’tis folly to be wise

hedys_folly_coverHedy Lamarr: famous actress, and co-inventor of a control system for torpedoes that’s now used in wireless technology.

Lamarr was born in Austria and made a name for herself as an actress there. Her fame owed largely to a starring role in the Czech film Ecstasy, which to great fanfare, infamy, and scandal, featured a topless Lamarr, simulated sex scenes, and possibly the first filmic depiction of the female orgasm. Lamarr’s husband, prominent fascist/arms dealer Friedrich Mandl, suffered a pre-internet Streisand effect in spending years attempting to recover and destroy all copies of the film, which he believed besmirched his betrothed. Their relationship was not a pleasant one: Lamarr escaped the marriage by drugging a maid, disguising herself, then leaving the country in an entirely Bond-like manner. That’s how she ended up in the US.

Lamarr’s co-inventor was Georges Antheil, an avant-garde composer whose best known work, Ballet Mécanique, was a massive orchestral score for a variety of percussive—and only percussive—instruments, including three spinning airplane propellers. Like many great artists, he struggled to survive by his art, once saying, in a particularly chilling assessment of the artists’ life, “my life has been motivated by one steadfast resolve, which is to not starve to death” (emphasis his).

Like many artists, he was forced to compromise his own artistic ideals in the service of selfsame not starving to death,supporting his “serious” musical endeavors by slumming it composing movie and television scores. He was also a proto-Jeff Foxworthy who achieved (anonymous) fame writing a series for Esquire titled “She’s no longer faithful if…”, and a self-proclaimed but decidedly quackish endocrinologist. He believed physical characteristics could be used to scientifically determine the quality of a person, writing articles with names like “Glandbook for a Passing Male” and “Reducing a Laboratory Science to a Sidewalk Sport for a Grading of the Passing Females from A to D,” and his magnum opus book, Everyman his own Detective: A study of Glandular Criminology. GLANDS.

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On to the invention: between the first and second world war, there had been few advances in torpedo technology. When the second world war started, torpedoes were comically haphazard and ineffective. They could be controlled by radio, but enemies could easily detect and jam the guidance signal. To overcome this, frequency selectors were added, allowing the torpedo firer a selection of frequencies on which to send control input. But this was a half-measure; it only marginally increased the difficulty of isolating the control frequency and jamming it.

Lamarr came up with a solution: randomly change the control frequency multiple times per second, foiling any attempts to jam the signal. Unfortunately, implementation was a real challenge. In particular, how could one randomize the ordering and timing of frequency switches such that both the sender and receiver could follow the same sequence? As it turns out, Antheil has unknowingly developed just such a control system more than a decade earlier, when he’s created a novel method for automated piano playing. He and Lamarr re-appropriated the piano rolls to switch between radio frequencies rather than piano notes, allowing frequency-hopping torpedo control. Of course, the system was basically mothballed by the Navy, and not rediscovered/utilized until the Cuban missile crisis almost 20 years later.

The conceptual underpinnings of frequency hopping today underlies the use of spread spectrum technology, which is used in virtually anything wireless. Lamarr’s (and Antheil’s) contributions to this technology were largely forgotten until being rediscovered in the 1990s.

There’s a transparently sexist argument that the groundwork for Lamarr’s invention came from information gleaned during discussions with military so-and-sos during her marriage. It’s certainly possible, even likely, that Mandl and his colleagues (Mussolini was once a guest) felt free to talk shop with Lamarr in earshot, assuming her female brain would not comprehend important guy talk. But even if so, she was a talented mathematician and invented many non-arms-related things. One of her non-torpedo inventions was a sort of soda bouillon cube, that you could drop in water to make Coke. Howard Hughes was an early investor; it never caught on despite being a great idea.

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