antheil


The Astonishing Story of a Patent
Now In Nearly Every Cell Phone
The Story Behind the Story
NPR interview with physicist Tony Rothman





 

The Astonishing Story of a Patent

“After her divorce [...] Miss Lamarr went to a Hollywood party at the home of Janet Gaynor and there met George Antheil, the composer. Miss Lamarr and Antheil got to talking about the war and how tough it was going to be to stop the Nazis. “As the story goes, Miss Lamarr recalled hearing some conversations that had occurred between her first husband, Mr. Mandl, and the Nazis, who seemed to place great value on creating some sort of device that would permit the radio control of airborne torpedoes and reduce the danger of jamming. She and Antheil got to discussing all this. The idea, they decided, was to defeat jamming efforts by sending synchronized radio signals on various wavelengths to missiles, which could then be directed to hit their mark.
Antheil supplied the technical expertise for the concept and on Aug. 11, 1942, the two received a United States patent for the use of radio-controlled missiles that could be used against the Germans. There were some doubts that Miss Lamarr had the technical background to give much to the project, but Antheil always credited her. The government was not initially interested in their device, but a refined version of it was used by the American military in the 1960’s - after the patent had expired. They never made a dime. In 1996 they were honored for their work by a professional engineering society. ‘It’s about time,’ was Miss Lamarr’s only comment.”
The New York Times: obituary for Hedy Lamarr, by Richard Severo, Jan 20, 2000.

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Now In Nearly Every Cell Phone

The US military did not adopt the technology at first. However once the patent had expired, this principle was used in the jamming technologies employed during the Bay of Pigs operation (not a recommendation, but at least that part of the operation was successful). Antheil’s original idea was admittedly too cumbersome: the punched tapes he suggested (modeled on those of player pianos) could not be synchronized in real life with the degree of precision necessary. However, the invention of the transistor obviated the need for physical punched tape, and now his principle is known as “frequency hopping” and is used by major US military satellites, as well as all GSM cellular telephones.

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The Story Behind the Story

How did composer Antheil and actress Lamarr actually have the knowledge to create such a revolutionary design? Three factors seem to be involved: Firstly, Lamarr was well aware of the communications problems inherent in warfare, having participated in endless meetings in Europe beside her munitions dealer husband Fritz Mandl. Secondly, Antheil, for his part, had spent months trying to synchronize player pianos for the Ballet Mécanique. And thirdly, Antheil’s brother Henry was in Germany working for the State Department.
Henry Antheil, Jr. was 12 years George’s junior and had just graduated from school when George found him a job through his friend William C. Bullitt, later to become the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Henry did well in his job at the State Department, and he probably had access to a great deal of information, some of which he may have passed on to his brother from time to time. In one way or another, George was extremely aware of Germany’s military strengths and weaknesses, and so his invention of a military device is thus credible, and highlights his wide-ranging creativity and interests.

Nonetheless, as physicist Tony Rothman points out (listen to the NPR interview), Antheil's idea was not practical, and real scientists worked on the problem more successfully in the years that followed.

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piano roll

Closeup of piano roll from the Ballet Mecanique...
This same principal was behind the patent idea.
(Image courtesy of L. Douglas Henderson.)

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