Introducing a new series on women inventors
Long long ago in the mists of time (1999-2000, to be precise), my mother and sister and I would drag our sofa near the TV after 9pm and watch old Hollywood movies on TNT. That’s when I first saw the stunning Austrian actor Hedy Lamarr (née Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler). Wikipedia tells me that her Czech-German-French film Ecstasy (1933) was controversial for possibly being the first movie outside porn to show a sex scene.
But at that time I’d only heard of Lamarr’s contributions to anti-Nazi military technology during World War II.
Here’s how that happened: Lamarr’s parents were both born Jewish. (Her mother later converted to Catholicism.) She was married, in the 1930s in Austria, to Friedrich Mandl, half-Jewish himself and an arms manufacturer. They both kept their Jewish origins secret, of course. Mandl, a domineering, controlling husband, had fascist leanings and Lamarr later wrote that both Hitler and Mussolini attended his house parties. Later, he ended up in Argentina working with (surprise surprise!) General Perón.
While married to Mandl, Lamarr learned about weapons and military technology. She eventually fled Austria and Mandl for Paris, and then moved to Hollywood, where her next-door neighbour in California was supposedly one George Antheil, who worked on musical instrument technology.
Fast-forward to World War II. Lamarr and Antheil start talking about German U-boat (submarine) technology. (Because, naturally, that’s the kind of casual conversation you strike up with your neighbour in Hollywood.) The U-boats apparently used radio communications to control their torpedoes. And from what I can glean from various Internet sources, Lamarr and Antheil (I suppose today the tabloids would call them Lamiel, or Antharr, but later Antheil said in his autobiography that Lamarr deserved the credit for their invention) came up with a way to jam the enemy’s radio frequencies, and to make their own torpedo radios unjammable (I swear that’s a word, more or less).
This wireless technology was called frequency hopping, and in plain (possibly oversimplifying) English, it seems to have increased the bandwidth of a narrow frequency radio communication so as to stymy, baffle and nonplus the enemy’s, erm, torpedo frequency hackers. And they invented this stuff using Antheil’s piano. Of all the…
They patented their invention and whatnot, but here’s the cool part. At the time, frequency hopping was thought to have only a few applications, these being military. But it has become the basis for cell phone technologies today. It ensures that various phone communication frequencies don’t interfere with each other. Antheil and Lamarr, thank the gods, received technology awards in the 1990s for this.
But for the most part, this stuff stymies, baffles and nonplusses me. In my Internet perambulations, I could understand neither head nor tail of spread spectrum and frequency hopping, despite this decent enough tutorial, with some rather unfortunate but helpful graphs, by Prabakar Prabakaran of NL Polytechnic College. Let’s see if you have better luck!
Wanna read more? Try:
- The birth of spread spectrum: How “The Bad Boy Of Music” And “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” Catalyzed A Wireless Revolution
- Hedy Lamarr’s Invention Finally Comes of Age
- Hedy Lamarr the Inventor
- Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World