Sunday, April 17, 2016

Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes

Hedwig Kiesler was a headstrong Austrian girl with visions of becoming a Hollywood star. She was so determined that she dropped out of school to star working at a Berlin film studio, and by 16 she was acting professionally. She eventually achieved Hollywood stardom as Hedy Lamarr.

Lamarr had another, lesser known life, as an inventor. She, along with avant-garde composer George Antheil, invented a technology that makes much of modern communication possible. Richard Rhodes focuses on this part of Lamarr’s life in Hedy’s Folly.

The woman known for her beauty was interested in technology from youth. She enjoyed walking with her father, a banker, who explained how things worked. Her first marriage was to munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl. Though she was mostly a trophy to be shown off to his friends, she paid close attention as he and the people he entertained discussed weapons and other technology. When she moved to Hollywood, she sat up a little shop in her home and took up inventing as a hobby.

When Lamarr learned of the sinking by U-boats that were intended to carry children from Britain to safer locations in Canada, she put her head to the idea of improved torpedoes to combat the underwater threat. The torpedo would be remote controlled. To avoid attempts to jam the signal, the torpedo receiver and controller transmitter would can radio frequencies rapidly in a synchronized manner.  She enlisted the assistance of Antheil, who had experience trying to control and synchronize multiple player pianos, to work out a practical implementation of the concept.

The idea was received well by the National Inventors Council, apparently even receiving the endorsement of automotive engineer Charles Kettering. The Navy did not think the idea was practical, but it did by the patent that was awarded to the Hollywood pair in 1941. Eventually, the frequency-hopping technology invented by Lamarr was developed by the U.S. military for many communication applications.

Spread spectrum, a somewhat broader category of radio communication of which frequency-hopping was the original type, was unveiled from the military secrecy in 1976 with the publication of a textbook on the subject by Robert C. Dixon. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved fairly quickly to make room in the radio spectrum for applications of spread spectrum. These were mostly junk frequencies that had been set aside for non-communication uses. Because it broadcast on multiple frequencies, spread spectrum is less likely to be disrupted by interference by other transmissions, like a microwave (Lamarr invented frequency hopping to avoid jamming). Another important aspect of the FCC rule was that these frequencies could be used without a license.

This technology is widely used today. Wi-fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and RFID all use spread spectrum communication. It is the basis of the wireless communication between computers that has shaped the way we live, work, and behave in coffeehouses.

Lamarr and Antheil didn’t receive much recognition for their groundbreaking invention until after it started making its way into American households and pockets. In 1997, Lamarr (and posthumously Antheil) received the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award when she was 82 years old. By then she had retired to a very private life in Florida, where she live until January 2000.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Rhodes, Richard. Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. New York: Doubleday, 2011.