Hedy Lamarr, Radio-Controlled Torpedo
Few inventors have been more glamorous than actress Hedy Lamarr, whose idea for a torpedo-guidance system is still used by today's military.
IT’S THE OLD STORY: A glamorous movie actress and a brash avant-garde composer get together to invent and patent a device that controls torpedoes by radio. Naturally their foray into military-technology innovation affects the way defense satellites are designed in the next half-century.
This seemingly preposterous sequence of events actually happened, but it is as little known as it is improbable. I stumbled on it while doing research on the relationship between technology and music in the twentieth century. I came across the composer and concert pianist George Antheil’s 1945 autobiography, Bad Boy of Music, and found that in it he mentions his collaboration with Hedy Lamarr.
The screen star was born in Vienna in 1914—or 1913, according to some, or 1915, according to her—as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. She went to Max Reinhardt’s famous acting school in Berlin during her late teens, and in 1933 she showed the world her acting skills and most of herself in the film Extase ( Ecstasy), which quickly became notorious for its extensive nude scenes. The movie played in America after severe cutting, and in 1937 its leading lady went to Hollywood. Louis B. Mayer, of MGM, hired her and gave her the name Lamarr. Soon she was acting opposite such stars as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Some thought her the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, but as an actress she was overshadowed by heroines like Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn. In 1966 she published her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me.
HER first husband was Austria’s most important arms manufacturer. He was interested in control systems. She clearly learned things from him.
HOW DID THIS LEAD TO torpedo research? To answer that, I must introduce her first husband (she had six altogether), Fritz Mandl, before I get to her collaborator, George Antheil. Mandl was the most important Austrian armaments manufacturer of his time and one of the four or five leading ones of Europe. He married Lamarr in 1933. During their marriage, which broke up in 1937, Madame Mandl was an institution in Viennese society, entertaining—and dazzling—foreign leaders, including Hitler and Mussolini. Mandl specialized in shells and grenades, but from the mid-thirties on he also manufactured military aircraft. He was interested in control systems and conducted research in the field. His wife clearly learned things from him.
Mandl was a shady character. Born in 1900, he had taken over his father’s armaments factory at the age of twenty-four. The Versailles Treaty forbade weapons making in Germany and Austria, so he set up subsidiaries in Poland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland and gradually became the chief armaments supplier to the Austrian army. In 1933 he and the Austrian government be came the center of scandal: World War I weapons had been sold to Hungary in contravention of the Versailles Treaty. Mandl and Austria got out of that business, but soon the former was supplying arms for the Abyssinian War and the Spanish civil war. He appears to have been willing to do business with anyone on any side of any war, and because of that, the Nazis confiscated his factory even before the Anschluss joined Austria to Germany, in 1938. Mandl moved to Argentina, opened a weapons plant there, and became a close adviser to Juan Peron. After Argentina entered World War II, his property was confiscated, but he was given it back after the war and ultimately returned to Austria, where he died in 1977.
GEORGE ANTHEIL, LAMARR’S co-inventor, was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1900; his parents were from East Prussia. After studying music at what is now the Curtis Institute, in Philadelphia, he went to Europe to pursue a career as a concert pianist, heading first to Berlin and then settling in Paris in 1923. He became one of the top avant-garde composers of the time, writing and playing machinelike, “mechanistic,” rhythmically propulsive pieces with names like Airplane Sonata, Sonata Sauvage, Jazz Sonata, and Death of Machines . His Ballet Mécanique was scored for sixteen player pianos, xylophones, and percussion and was first performed in Paris in June 1926, in a version that had only one player piano but also had electric bells, airplane propellers, and a siren. It caused an uproar.
Antheil knew practically everybody in Paris’s literary, artistic, and musical circles, but in 1933 he returned permanently to the United States. He became a film composer in Hollywood and a writer for Esquire magazine, producing a syndicated advice-to-the-lovelorn column and articles about romance and endocrinology. He even published a book titled Every Man His Own Detective: A Study of Glandular Endocrinology . In 1939 he sent an article to Esquire about the future of Europe that proved impressively accurate: It predicted that the war would start with Germany invading Poland, that Germany would later attack Russia, and that the United States would be drawn into the conflict.
He met Hedy Lamarr in the summer of 1940, when they were neighbors in Hollywood and she approached him with a question about glands: She wanted to know how she could enlarge her breasts. In time the conversation came around to weapons, and Lamarr told Antheil that she was contemplating quitting MGM and moving to Washington, D.C., to offer her services to the newly established National Inventors Council.
They began talking about radio control for torpedoes. The idea itself was not new, but her concept of “frequency hopping” was. Frequency hopping, which today is used extensively in military communications, means broadcasting a signal (which might carry commands for directing a torpedo) over a seemingly random series of radio frequencies, switching from frequency to frequency at split-second intervals. A receiver hopping between frequencies in sync with the transmitter can pick up the message, while any eavesdropper will hear only random blips. An attempt to jam such a signal—jamming was and remains a drawback to radio control—will knock out only bits of it, often leaving enough untouched to do no harm at all.
Lamarr brought up the idea of radio control; Antheil’s contribution was to suggest the device by which synchronization could be achieved. He proposed that rapid changes in radio frequencies could be coordinated the way he had coordinated the sixteen synchronized player pianos in his Ballet Mécanique . The analogy was complete in his mind: By the time the two applied for a patent on a “Secret Communication System,” on June 10, 1941, the invention used slotted paper rolls similar to player-piano rolls to synchronize the frequency changes in transmitter and receiver, and it even called for exactly eightyeight frequencies, the number of keys on a piano.
LAMARR AND ANTHEIL worked on the idea for several months and then, in December 1940, sent a description of it to the National Inventors Council, which had been launched with much fanfare earlier in the year as a gatherer of novel ideas and inventions from the general public. Its chairman was Charles E Kettering, the research director of General Motors. Over its lifetime, which lasted until 1974, the council collected more than 625,000 suggestions, few of which ever reached the patent stage. But according to Antheil, Kettering himself suggested that he and Lamarr develop their idea to the point of being patentable. With the help of an electrical engineering professor from the California Institute of Technology they ironed out its bugs, and the patent was granted on August 11, 1942. It specified that a high-altitude observation plane could steer the torpedo from above.
Putting the idea into practice was not so simple. Despite the enthusiasm that Antheil said Kettering expressed, others were skeptical. One examiner at the Inventors Council doubted the clockwork mechanism that moved the perforated tape could be accurate enough. Antheil lobbied for support for further research from, among others, William C. Bullitt, Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy. He argued that the Germans were superior to the Americans in naval technology and that something had to be done about it. He seemed driven in part by an urge to prove his patriotism after all his years in Europe. Hedy Lamarr meanwhile demonstrated her loyalty by raising seven million dollars in a single evening selling war bonds.
Despite Antheil’s lobbying, the Navy turned its back on the invention, concluding that the mechanism would have to be too bulky to fit into a torpedo. Antheil disagreed; he insisted that it could be made small enough to squeeze into a watch. Andlhe thought he knew why the Navy was so negative: “In our patent Hedy and I attempted to better elucidate our mechanism by explaining that certain parts of it worked like the fundamental mechanism of a player piano. Here, undoubtedly, we made our mistake. The reverend and brass-headed gentlemen in Washington who examined our invention read no further than the words ‘player piano.’ ‘My god,’ I can see them saying, ‘we shall put a player piano in a torpedo.’”
ANTHEIL complained, “The reverend and brass-headed gentlemen … who examined our invention read no further than the words ‘player piano.’”
In other words, it was a culture clash: the thick-headed brass hats were incapable of considering the idea that musical technology could play any part in a complicated piece of weaponry. But Antheil’s explanation is too simple; the invention had other problems. To explain them requires looking at other developments in torpedo control at the time, especially in Germany.
In the first half of the 1930s, military researchers favored using wire for torpedo control. Thomas Edison had advocated this early on. Wilhelm von Siemens had suggested wireless control back in 1906, but the problems it posed included developing an antenna that could receive signals underwater. Only very long waves can penetrate water, and even with a very strong and therefore bulky transmitter penetration could reach only a few yards. Furthermore, the plane controlling a torpedo’s flight would be an obvious target for the target’s own fire.
In 1935 the German navy began giving serious attention to the question of torpedo control. Although many specialists advocated wire, it presented major problems too: A wire would have to be up to ten miles long, and it would be apt to break, which would mean losing command of the torpedo. The champions of radio control developed a three-hundred-foot-long antenna that a torpedo could drag like a tail. Then they tried to tackle the challenge of guiding the torpedo from the air. One solution was to have it leave bubbles or a paint streak on the water’s surface, but even if good enough visibility could be ensured, the trail would likely follow too far behind the speeding torpedo to be useful.
In 1938 the German navy gave the firm of Siemens and Halske a substantial development contract for torpedo-control research. As attention turned more and more to wireless control, the idea of frequency shifting emerged; it was definitely discussed at a meeting in July 1939, and it seems likely that the notion had already come up in Fritz MandPs conversations a few years earlier. Siemens and Halske was supposed to have a radio-control system ready by the end of 1939, but the outbreak of war redirected military R D priorities, and the project went by the wayside amid continuing uncertainties about jamming, cumbersome transmitters, and underwater penetration.
LATER PATENTS in frequency changing refer to this one as the basis of the field. The concept lies behind the main anti-jamming device used today.
In the United States Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, shunned by the Navy, pursued their invention no further. But in 1957 the concept was taken up by engineers at the Sylvania Electronic Systems Division, in Buffalo, New York. Their arrangement, using, of course, electronics rather than piano rolls, ultimately became a basic tool for secure military communications. It was installed on ships sent to blockade Cuba in 1962, about three years after the Lamarr-Antheil patent had expired. Subsequent patents in frequency changing, which are generally unrelated to torpedo control, have referred to the Lamarr-Antheil patent as the basis of the field, and the concept lies behind the principal anti-jamming device used today, for example, in the U.S. government’s Milstar defense communications satellite system.
IN SHORT, HEDY LAMARR and George Antheil were inventors ahead of their time. Their idea needed its technological shortcomings to be overcome, which took years. But their story holds another lesson: Wartime is not always the best time for advancing military technology. If there are too many obstacles to the deployment of a new system, it will likely be cast aside, especially if the existing system, in this case wire control, works acceptably. And Lamarr and Antheil’s experience offers one additional lesson: It shows that a concept or device from an utterly unrelated technological context and the most unlikely people can sometimes offer a new solution to an old and vexing problem, though you can’t expect military men to realize that right away.