Do You Have Lamarr in Your Car?

 

It has been suggested that the short-range wireless protocol known as Bluetooth should instead have been called Lamarr, in honor of the actress/inventor Hedy Lamar.

Hedy (maiden name Kiesler) was born in Vienna in 1914. From her early childhood, she was fascinated by acting–and she was also very interested in how things worked, an interest which was encouraged by her bank-director father. She began acting professionally in the late 1920s, and gained fame and notoriety when she appeared–briefly nude–in the film Ecstasy.  It was followed by the more respectable Sissy, in which she played the Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

In 1933, Hedy married the arms manufacturer Friedrich Mandl, finding him charming and fascinating and also probably influenced by his vast wealth. She was soon turned off by his Fascist connections and his extremely controlling nature–rather ridiculously, he even tried to buy up all copies and negatives of Ecstasy.  He did not allow her to pursue her acting career but did require her to participate, mainly as eye-candy, in high-level meetings with German and Italian political leaders and with people involved in military technology. What she heard at these sessions both interested and alarmed her.

Finding her marriage intolerable and the political situation in her country disturbing, Hedy left and first came to London. There she met MGM head Louis B Mayer, who offered her an acting job at $125/week. She turned down the offer, but booked herself onto the same transatlantic liner as Mayer, bound for the USA.  On shipboard, she impressed him enough to receive a $500/week contract. He told her that a name change would be desirable, and she settled on “Lamarr”…the sea.

With the outbreak of war in Europe, Hedy followed the news closely.  For reasons that are not totally clear, she began thinking about the problems of torpedo guidance:  the ability to correct the weapon’s course on its way to the target would clearly improve the odds of a hit.  She had heard the possibility of a wire-guided torpedo discussed over dinner at Mandl’s…but this approach had limitations.  Radio was an obvious alternative, but how to prevent jamming?

As an anti-jamming technique, she hit on the idea of having the transmitter and the receiver change frequencies simultaneously and continuously…she may have been inspired partly by the remote-control radio receiver which was available at the time, possibly either she owned one or had seen one at somebody else’s home.  With synchronized frequency changes at both ends of the radio link, jamming would be impossible unless an enemy knew and could emulate the exact pattern of the changes.  But how to synchronize the transmitter and the receiver?

Enter Hedy’s friend George Antheil, who called himself “the bad boy of American music.”  Antheil was fascinated by player pianos and had created and performed compositions that depended on the simultaneous operation of several of these players.  Maybe the punched paper strips used by player pianos could provide a solution to the frequency-hopping problem?

US Patent 2282387, issued to Hedy Kiesler Markey (the name reflecting a brief unsuccessful marriage) and George Antheil, implemented this approach.  The feeding of the paper strip on the launching ship and that inside the torpedo would be started simultaneously, and the holes in the strips would select the frequencies to be used at any given time…88 rows are mentioned, offering 88 frequency choices, but obviously, this number could be smaller or larger.  Commands to the rudder of the torpedo would be sent via modulation of a carrier wave on the always-changing frequency selected.  (The two inventors had retained an electrical engineer to assist with the specification of some of the details.)

The invention was presented to the government-funded National Inventors Council…before or after the issue date of the patent is not clear…and the idea was classed in the “red hot” category.  Although the Council included such luminaries as the legendary executive and inventor Charles Kettering, the Navy decided not to pursue the idea.

Hedy threw herself into war work, selling savings bonds and helping at the Hollywood Canteen.  She made numerous movies, including Tortilla Flat (1942),  Dishonored Lady (1947), and Samson and Delilah (1949).  The frequency-hopping secret communication system, as it was titled in the patent filing, was forgotten.

Why did the Navy reject the idea?…and what, if any, is the link between the Lamarr/Antheil invention and today’s extensive use of frequency-hopping and spread-spectrum technology?

It has frequently been asserted that the idea was rejected because the Navy couldn’t believe that a movie star and a musician could create a major advance in weapons technology.  I don’t think this is a very likely explanation…after all, the secret communication system had been endorsed by highly credible individuals on the National Inventors Council.  More likely is George Antheil’s own explanation:  the way the system was presented, with mention of the player piano, led the reviewing officers to believe that it would be too bulky to fit in a torpedo.  One other factor that was surely important was that the Navy was already having serious problems with an existing improvement to conventional torpedos: the magnetic fuses that were supposed to detonate the warhead on a proximity basis were turning out to be extremely unreliable. Making torpedos explode reliably probably seemed a much higher priority than improving their guidance.

How well would the idea have worked in practice?  An antenna on the torpedo extending above the water would seem necessary for any reasonable frequency choice.  I believe WWII torpedos ran at least 6-10 feet below the surface, deeper if they were intended to explode beneath the target vessel’s keel:  getting the antenna above the surface would have required a tube extending for that distance, probably with stability as well as drag implications. And the launching vessel or aircraft would have had to remain in the area throughout the time of the torpedo’s travel, at risk to itself.  (I’m not sure if aircraft use…for launching glide bombs or powered missiles…was considered, but this might have been a more immediately practical application of the idea.)

The Lamarr/Antheil invention of the early 1940s came to nothing, yet frequency-hopping technology and the closely related spread spectrum technology play a very important role in today’s world.  In his book Spread Spectrum, Rob Walters–who seems quite knowledgeable in the relevant electronics–attempts to put the secret communications system in the context of the development of modern related technologies.

The closest direct connection he found was an antisubmarine buoy system dating from about 1954.  The sonobuoy was intended to listen for submarines and transmit appropriate signals to an airplane somewhere in the area.  There could be multiple sonobuoys and multiple aircraft operating in the same general area. The technical project manager for the effort was a man named Romuald Ireneus Scibor-Marchocki, who remembers the following:

When we received the contract to develop the Sonobuoy, we were provided with a copy of the H Kiesler Markey patent.  Since it was dated a decade previously, we assumed that it was an existing secret technology designed by some clever electrical engineer, working under a Navy contract and thus obligated to assign the patent to the Navy.

But the assumption was incorrect:  no such assignment had ever been made, and, legally, the Navy and the contractor probably should have obtained a license to use the patent.  As it happened, the sonobuoy project never made it past the prototype stage:  instead, the scheme was abandoned in favor of a shore-linked sonobuoy that didn’t need a radio link.  Working at a different company in the 1960s, Romuald developed another frequency-hopping system: this one for remote control of drones.  Whereas the frequency-hopping in the Lamarr/Antheil system had been controlled by punched paper tape, and in the sonobuoy system by engraved protrusions on a metal cylinder, the drone-control system used a fully electronic approach.

Frequency-hopping and spread-spectrum systems were increasingly adopted for military use in the late 1950s and the 1960s:  Sylvania’s Blades system for the Navy, and GE’s Phantom for the Air Force.  Consumer use would have to wait until the 1990s and beyond, first in cordless telephone systems and then cell phones and Bluetooth.

Bluetooth uses 79 radio channels in the 2.4 Ghz range, with a device hopping among these frequencies at the rate of 1600 hops per second.  All devices in an area will be using these same 79 frequencies, but with differing individual hop sequences, so that the data streams can be kept separate (the occasional collisions which occur when two devices choose the same frequency at the same time will result in retransmission.)  Bluetooth is used for a wide range of applications, including wireless control of and communication between a mobile phone and a car stereo system, wireless streaming of data collected by a fitness device to phone or PC, and to replace wired communication previously used in bar code scanners, GPS systems, and medical equipment.

The protocol was named for the tenth-century king Harald Bluetooth, who united dissonant Danish tribes into a single kingdom–the idea being that Bluetooth unites communication protocols.  In the book that I linked above, Rob Walters suggested that Lamarr would have been an appropriate alternative name, recognizing Hedy Lamarr’s pioneering work in this field.

Hedy acted in dozens of moves, of varying quality–I see that blogger/screenwriter Robert Avrech has rated the 1941 film HM Pulham, Esq as her very best.  In financial terms, her greatest success was probably Samson and Delilah, the highest-grossing film of 1949.    She attempted to produce her own film, Loves of Three Queens (1954),  but was unsuccessful at arranging distribution. Her career declined in the 1950s, and her personal life does not seem to have been a very happy one.

In 1997, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil were honored with a Pioneer award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  She lived until the year 2000.

An article in IEEE Explore, from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, reviews another book about Hedy Lamarr and her invention:  Hedy’s Folly:  The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, Richard Rhodes.  (Compare the rather tacky cover art for this book with the appealingly creative artwork used for the Walters book)

Sheila O’Malley, a good source on everything movie-related, has several posts that mention Hedy Lamarr and her films.  Also, Robert Avrech has a Hedy Lamarr imageboard on Pinterest.

I originally published the above at Chicago Boyz in 2019 and was reminded of it by a discussion thread at LinkedIn, where someone had posted a short item about Hedy.  The discussion thread was a little depressing: assertions without evidence, attempts to bring race into the discussion, etc. Anyhow, I thought the crew here might be interested in reading Hedy’s story, told in a manner that attempts to respect the actual history.

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  1. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Robert Wuhl also discusses this in his 2-part video series “Assume The Position.”

    • #1
  2. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    • #2
  3. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    This first voice scramblers for secure telephone conversations, invented before World War II, used a somewhat similar idea.

    From Wikipedia:

    These sets consisted of electronics that could mix two signals or alternatively “subtract” one signal back out again. The two signals were provided by a telephone and a record player. A matching pair of records was produced, each containing the same recording of noise. The recording was played into the telephone, and the mixed signal was sent over the wire. The noise was then subtracted out at the far end using the matching record, leaving the original voice signal intact. Eavesdroppers would hear only the noisy signal, unable to understand the voice.

    • #3
  4. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Antheil was fascinated by player pianos and had created and performed compositions which depended on simultaneous operation of several of these players.  Maybe the punched paper strips used by player pianos could provide a solution to the frequency-hopping problem?

    So it all goes back to the Jacquard Loom, no?

    • #4
  5. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    So it all goes back to the Jacquard Loom, no?

    Certainly the Jacquard was very influential.  Babbage, of course, wanted to use Jacquard techniques to control his Analytical Engine…as his collaborator Ada Lovelace put it, “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

    Hollerith, in his invention of punched cards for information storage, seems to have had two influences, one being the Jacquard loom and the other being the use of ticket punches by railroad conductors, in order to identify passengers by personal characteristics (hair color, height, etc) in order to prevent fare-avoidance by passing the same ticket around to 2 or more passengers.

     

     

    • #5
  6. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):
    This first voice scramblers for secure telephone conversations, invented before World War II, used a somewhat similar idea.

    It’s an interesting comparison, which I don’t think I’ve heard before.  Indeed conceptually-similar; the difference being that the scrambler modified the signal amplitude and the torpedo-controller modified the signal frequency.

    • #6
  7. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    She was as smart as she was beautiful – a killer combination . . .

    • #7
  8. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    This is all over Twitter.

    Your history is more accurate. And spread spectrum is not the basis of GPS. Synchronized clocks in satellites is the foundation of it. See the attached from the NRL Annotated GPS Bibliography. http://www.gpsdeclassified.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/NRL_GPS_Bibliography-web.pdf

    • #8
  9. Lois Lane Coolidge
    Lois Lane
    @LoisLane

    My grandmother used to call me “Hedy Lamarr” sometimes when I was a kid. She meant that I was headstrong and focused on what I wanted to do, not what she wanted me to do.  The actress’s name, thereby, caught my interest when Hedy was highlighted per a “girl power” push in relation to engineering and strange stories about invention.  As a result I read a biography about her earlier this year, which wasn’t especially easy to find because she isn’t exactly a well known person anymore.  (I think my generation, which isn’t full of spring chickens, has mostly forgotten her, so I think my son’s generation has not even heard of her.)  

    While she was very smart, her love life was an unmitigated disaster.  She was a bit like Elizabeth Taylor this way.  In addition to running away from her first marriage and launching a Hollywood career per her natural beauty, she also had a strange relationship with a son she adopted and then essentially abandoned when he was a pre-teen.  (There is now some talk that she did not adopt this kid at all, but he was conceived under circumstances that needed to be hidden in the period).  Shunned by his mother before the age of 12, this boy, James Loder, eventually became a police officer who was involved in a shooting and the consequent killing of an unarmed black teenager.  That shooting led to serious riots in Omaha, Nebraska after Loder was not convicted of any wrong doing.  This is as fascinating to me as just about anything else.  

    Additionally, while her contributions to a patent are certainly interesting, Lamarr was not really known for this in life as much as she was known for a propensity to sue people to protect her estate.   (She sued a lot of people.)  

    I think this actress would be a good subject for a film.  In so many ways she was an American story per the “girl makes good” aspect and the pitfalls of her own bad choices.  She was both admirable and also seriously flawed as a human.  

    Oh!  This book said her name was pronounced Hee-dee per her Austrian origins.  That is certainly not how my grandmother ever said the name though.  (Americans are a very phonetic people.)  I continued to hear “Head-y” in my mind as I read the biography.  

     

    • #9
  10. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Lois Lane (View Comment):
    Oh!  This book said her name was pronounced Hee-dee per her Austrian origins.  That is certainly not how my grandmother ever said the name though.  (Americans are a very phonetic people.)  I continued to hear “Head-y” in my mind as I read the biography.  

    Sounds like Greta Thunberg, who even aside from her youthful inexperience etc, sounds much less important when you pronounce her name the way it’s said where she’s from:  Toon-Berry.

    • #10
  11. Lois Lane Coolidge
    Lois Lane
    @LoisLane

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Lois Lane (View Comment):
    Oh! This book said her name was pronounced Hee-dee per her Austrian origins. That is certainly not how my grandmother ever said the name though. (Americans are a very phonetic people.) I continued to hear “Head-y” in my mind as I read the biography.

    Sounds like Greta Thunberg, who even aside from her youthful inexperience etc, sounds much less important when you pronounce her name the way it’s said where she’s from: Toon-Berry.

    Really????  That’s how that name is pronounced?  

    • #11
  12. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Lois Lane (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Lois Lane (View Comment):
    Oh! This book said her name was pronounced Hee-dee per her Austrian origins. That is certainly not how my grandmother ever said the name though. (Americans are a very phonetic people.) I continued to hear “Head-y” in my mind as I read the biography.

    Sounds like Greta Thunberg, who even aside from her youthful inexperience etc, sounds much less important when you pronounce her name the way it’s said where she’s from: Toon-Berry.

    Really???? That’s how that name is pronounced?

    So I’ve been reliably informed.

    • #12
  13. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    “That’s Headly!” 

    Man, I’ve seen that movie more times than can possibly be good for me.

    • #13
  14. Victor Grant 1865 Coolidge
    Victor Grant 1865
    @VictorGrant1865

    When I was in the Marine Corps as a radio technician, our VHF radios were encrypted with a KY-58. The KY-58 was loaded with a paper tape reader called a KOI-18. Everyday a technician would load the codes using the paper tape. I had watched a documentary on Hedy Lemarr and seem to recall she had a family member on one of the boats that was sunk or something like that. I certainly didn’t know that they used the paper tape to encode the receiver and transmitter or that it came from a guy who synchronized player pianos. Very interesting post; I learned something and brought back memories. Thanks.

    • #14
  15. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    “That’s Headly!”

    Man, I’ve seen that movie more times than can possibly be good for me.

     

    EDIT: how the heck did that happen?

    • #15
  16. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Lois Lane (View Comment):
    (She sued a lot of people.) 

    IIRC, she sued Mel Brooks for his use of a similar name (Hedley Lamarr) in Blazing Saddles.

    • #16
  17. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Stad (View Comment):

    Lois Lane (View Comment):
    (She sued a lot of people.)

    IIRC, she sued Mel Brooks for his use of a similar name (Hedley Lamarr) in Blazing Saddles.

    Are you sure that you’re not misremembering a couple of lines of dialog?

    Le Petomane: Thank you, Hedy. Thank you.

    Lamarr: It’s not Hedy. It’s Hedley. Hedley Lamarr.

    Le Petomane: What the hell are you worried about? This is 1874. You’ll be able to sue her.

     

     

    • #17
  18. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    She did not invent frequency hopping. Frequency hopping had long been known in many proposed forms. Here is one: https://patents.google.com/patent/US1869659

    Had there been even the slightest merit to her invention, the application would have been placed under a secrecy order rather than being allowed to publish August 11, 1942 so that the Germans and Japanese could read it.

    The government sometimes dragged its feet on withdrawing secrecy orders. Consider this 1944 application that was kept secret until 2001: https://patents.google.com/patent/US6175625B1/en

    My dad worked in the RADAR antenna field and told the story of getting one of his patents in the late 1950s or early 60s. He showed it to an old timer. The old timer went to his file cabinet and pulled out a copy of his own ww2-era  patent application for the same thing. The old timer’s case was still under a secrecy order.

    Over 11k patent applications were put under secrecy order in the war. See https://www.nber.org/papers/w25545

     

    • #18
  19. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

     

    Stad (View Comment):
    IIRC, she sued Mel Brooks for his use of a similar name (Hedley Lamarr) in Blazing Saddles.

    https://www.newspapers.com/clip/6344423/la-times-blazing-saddles-lawsuit/

    • #19
  20. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    ctlaw…only scanned the patent, but wasn’t clear how the frequency-changing was controlled…sounded like maybe it was a rotary switch with a recurring pattern.

    • #20
  21. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    ctlaw (View Comment):
    She did not invent frequency hopping. Frequency hopping had long been known in many proposed forms.

    Feelings don’t care about your facts. She invented it because “believe all women.”

    • #21
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