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Credit where it's due

Once again, I’m probably the last to hear about this, but for those of you as ignorant as I, I pass on this long overdue acknowledgement to a woman whose contribution to our modern technology is possibly the only contribution more under-appreciated than Nicolai Tesla’s.

I’m speaking of Hedy Lamarr and her contribution to modern cell phone technology.

Thanks to Dark Matters, I’m less ignorant than I was and more of the story can be found here. What it boils down to is this. She was married to some abusive teckno-mogul (one of Hitler’s pets) in Austria before the war. Because she was gorgeous, said abusive mogul ignored her presence when discussing things with his cronies…like RC controlled torpedoes. Said mogul decided it couldn’t be done because the enemy would just jam the radio signal.

Well, duh, says the most beautiful woman in the world, who couldn’t possibly have a brain worth worrying about…what if you just kept changing the signal faster than the enemy could track it? The problem of course was synchronizing the shifting frequencies between controller and the torpedo, but surely that could be solved.

Fortunately, she waited to express this insight until she escaped said Nazi-mogul and came to the US to be treated as a brainless starlet in Hollywood. At a dinner party, she discovered a composer who shared her love of tinkering, George Anthell who, among other things, had had to synchronize a bunch of player pianos. He was willing to look beyond the face and when she presented her concept, he thought of his pianos, and together they came up with a way to synchronize transmitter and torpedo, a device that could have saved hundreds of seamen in WWII and possibly ended the war sooner. However, (and I quote from the article:)

“The thinking at the time by all the experts that looked at it [at the time] was that it was a viable idea…But when the Navy brass looked at the invention, “They said, ‘What, you want to put a player piano in a torpedo? That won’t work!’ So they threw it on the back shelf. The Navy’s response really was, ‘You should go raise money for the war. That’s what you should be doing instead of this silly inventing.'”

Male chauvinist thinking strikes again. That was the conceptual basis, not the actual device, which was small enough to fit in a pocket watch and based on 86 different frequencies (like a keyboard.) Lamarr and Anthell patented the process…and signed the patent over to the war department, hoping to save lives. Later, when that patent proved the basis for (among other things) cell phone technology, the cell phone inventors got credit (not to mention rich), but Lamarr and Anthell never got so much as a pat on the head…because they’d relinquished the patent. (Wesley shakes his head in sad frustration. Dream, Develop, Protect.)

So…take a minute, if you will, to read the article, maybe even track down the book (I’m going to.) This very smart, brave lady fought for years to be appreciated for something more than her beautiful face. She’s gone now, but her memory deserves something better than a joke in Blazing Saddles. Her story should be the ultimate “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” reminder.

 

13 comments to Credit where it’s due

  • I wouldn’t be surprised by that story. Even if the signals are analog, changing them is a security measure. I have a cordless telephone made by Southwestern Bell that is SSMA, uses the 900MHz band, and is supposedly secure, at least as far as privacy is concerned.

    Now, the DoD uses a similar technology for satellite communications (no, I’m not giving away any secrets), but it’s digital, and it’s Spread Spectrum Multiple Access. The transmitter hops around within a certain bandwidth, and the only thing that tells you anything is the center frequency, which might or might not be the median frequency. There is an algorithm in the signals that tell the receiver which frequency will be up next. It’s random, so pinpointing it is difficult, and besides, the signals are HIGHLY directional. All of the circuits that are contained in the main trunk signal are already encrypted at least once, if not several times over, and then the main trunk signal is also encrypted. So, even if you knew the signal was there, you couldn’t read anything off it because the encryption is much stronger than the 128-bit encryption we use for the intarwebz. It would be difficult to jam as well, because the signal strength is somewhere on the order of 10,000 watts. We don’t use watts in describing signal strength for satellite communications, rather we use dBW, which is a logarithmic value.

  • WOL

    I just last night watched a program on the Smithsonian channel about cell phones, and she and her invention were mentioned. Oddly enough, they gave her name but not Anthell’s. I’ve had enough history. I want more herstory.

    • I’m honestly not sure whether his name was on the patent or not. Dark Matters was vague on that topic as was the article. Both, however, name him and his work with player pianos as the basis for the actual method of synchronizing the transmitter and receiver frequency sequencing, so i thot it only fair to mention him as well.

  • and I seem to remember vaguely that she was connected with the invention of the cell phone.

  • chondrite

    I found out about Ms. Lamarr while I was researching another daring yet underappreciated figure of WWII, Josephine Baker. Ms. Baker used her contacts in the entertainment business and the fact she traveled throughout France and Europe performing to disseminate information to the French Resistance, smuggle out information and occasionally people. “She’s eye candy, and probably not a brain in her head. Let her pass!” BWAHAHA-HA-HAH!!

  • mitha

    BWAHAHAH! indeed! Fascinating stories!

    And Thank You, Chondrites, for the 2D Goggles link!

  • mitha

    Ooooops, sorry, *Chondrite*…hmmm, maybe I should look it up and see what the spell check thinks I’m trying to say….

  • Call it “thinking outside the box” or “interdisciplinary thinking” if you’re in a mood for buzzword phrases.

    Not only is it likely they dismissed her as too pretty to be smart, but they likely couldn’t wrap their brains around such a wild idea arrived at so unconventionally, and so dismissed it as crazy instead of brilliant. Too bad. Also too bad that the two didn’t get credit or payment for what was their original idea.

    —–

    Want an example of an uncommon woman? Rear Adm. Grace Hopper.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_hopper

    She was one of the big original thinkers in computer science. She’s sometimes credited for the term, “computer bug.” There was an actual moth that was the “bug.” But she invented the first compiler and was important in inventing COBOL, among a long list of other achievements.

  • Actually, there was a lot of support for the idea from the tech experts. It was the military types who wouldn’t listen. Very sad for the waste that happened as a result.

    Thanks for the link!!!!! Cool.

  • Learn something everyday! Go, Heddy!

  • Othin

    Where credit is due – hm, who knows Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace and his evolution theory? His theory was similar to Mr. Darwin’s, but written earlier. (Ok, Darwin sat on his ideas for several years – unable to formulate them. But as soon as he read Wallace papers, he finally got around to it – whether he needed the thread of someone publishing before him or some of Wallace insights geared up his thinking.)

    One of the mayor differences of those 2 theories is the point of view. According to Wallace it’s not about the survival of the fittest but the elimination of the most unfit. So to survive one doesn’t need to be one of the best, just not one of the weakest.

    Also, Wallace was just a commoner while Darwin belonged to the nobility. So ones standing in society has a lot to with the VP and interpretation one gives to that idea. As already pointed out it also has a lot to do with the credibility given to ones ideas and who is remembered. Being ignored ones makes it easy to be ignored later on too.

    Btw there are a lot of things invented by 2 or more thinkers independently at about the same time (just a few years difference).

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