How a disastrous debut and an unhappy marriage gave us WiFi (almost)
In June 1941, Hedy Kiesler Markey and George Antheil filed patent number 2,292,387 for a “Secret Communication System”. The object of the invention was to provide a relatively simple and reliable method of secret communication that was difficult to discover or decipher. The system was intended for radio control of torpedos, and was based on the use of perforated paper rolls as had long been used in player pianos. Markey and Antheil essentially invented Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) – a spread spectrum modulation scheme that uses a narrowband carrier that changes frequency in a pattern known to both transmitter and receiver. Properly synchronized, they maintain a single, secure logical channel.
So what’s interesting about an obscure communications patent? Well apart from the fundamental importance of FHSS for modern spread-spectrum technology (e.g. Bluetooth and WiFi), its authors and their ideas are pretty intriguing too.
George Antheil was an American avant-garde composer heavily influenced by Stravinsky. He is probably best known for his dense and brutalist Ballet mécanique for 16 player pianos and percussion orchestra. The piece was originally written for the eponymous abstract film by Fernand Léger, Man Ray and Dudley Murphy. But as the piece expanded beyond the needs of the film, they went their separate ways.
The first version written in 1924 called for 16 player pianos playing four separate parts, four bass drums, three xylophones, a tam-tam, seven electric bells, a siren, and three different-sized airplane propellors, as well as two human-played pianos.
The sheer technical impossibility of synchronising the 16 player pianos with available technology meant that it was not performed in its original instrumentation in Antheil’s lifetime. Though Antheil rearranged the piece for 10 human-played pianos, it was only ever performed twice in his life. The second performance, in New York in 1927, was memorably disastrous.
His later career, though it kept him fed, was largely undistinguished. In 1936 he moved to Hollywood, where he scratched out a living like so many European composers in the 1920s and 1930s, writing music for films.
One can imagine this failure encouraging Antheil to persist with a technical method to get the player pianos performing in sync. I don’t think it is a stretch to argue that his determination to make Ballet méchanique work led to the FHSS patent.
But what about the more practical aspects of the patent? OK, it was 1941, but why torpedoes? Hedy Keisler Markey, the other author of the patent, was the daughter of a pianist, and studied piano and ballet in her youth. At the age of 19 she married Austrian munitions manufacturer, Friedrich Mandl. He appears to have fostered her interest in technology, taking her to scientific functions, exhibitions and talking shops. He also seems to have allowed her to sit in on the business of the firm, which included aircraft control-guidance systems.
On leaving her husband and moving to London, she met Louis B. Mayer. Taking the name of Hedy Lamarr, she went on to become a star for MGM.
Lamarr and Antheil became neighbours in Hollywood, initially sharing a common interest in endocrinology. Or, as Antheil himself put it via Tony Rothman of Princeton,
“You are a thymocentric, of the anterior-pituitary variety, what a call a ‘prepit-thymus,’” I volunteered.
Hedy Lamarr kept on writing for a moment, and then said, “I know it, I’ve studied your charts in Esquire. Now what I want to know is, what shall I do about it? Adrian says you’re wonderful…”
“Well, I said, “your breasts…they…so to speak…if you’re short on postpituitary…the thing to do is…er, activating substance…breasts can be controlled by…”
(Oh, God, I wanted to die of shame.)
“Go on, go on,” Hedy said, becoming a bit restless. “The thing is, can they be made bigger?”
And that, no kidding, is the way I first got acquainted with our very good friend, Hedy Lamarr.
Fairly quickly, though, it seems that Lamarr and Antheil moved on to more practical issues. Somewhere between leaving Mandl and meeting Antheil, Lamarr came up with the idea of using frequency hopping for secure communication. Some doubt whether it was an original idea. Frequency hopping as a concept had been around in engineering circles for some years, and it is quite likely Lamarr would have come across it at her husband’s firm. But the interesting part of this patent is not the two ideas in themselves – they weren’t new – but their combination.
Unfortunately, much like Ballet méchanique, patent number 2,292,387 languished in obscurity until technology caught up. By the time of the Cuban missile crisis, FHSS was in widespread use for military communication. Though some argue it was just an interesting side-branch on the road to WiFi, it was referenced in some 40 subsequent patents between 1992 and 2012, filed by companies including Seagate, Sony, Research in Motion, Philips, and AT&T.
Equally, Ballet méchanique stayed on the shelf for many years waiting for its chance. It was finally performed in 2008 with its original instrumentation – by robots.
- Antheil, George, Bad Boy of Music, Samuel French 1990
- Antheil, George. Every man his own detective: a study of glandular criminology. Stackpole sons, 1937.
- Lamarr, Hedy, Ecstasy and me: my life as a woman. WH Allen, 1967. According to the University of Melbourne, this book was banned in Australia between 1967 and 1973.
- Lehrman, P.D.; Singer, E., “Doing good by the “bad boy”: Performing George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique with robots,” Technologies for Practical Robot Applications, 2008. TePRA 2008. IEEE International Conference on , vol., no., pp.13,18, 10-11 Nov. 2008
- Kahn, David. “Cryptology and the origins of spread spectrum: Engineers during World War II developed an unbreakable scrambler to guarantee secure communications between Allied leaders; actress Hedy Lamarr played a role in the technology.” Spectrum, IEEE 21.9 (1984): 70-80.
- Turvey, Malcolm. “The Avant-Garde and the “New Spirit”: The Case of Ballet mécanique*.” October (2002): 35-58.
- “Hedy Lamarr: Movie star, inventor of WiFi” on YouTube.
— Science Friday (@scifri) August 11, 2014