Epiphanyblog

All about ideas…

She Really Was Unique

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Hedy Lamarr, an Inventor well ahead of her time...and too little known or appreciated for her stunning contribution to technology and science“Any girl can be glamorous,” Hedy Lamarr once said. “All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”

The film star belied her own apothegm by hiding a brilliant, inventive mind beneath her photogenic exterior. In 1942, at the height of her Hollywood career, she patented a frequency-switching system for torpedo guidance that was two decades ahead of its time.

Hedy Lamarr was one of the most glamorous women in Hollywood during the 1940s. An Austrian, trained in music and math, who immigrated to the US to work for MGM in 1937 where Louis B. Mayer gave her a new name and starred this beautiful women in numerous films. But she has never received the wide-spread acclaim – and historic notoriety – for her technology changing, inventive, patented design during WWII that caused the technology we use today even possible.

During the height of WWII, Lamarr and her partner, George Antheil, both develop a torpedo guidance system that was decades ahead of its time.

They began talking about radio control for torpedoes. The idea itself was not new, but her concept of “frequency hopping” was. Lamarr brought up the idea of radio control. Antheil’s contribution was to suggest the device by which synchronization could be achieved. He proposed that rapid changes in radio frequencies could be coordinated the way he had coordinated the sixteen synchronized player pianos in his Ballet Méanique. The analogy was complete in his mind: By the time the two applied for a patent on a “Secret Communication System,” on June 10, 1941, the invention used slotted paper rolls similar to player-piano rolls to synchronize the frequency changes in transmitter and receiver, and it even called for exactly eighty-eight frequencies, the number of keys on a piano.

Lamarr and Antheil worked on the idea for several months and then, in December 1940, sent a description of it to the National Inventors Council, which had been launched with much fanfare earlier in the year as a gatherer of novel ideas and inventions from the general public. Its chairman was Charles F. Kettering, the research director of General Motors. Over its lifetime, which lasted until 1974, the council collected more than 625,000 suggestions, few of which ever reached the patent stage. But according to Antheil, Kettering himself suggested that he and Lamarr develop their idea to the point of being patentable. With the help of an electrical engineering professor from the California Institute of Technology they ironed out its bugs, and the patent was granted on August 11, 1942. It specified that a high-altitude observation plane could steer the torpedo from above.

In the United States Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, shunned by the Navy, no longer pursued theirHedy Lemarr on looking towards the future, rather than the past, leads to new, creative innovation and a brighter future invention. But in 1957, the concept was taken up by engineers at the Sylvania Electronic Systems Division, in Buffalo, New York. Their arrangement, using, of course, electronics rather than piano rolls, ultimately became a basic tool for secure military communications. It was installed on ships sent to blockade Cuba in 1962, about three years after the Lamarr-Antheil patent had expired. Subsequent patents in frequency changing, which are generally unrelated to torpedo control, have referred to the Lamarr-Antheil patent as the basis of the field, and the concept lies behind the principal anti-jamming device used today, for example, in the U.S. government’s Milstar defense communication satellite system.

    “Hope and curiosity about the future seemed better than guarantees. That’s the way I was. The unknown was always so attractive to me… and still is.”

    “All creative people want to do the unexpected.”

In addition, the science presented in this duos’ patent serves as the basis for the technology we use today in cell phones, pagers, wireless Internet, defense satellites, and a plethora of other spread-spectrum devices.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Lamarr, a passionate opponent of the Nazis, wanted to contribute more to the allied effort. As Mrs. Fritz Mandl, she had closely observed the planning and discussions that went into attempting to design remote-controlled torpedoes. These never went into production, because the radio-controlled guidance system was too susceptible to disruption. She got the idea of distributing the torpedo guidance signal over several frequencies, thus protecting it from enemy jamming. The only weak point was how to employ the synchronization of the signal’s transmitter and receiver.

In 1940, Lamarr met the American avant-garde composer George Antheil of “ballet mécanique” fame. She described her idea to him, and asked him to help her construct a device that would enable this signal to be synchronized. Antheil laid out a system based on 88 frequencies, corresponding to the number of keys on a piano, using perforated paper rolls which would turn in sync with one another, transmitting and receiving ever-changing frequencies, preventing interceptance and jamming.

In December of 1940, the “frequency hopping” device developed by Lamarr and Antheil was submitted to the national inventors council, a semi-military inventors’ association. Lamarr and Antheil went on to file for a patent application for the “Secret Communication System,” June 10, 1941. The patent was granted by the United States patent office on august 11, 1942.

Lamarr and Antheil immediately placed their patent at the disposal of the US military. Though the us government did not deploy the “secret communication system” during World War II, the US Navy commissioned a project to acoustically detect submarines using sonar buoys remote-controlled from airplanes employing “frequency hopping” in the 1950s.

Twenty years after its conceptualization, during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the first instance of large-scale military deployment of Lamarr and Antheil’s frequency hopping technology was implemented– not for the remote-controlled guidance of torpedoes, but to provide secure communications among the ships involved in the naval blockade. The early ’60s saw the development of reconnaissance drones based on frequency hopping, which were later deployed in Vietnam. With the emergence of digital technology and the military’s release of frequency hopping for public use in the 1980s, Lamarr and Antheil’s invention took on new significance. Instead of “frequency hopping,” today’s term is “spread spectrum” but the basic idea is the same. The FCC recently allotted a special section of the radio spectrum for an experiment using the spread spectrum idea in a test designed to make cell phone calls more secure. A lot of corporate dollars have been invested in this process which has allowed more cell phone users to use the existing frequency spectrum.

Soon, Hedy finds out a way how to hide radio signals sent from a ship to its torpedo. She notices that when a ship flips quickly from one radio channel to another, it is impossible for another ship to detect the signals it is sending. On the other hand, she has an alternative solution to the problem regarding the already sent signals reaching the torpedo’s radio – the radios of the ship and the torpedo have to change channels simultaneously. Together with her neighbor, George Antheil, a composer who has experimented with automated control of musical instruments, she submits her idea of a secret communication system in June 1941. As a result, in 1942 Hedy and George receive a U.S. Patent 2,292,387 for their invention. They name it the Secret Communication System.

The patent itself is little-known until 1997, when The Electronic Frontier Foundation acknowledges Lamarr’s contribution to the invention of frequency (channel) hopping and gave her an honorary award – the Pioneer Award.

The tech world really deserves to honor Hedy Lamarr for her ground-breaking invention. But even more, all women, and girls, should recognize that gender is not a limitation on creative technological innovation or intelligence. Hedy Lamarr proved gender – and beauty – do not control creative intelligence.

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  1. […] current leading ladies of film hold any technical patents, but Hedy Lamarr was far different, as Valerie Curl pointed out on her EpiphanyBlog, “In 1942, at the height of her Hollywood career, she patented a […]


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