators, the people at the patent office concluded that the concept was original enough to get their blessing and the proposed application plausible enough. And that was all they insisted on. The award provided Hedy and George intellectual vindication, but no material rewards. Their proposal continued to lie in the Navy’s files, unused by the one customer at whom it had been aimed. The patent expired in 1959, the year that George died of a heart attack and long after Hedy had gone on to other things.
That then was the sum total of Hedy Lamarr’s contribution to wireless technology: she applied for and was given a patent for a method of protecting radio transmissions against jamming and interception by varying the frequencies-used in a manner that was unpredictable by an enemy. The purpose to which she put her idea presumed its applicability to the control of torpedoes by radio and rested on a method of synchronization that would have been clumsy in practice but probably could have been made to work. The device was never actually built, so its design was never tested. Later developers of multiple frequency systems were generally not aware of Hedy’s patent and none of them were guided or inspired by it.
Under the same incentive of improving wartime security that had motivated Hedy’s efforts, military engineers were pushing radio technology hard during the early 1940’s, and they continued to do so after the war was over. A set of techniques they worked on was later grouped under the title, “spread spectrum.” What these communications methods had in common was a reliance on a greater range of frequencies than was needed for the information they transmitted. The advantage they gained was increased protection against noise, jamming and interception.
Spread spectrum was initially confined to the military applications for which it was developed, but in the 1980’s the Federal Communications Commission authorized civilian use, and developers were quick to capitalize on an ability it provided of allowing multiple users to share a common frequency band without interfering with each other, yielding a dramatic expansion of capacity that led to such now-familiar applications as GPS, cell phones and WiFi.
The two most common forms of spread spectrum are called “direct sequence” and “frequency hopping”. A direct sequence transmitter imposes pseudo-random noise on the signals it sends out. This has the effect of expanding the range of frequencies-used and flattening the graph of their spectrum, obscuring the existence of a signal and making its interception and jamming more difficult by those who recognize its presence. The superimposed noise appears random to a potential interceptor, but it’s called pseudo-random because it can be reproduced by anyone who knows the algorithm that was used to create it. In particular, a receiver can be equipped with that algorithm in order to allow it to generate the same noise pattern and subtract it from the received signal to restore the original. Frequency hopping is similar in that it also relies on a pseudo-random generator, but rather than imposing the output as noise, the transmitter uses it to select from a variety of allowed frequencies. A receiver equipped with the same algorithm can use it to change frequencies in synchrony with those being sent.
What Hedy and George proposed is an instance of frequency hopping in which the pseudo-random sequence is punched on paper tapes rather than being incorporated into the electronics. While the underlying idea is the same, the method of implementation does make a difference. Paper ribbons and vacuum-based sensors are prone to mechanical errors and breakdowns. They aren’t capable of changing frequencies as rapidly as electronic methods nor of incorporating the same kinds of error checking and correcting schemes.
Varying transmission frequencies to inhibit jamming is a concept general enough that it can’t be attributed to a single inventor. At its most basic it’s what radio operators do manually from time to time to keep the other side guessing. Starting in 1903 with various patents and publications, Nikola Tesla and others explored the concept in the United States and elsewhere, Germany in particular; and the German army employed a version against the British in World War I. That these developments preceded Hedy’s involvement needn’t detract from her claim to originality. Given the limited knowledge she had of technical developments and the improbability that she executed a thorough patent search, it’s likely she came up with the idea on her own.
For those with enough interest in the subject and understanding of its terms, there is a scholarly article that recounts the history of spread spectrum technology, including frequency hopping, written in 1982 by electrical engineer Robert A. Scholtz. It’s called:
“The Origins of Spread-Spectrum Communications”, IEEE Transactions on Communications, Vol. COM-30, No. 5, May 1982, p. 822
The article doesn’t mention Hedy and George, which merely reflects the fact that their patent played no part in the development of frequency hopping or wireless technology since it lay unknown and unused until it was unearthed by later investigators whose advances had already passed it by. That the concept Hedy latched onto was a good one, is attested to by the degree to which it was exploited by others before and after Hedy’s interest. It also emphasizes the fact that there’s more to inventing than having a good idea or recognizing one. The Army Signal Corps became involved in developing secure radio systems starting in the early 1940’s. Their engineers did achieve successes that were kept classified and therefore unknown to the outside world until the 1980’s; but in spite of their investigations of spread spectrum technology and those of others, Robert Scholtz concludes in the paper cited above: “In 1963 BLADES [a communications system developed by Sylvania for the Navy] was installed on the command flagship Mt. McKinley for operational development tests. … intentional jamming was encountered, and BLADES provided the only useful communication link for the McKinley. Thus, BLADES was quite likely the earliest FH-SS [frequency hopping spread spectrum] communications system to reach an operational state.” (Underlining added.)
Although Hedy’s patent was never acted on, its existence did become known as a result of patent searches initiated by later investigators, the earliest remembered being in 1955 by an engineer who’d intended to use frequency hopping in a design he’d been working on, only to have it superseded by a cabled system. But later researchers of spread spectrum were as surprised as he’d been to find among papers and patents elicited from Bell Labs and Sylvania, the U.S. Army and the Navy, Telefunken and Siemens, and dozens of other centers of electronics research, a patent issued in 1941 to a pair of unaffiliated individuals for a “Secret Communications System” that relied on player piano technology to synchronize changes of frequency between a pair of communicating radios. If the names on the patent had been Helen Kugler Murray, let’s say, and Greg Atley, nobody would have given it a thought, and we would have heard no more about it, but as it turned out they were Hedy Kiesler Markey and George Antheil, and it took only a little effort of memory to recall that Markey was one of the married names of Hedy Lamarr – film star and glamour queen of a bygone era, who’d gone through some tough sledding in the meantime and was living by herself now, with her attempted contribution to the war effort and communications technology of her day having long been forgotten.
Who could let an opportunity like that get away, to introduce some zest into the life of an individual with a past as intriguing as Hedy’s had been? Certainly not Colonel Dave Hughes, veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, pioneer in the spread of the internet and wireless communications to rural areas. Born in 1928, Dave had been 9 years old when Hedy arrived in Hollywood and 21 when she’d turned her wiles on an overmatched Samson. Once Dave became aware of the actress’s forays into inventing and the kind of life she was currently living, the thing he set about doing was as good as done. It took three years, but through his efforts and those of the people he enlisted online he saw to it that the recipient of an award he’d been given by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for 1993 was bestowed on Hedy for 1997. It included a posthumous acknowledgement of George’s part as well. So there it was, attested to by a reputable scientific organization – the unarguable importance of Hedy’s contribution to wireless technology.
“In the bleak early days of World War II ensconced in her mansion outside of Hollywood, the World’s Most Beautiful Woman inveigled the Bad Boy of Music into helping her come up with a way to give the Nazis back some of their own. And all that these two unlikely individuals wound up doing was to invent frequency hopping – the crucial first step in the development of spread spectrum technology that’s led through various modes of multiple access to GPS, cell phones, WiFi and all the other wireless services we rely on so heavily today.”
Wait a minute! You can’t put that down. Anybody that knows anything about Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil will realize how phony it is. Not only did Hedy and George not invent frequency hopping, it wasn’t until years after their proposal got shelved by the Navy that anybody found out that the two of them had been given a patent for something that later came to be known under that heading; but none of the people who succeeded in putting frequency hopping and the technologies that followed it to practical use, drew on anything Hedy and George had done.
You’re missing the point. This is the way everybody wishes it had been, the way it should have been, the way it will have been … once the book comes out.
Are you telling me that’s how history gets written?
Of course it is. You mean you didn’t know?