Legal Insurrection has been filled with touching Memorial Day pieces, especially Professor Jacobson’s on Roslyn Schulte, Johnny “Mike” Spann and Jonathan Porto.
My contribution, and one I intend to carry forward on future Memorial Days, will feature American scientists and engineers whose discoveries and innovations have helped our military men and women return to their families.
However, I would like to begin with a woman who was not a scientist, but whose World War II innovation still impacts our lives today and allows our service men and women to stay connected to home while they are on duty.
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria. After ending an unhappy marriage in 1937, to a wealthy Austrian munitions manufacturer who sold arms to the Nazis, the actress fled to the United States and signed a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio in Hollywood under the name Hedy Lamarr. She became a big star upon the release of her first American film, Algiers, co-starring Charles Boyer.
The brilliant woman, however, recalled discussions of technology at meetings led by her former husband. During those meetings, the Nazi’s scientists had talked about developing detection devices to listen to, and jam, the radio signals that American aircraft and weapons used to communicate with one another. Lamarr wanted to jam those plans.
She teamed up with George Antheil, who was versed in the lastest sound technology, in 1940.
Between them, they had an idea. Allied subs, it seems, were wasting torpedoes. Ocean currents and evasive action worked against them. Lamarr and Antheil meant to do something about that. Lamarr, just 26, had been only a girl when she’d listened to her husband talking about torpedoes. She might have looked like pretty wallpaper, but she’d been a quick pupil. And Antheil had done ingenious early work with the technology of modern music.
The solution, they reasoned, was a radio-controlled torpedo. But it would be easy for the enemy to jam a radio-control signal. So they cooked up something called “frequency-hopping.” The trick was to set up a sequencer that would rapidly jump both the control signal and its receiver through 88 random frequencies. They patented the system and gave it to the Navy.
The Navy actually did put the system to use, but not in WW-II. Sylvania engineers reinvented it in 1957. The Navy first used frequency-hopping during the 1962 blockade of Cuba. That was three years after the Lamarr/Antheil patent had expired.
And as is often the case with innovations, the use of the frequency hopping technology expanded beyond anything in the 1940’s could have imagined. “Frequency-hopping” is the technical backbone that makes cellular phones, fax machines and other wireless operations possible.
As is the case with many of the famous women inventors, Lamarr received very little recognition of her innovative talent at the time, but recently she has been showered with praise for her groundbreaking invention. In 1997, she and George Anthiel were honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. And later in the same year, Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, a prestigious lifetime accomplishment prize for inventors that is dubbed “The Oscar™ of Inventing.”
History Channel highlights Lamarr and her innovation:
This Memorial Day, it is comforting to reflect on a time when Hollywood offered this kind of support and assistance to America’s military men and women.DONATE
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