Hedy & George: Art, Tech, & IP

In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation bestowed its prestigious Pioneer Award upon an 82-year-old movie star and posthumously to an avant-garde music composer.  The movie star was Hedy Lamarr, the composer was George Antheil; and their collaboration as amateur inventors during the early days of America’s entry into World War II led to a working model for a signal transmission method known as “frequency hopping,” which sits on a technological timeline that currently ends in in the palm of your hand, if you’re using a wireless device to read this.

Frequency hopping is a means by which a transmitter and receiver shift in synch with one another from frequency to frequency within a given bandwidth. This method of transmission is the basis for our ability to have millions of cellular phones and wireless signals that are resistant to interference from other signals and from one another.  In the late 1930s, the Viennese beauty, born Hedy Kiesler turned Hollywood starlet Lamarr, was spending much of her spare time at home, foregoing the industry party scene for her drafting table, where she tinkered in the tradition of the natural inventor who has no formal training.  By 1940, Hedy, who loved her adoptive country and had many personal reasons to know how dangerous the Nazis were, set her mind to the problem of the deadly fleet of German U-Boats preying on ships in the Atlantic.  And the unusual confluence of events that brought Hedy’s ideas together with George Antheil’s uniquely relevant experience is told in a wonderful book called Hedy’s Folly, by Richard Rhodes.

When Hedy Kiesler was still in her early 20s, she temporarily left the acting career she’d begun in her teens to marry a wealthy and powerful, Austrian arms manufacturer named Fritz Mandl.  Finding herself trapped in a gilded cage, however, Hedy literally escaped from the overbearing Mandl in 1937, running almost directly into the embrace of motion pictures, signing a lucrative contract with Louis B. Meyer. Rhodes assumes that as Mandl’s wife, Hedy very likely learned a great deal about munitions from conversations between her husband and his many associates. Mandl treated his young bride as though she were just another decoration in his mansion, but Hedy’s father had instilled in her his passion to understand how things worked.  Behind the gorgeous face was a mind paying very close attention to Mandl as he helped build the German war machine.

At the same time, New Jersey-born pianist and composer George Antheil was living in Paris supported by a wealthy, American patron.  Antheil’s riot-inciting works include the composition Ballet mécannique, originally begun as the score for the avant-garde, futurist film of the same name that is today required viewing for many film students.  Ballet mécanique, as the title might suggest, sounds as though a factory has attained consciousness and begun to make music and dance.  A performance of the composition requires such industrial apparatus as saws, electric bells, and an airplane propellor; and Antheil’s original hope for its debut was to synchronize sixteen player pianos, although he eventually settled for eight.  It was Antheil’s work to get multiple pianos to play in synchronization that set the mechanical framework in his mind for taking Hedy’s ideas and “reducing them to practice” as the patent law requires.  But first they would have to meet.

Hedy went to Hollywood to escape the emptiness of life with Fritz Mandl and to rekindle the passion for acting she’d cultivated from childhood. George Antheil and his wife, always living one meal to the next, moved to Los Angeles partly because the warm weather was good for George’s health — he suffered from bronchitis and asthma — and partly due to a change in copyright enforcement on existing music compositions.  With sound film just emerging and the young ASCAP pressing the rights of composers and songwriters, the studios, which also owned the theaters, were going to have to pay new royalties to record and exhibit existing scores with their films.  This led to a new demand for composers to create original film scores as works for hire, which led to a new source of revenue, albeit never a great one, for George Antheil.

Meanwhile, in the North Atlantic the SS City of Benares, carrying among its passengers 90 British children being evacuated away from the brewing war, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat.  According to Richard Rhodes, Hedy was deeply moved by the story of “seventy-seven children drowned in twenty-mile-per-hour winds in the bitter North Atlantic, killed by people who spoke her native language and whose country had forcibly annexed her native land .  . .”

America had not yet entered the war when Lamarr and Antheil were collaborating on their design for a torpedo that could be radio-guided to its target and avoid enemy signal jamming by hopping frequencies in an undetectable pattern.  At the time, reports Rhodes, American torpedoes were about sixty-percent duds, prone to missing their targets and ill-timed detonation.  Nevertheless, in the Winter of 1942, the US Navy declined Hedy and George’s torpedo design on the grounds the mechanism was too complicated and too heavy, neither of which makes much sense on the face of it.  That same Summer, their system received a patent, and at some point — the record is still sealed — the Navy acquired that patent.  Make of that what you will; this is another story.

Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil were a pair of passionate, often-rebellious, artists who were equally passionate about a variety of sciences and technologies.  The patent they received never earned either of them a dime, and their contribution went largely unnoticed for many decades, well into the development of signal transmission technologies we now consider the foundation of the Information Age.  At the time, of course, both were motivated by a desire to do their part in fighting fascism and the rising terror of the Nazis, but George Antheil certainly could have used some financial stability in his life.  Hedy, of course, made millions as a young movie star, but in her later years, most of that fortune had been diminished by California community property laws divided among several divorces.  In fact, according to Rhodes, most of the $3 million estate she left to her children was from a combination of smart investments and settled lawsuits “against corporations that tried to exploit her name and image.”

Hedy’s receiving the EFF Pioneer Award was the result of advocacy by Retired Army Colonel Dave Hughes, who had won the same award in 1993 for his work in early computer networking. Hughes had come across the Lamarr-Antheil patent in his own research, but according to Rhodes, he “smelled sexism” in the engineering community’s early resistance to recognize Lamarr.  The colonel, who had a boyhood crush on the movie star, was convincing; and the award was granted with Hedy accepting graciously via recorded message.

George Antheil died of a heart attack in 1959, and Hedy Lamarr just barely fulfilled her desire to live into the new millennium, passing away in January of 2000.  That particular year, one winner of The Pioneer Award was Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web. Unfortunately, this technology we call the Web has often made antagonists of artists and technologists, except not really.  There have been artist/inventors throughout history because the instinct to create is the same and the processes are so similar.  The artist and the scientist are both problem solvers and truth seekers, co-dependent on one another as society is dependent on both of them.

Happy Memorial Day Weekend to my American readers.

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