Old 08-10-2008, 08:50 PM Offline   #1 (permalink)

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Default Aug. 11, 1942: Actress + Piano Player = New Torpedo

1942: Hedy Lamarr, once described by German actor-director Max Reinhardt as "the most beautiful woman in Europe," receives a U.S. patent for a frequency-hopping device designed to guide radio-controlled torpedoes while making them more difficult to detect in the water. Holding the patent with her is George Antheil.
It's the incongruity of the patent holders with their invention, as much as the invention itself, that is remarkable. Lamarr, a Viennese-born movie actress, would eventually be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Antheil, an American avant-garde composer of orchestral music and opera, lived in Paris during the '20s and counted Ernest Hemingway and Igor Stravinsky among his friends.
Not exactly the kind of folks you picture tinkering with cutting-edge weapons of war. In fact, their device was way ahead of its time. Although it was patented at the height of World War II, frequency hopping relied on electronics technology that didn't exist yet. An updated version of the Lamarr-Antheil device finally appeared on U.S. Navy ships in 1962 (three years after their patent expired), and was first used during the Cuban missile crisis.
In 1942, though, Navy brass were unimpressed, dismissing the invention as too bulky to fit inside a torpedo. Antheil's arguments to the contrary were ignored, and he said later that comparing parts of the invention to the fundamental mechanism of a player piano in front of a bunch of naval officers had probably been a mistake.
"'My god,' I can see them saying, 'we shall put a player piano in a torpedo.'"
Lamarr and Antheil dropped the idea and turned to other things. In the end, their device was resurrected by engineers at Sylvania and proved to be one of the forerunners of spread-spectrum communications, which has applications in satellite systems and cellphone technology.
Lamarr was the quintessential beauty with brains. (She was contemptuous of many of her fellow actresses: "Any girl can be glamorous," she said. "All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.") She was mathematically gifted and became acquainted with the intricacies of modern weaponry while married to her first husband, an Austrian munitions manufacturer.
Having established herself acting in German films, Lamarr came in 1937 to the United States, where she signed with Louis B. Mayer and MGM. It was Mayer who got her to change her name, from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr. She enjoyed a solid career in Hollywood, although other leading ladies of the day, such as Ingrid Bergman, eclipsed her as a box-office draw.
Then there was George Antheil.
Aside from his provocative compositions and eccentric skills as a pianist -- his jarring technique frequently agitated his audiences, to the point where he would lay a pistol on the piano as a warning to keep quiet -- Antheil was very much a Renaissance man. He wrote widely on a variety of subjects, penning a syndicated advice column to the lovelorn and writing about endocrinology for Esquire magazine. He also published a book on the subject, Every Man His Own Detective: A Study of Glandular Endocrinology.
During World War II -- which he had accurately predicted would start in Europe with the German invasion of Poland -- Antheil served as a war correspondent.
It was Antheil's knowledge of endocrinology, in fact, that began the Lamarr-Antheil collaboration. Aware of his work in the field, Lamarr approached him at a Hollywood dinner party to talk about the possibility of increasing the size of her breasts. The next thing you know -- bang! -- a revolutionary torpedo-guidance system. We'll just leave it there.
Source: Various


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