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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.


Girl Scouts Under Attack Again

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A few months ago, I wrote a blog post regarding a proposal by the GA legislature to enact a salesGirl Scout Cookies tax on the selling of Girl Scout cookies. I admittedly was stunned by the proposal to tax Girl Scout cookie sales, but I also found it a bit humorous and kind of silly.

However, it seems some within the Grand Old Party truly do not like the Girl Scouts.

Indiana Republican Rep. Bob Morris wrote a letter to colleagues claiming that the Girl Scouts was a “radicalized organization” that supports abortions and the homosexual agenda. Conservative groups like the Indiana Right to Life and the American Family Foundation have come to Morris’ defense after he became the butt of late night jokes and ridicule.

While I can understand, if not totally agree, with their positions on abortion, this attack on the Girl Scouts leaves me speechless. As a young girl, I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout. I still have my old brownie pin fondly tucked away in my jewelry box. I never experienced anything subversive about Girl Scouts, unless someone considers girls building confidence and self esteem, learning about nature and science, developing natural talents, and being active in sports somehow radical.

Perhaps Rep. Morris and his friends in those conservative groups need to learn something about Girl Scouts.

Founder Juliette Gordon Low organized the first Girl Scout Troop on March 12, 1912, in Savannah, Ga. On March 16, 1950, the Girl Scouts of the USA was chartered by the U.S. Congress. Today, there are 3.2 million Girl Scouts—2.3 million girl members and 880,000 adult members working primarily as volunteers.

Girls at home and abroad participate in troops and groups in more than 92 countries through USA Girl Scouts Overseas, and over 100 local Girl Scout councils offer girls the opportunity for membership across the United States. Through its membership in the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), Girl Scouts of the USA is part of a worldwide family of 10 million girls and adults in 145 countries.

More than 50 million American women enjoyed Girl Scouting during their childhood—and that number continues to grow as Girl Scouts of the USA continues to inspire, challenge, and empower girls everywhere.

From the Organization’s Fact Sheet:

Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) is the largest organization for girls in the world. Our mission is to build girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place. Through activities in science and technology, business and economic literacy, and outdoor and environmental awareness, Girl Scouting provides girls with opportunities for fun and friendship, while fostering the development of leadership skills and self-esteem.

These attacks on the Girl Scouts cause me to wonder what has happened within the ranks of the GOP conservative movement.

First it was personhood amendments that put the life of a zygote ahead of the life of the woman; then an attack on women’s ability to have contraception included and covered by their health insurance plans; presidential candidate Santorum admonishing everyone that intimate relations are for procreation only; and now attacks on the venerable institution of the Girl Scouts.

Why has so much disdain for women suddenly reared its ugly head? If Barry Goldwater, who arguably founded the modern conservative movement with his presidential campaign in 1964, were still alive he’d be shaking his head in dismay at what has become of his Republican party.

In a 1994 interview with the Washington Post the retired senator said,

When you say “radical right” today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others [namely, Jerry Falwall for whom Goldwater had absolutely no admiration] who are trying to take the Republican party and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.

I would add also, kiss the rights of women have the freedom and liberty to determine their own life choices for themselves.


Additional reading on Barry Goldwater:

HuffPo review, Pure Goldwater

Pure Goldwater by John Dean and Barry M. Goldwater Jr.

Goldwater vs Religious Right

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