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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Women in Radio



Hedy LaMarr

Hollywood Screen Seductress and the Mother of Spread Spectrum Communications


Other than some fleeting familiarity with her films, I first learned about Hedy Lamarr (9 Nov 1914 – 19 Jan 2000) while on a tour of celebrity homes in Palm Springs, CA. She was an Austrian actress, sex symbol and… yes, inventor. Not something usually attributed to screen seductresses.


She started her film career in Austria. When she worked with Max Reinhardt in Berlin, he called her the "most beautiful woman in Europe" due to her "strikingly dark exotic looks", a sentiment widely shared by her audiences and critics.  Friedrich Mandl, her first husband, objected to what he felt was exploitation of his wife. The 19-year old Lamarr had married Mandl on 10 August 1933. Mandl, reputed to be the third richest man in Austria, was a munitions manufacturer. In her autobiography ‘Ecstasy and Me’, Lamarr described Mandl as extremely controlling, preventing her from pursuing her acting career and keeping her a virtual prisoner, confined to their castle home, Schloss Schwarzenau. Although half-Jewish, Mandl had close social and business ties to the fascist governments of Italy and Germany, selling munitions to Mussolini.

In her memoir, Lamarr wrote that Mussolini and Hitler had attended lavish parties hosted at the Mandl home. Mandl had Lamarr accompany him to business meetings where he conferred with scientists and other professionals involved in military technology. These conferences became Lamarr's introduction to the field of applied science and the ground that nurtured her latent talent in the scientific field. She had been an excellent student and attended the best private schools in her youth.

Lamarr emigrated from Austria by posing as a maid, to escape her controlling husband. First she went to Paris, then met Louis B. Mayer in London. Mayer hired her and insisted that she change her name to Hedy Lamarr—she had been known as "the Ecstasy lady" — choosing the surname in homage to the beautiful silent film star, Barbara La Marr, who had died in 1926 from tuberculosis. She received good reviews for her American film debut in Algiers (1938) with Charles Boyer, who asked that Lamarr be cast after meeting her at a party. 

She became a contract star of MGM's "Golden Age”.  In Hollywood, she was invariably cast as the archetypal glamorous seductress of exotic origins. Lamarr played opposite the era's most popular leading men during the 1940s. She appeared only sporadically in films after 1950, and for a time gave up custody of her children as she became destitute. Twice during the 1960s she was charged with shoplifting.


And now the rest of the story… 

Avant garde composer George Antheil (died 1959), a son of German immigrants and a neighbor of Lamarr in California, had experimented with automated control of musical instruments, including his music for Ballet Mécanique, originally written for Fernand Léger's 1924 abstract film. This score involved multiple synchronized player pianos playing simultaneously.

During World War II, Antheil and Lamarr discussed the fact that radio-controlled torpedoes, while important in the naval war, could easily be jammed by broadcasting interference at the frequency of the control signal, causing the torpedo to go off course. Lamarr had learned something about torpedoes from Mandl. Antheil and Lamarr developed the idea of using frequency hopping to avoid jamming: using a piano roll to unpredictably change the signal sent between a control center and the torpedo at short bursts within a range of 88 frequencies in the radio-frequency spectrum (there are 88 black and white keys on a piano keyboard). The specific code for the sequence of frequencies would be held identically by the controlling ship and in the torpedo. It would be practically impossible for the enemy to scan and jam all 88 frequencies, as this would require too much power or complexity. The frequency-hopping sequence was controlled by a player-piano mechanism, which Antheill had earlier used to score his Ballet Mecanique.

On August 11, 1942, U.S. Patent 2,292,387 was granted to Antheil and Hedy Kiesler Markey, Lamarr's married name at the time. This early version of frequency hopping, although novel, soon met with opposition from the U.S. Navy and was not immediately adopted although it was held a closely guarded technological secret by the US military. Lamarr wanted to join the National Inventors Council but was reportedly told by NIC member Charles F. Kettering and others that she could better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell War Bonds.

Frequency Hopping was not implemented in the US until 1962, when it was used by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba after the patent had expired. Her work was not honoured until 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr a belated award for her contributions. In 1998, an Ottawa wireless technology developer, Wi-LAN Inc., acquired a 49% claim to the patent from Lamarr for an undisclosed amount of stock. LaMarr was once again a wealthy woman.

Lamarr's and Antheil's frequency-hopping idea serves as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, such as Bluetooth, COFDM (used in Wi-Fi network connections), and CDMA (used in some cordless and wireless telephones). 

For more on Hedy LaMarr, watch this YouTube clip:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rlXHNeQD-s

~ John VE7TI

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