Pentagon's search for bright ideas isn't crazy

Invention: If actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil could patent "frequency hopping," who knows what clever ideas are waiting to be dropped into the suggestion box.

November 04, 2001|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Department of Defense has appealed for ideas to help in the fight against terrorism. Officials said they want innovative ideas from sources that might otherwise not have access to the Pentagon - small companies and individuals with imaginative solutions.

This idea of the national equivalent to the office suggestion box drew jibes from some quarters. A Washington columnist for the New York Times laughed at the idea of "every Tom, Dick and Goofball" becoming national security consultants.

Actually, significant, innovative ideas - real breakthroughs - for the defense establishment might come from the unlikeliest individuals.

Hedy Lamarr was a movie star of the 1930s, '40s and '50s. She was dubbed "the most beautiful girl in the world" by her acting teacher in her native Vienna before she came to the United States. She was well-known in the United States before she arrived in 1937 - for a movie few Americans had seen but most had heard of. That was Ecstasy, made in Czechoslovakia in 1933. She was shown in a 10-minute nude swimming and gamboling scene and having sex. The movie was banned in New York and other U.S. cities, and was condemned by the pope.

In Hollywood, she co-starred in such movies as Algiers, Boom Town, Tortilla Flat and Samson and Delilah with the leading men of the era, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Charles Boyer, Victor Mature. But she was never considered a great actress.

She was a fervent anti-Nazi, and after the United States went to war, she sought to do her share. To her, that meant more than posing for pinup pictures and selling war bonds (although she raised $7 million in a single appearance).

She knew something about the munitions side of war. Her first husband was an industrialist in Austria whose clients included the German military. David Hughes, an investigator for the National Science Foundation, put it this way in a National Public Radio interview in 1997: "[Her husband and his clients] were working on attempts to guide torpedoes to their target by radio. But if you use radio, it can be jammed. He took her to a lot of these meetings. She was kind of his trophy bride. She listened. She had this incredible mind. She soaked this up."

Several years later, she recalled some of those conversations. She was at a party at Janet Gaynor's house. She met an avant-garde composer, George Antheil. His specialty was player piano music. When Lamarr told him how interested the arms men in Europe were in finding a way to make the signals of radio-guided aerial torpedoes invulnerable to jamming and interception, they began trying out ideas to overcome the problem.

Lamarr told Antheil that she thought the solution to the problem involved rapid "hopping" from frequency to frequency. But how was that possible? According to Gary Chapman, professor of technology policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, "Antheil provided the mechanical means to do this by using his knowledge of player pianos. Their invention used a paper tape, like player piano rolls, to synchronize radio communications that would jump from one frequency to another." Sender and receiver would jump in unison.

They applied for a patent in June 1941 and it was granted in August 1942, Patent No. 2,292,387, "Secret Communications System."

With a war on, the military kept it secret. According to Hughes, "The Navy realized it couldn't do it mechanically. It was 20 years later, in 1962, with computers that now could do it much faster, in the Cuban missile crisis, that it was incorporated into the Navy torpedo guidance system."

Eventually, according to Chapman, "Lamarr's work became crucial to military communications through the most intense period of the Cold War. It was eventually embedded in the country's entire nuclear command and control system."

The Lamarr-Antheil patent expired in the 1960s. The government confined the invention to military use until the 1980s. Then it allowed frequency hopping, by then also known as spread spectrum, in commercial products. Wireless phones, global positioning satellites, the Internet and other undergirdings of modern civilization can be traced back to an idea by a couple of "Tom, Dick and Goofballs."

Thanks to Hughes' efforts, Lamarr was honored with the Pioneer Award of the Electric Frontier Foundation in 1997. She is also on an honor roll of winners of the Lemelson-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Award - alongside the likes of Edwin Land (instant photography) and Ernest Lawrence (cyclotron).

When she died last year, she was living in modest means in Florida. She either lost or gave the rights to her invention to the government. Had she not, says Chapman, the Most Beautiful Girl in the World "would possibly have become the richest person of all time."

Theo Lippman Jr. is a former editorial writer for The Sun.

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