Aviation for Women

MAY-JUN 2018

Aviation for Women is the flagship member publication of Women in Aviation International. Articles feature women who have made aviation history, professional development ideas, and current-topic articles.

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M A Y / J U N E 2 0 1 8 AviationforWomen 23 A concept easy to explain, Hedy didn't know how to make it work. She examined the Philco Mystery Controller, a remote control for radios introduced in 1939. It worked on eight frequencies, so it would not interfere with the neighbor's mystery control- ler. She'd listened to the dinner discussion of the 18-channel system that guided German glide bombs. But neither was of any help because they picked a sin- gle available frequency; they did not hop randomly among the available selections. The challenge was synchronizing the transmitter and receiver to hop randomly from one frequency to the next with little or no latency. This is an easy pro- cess in the digital realm, one employed in almost ev- ery wireless application, from GPS to Wi-Fi to cell- phones to Bluetooth. But in the analog world of tubes and relays, the goal seemed insurmountable, until she met George Antheil. A voracious networker, Hedy met the avant-garde composer, concert pianist, and polymath. His "most notorious composition," Ballet Mécanique, was a 20-minute dissonant symphony of grand pianos, xylo - phones, electric bells, an airplane propeller, sirens, and, of particular interest to Hedy, 16 synchronized player pianos. Ultimately, he was only able to synchro- nize four of them at the 1927 Carnegie Hall perfor- mance, but it offered hope to hopping frequencies. Hedy and George Antheil combined their knowl- edge to synchronize the connection of frequency- hopping radio signals. At specific intervals this con- nection would convey course corrections to a tor- pedo launched from a ship or airplane. During the radio silence that separated these corrections, both the transmitter and receiver would change to anoth- er frequency. To make these changes semi-automatic instead of manually executed, which took minutes, not fractions of seconds, George developed a miniaturized version of the player piano roll. A perforated ribbon of paper, it was a rudimentary digital controller for the piano's pneumatic system. Next, they paired this ribbon con- troller as two sister systems that synchronized the si- multaneous hopping among 88 different frequencies. Their work resulted in two patent applications, one for a radio-controlled torpedo and another for its secret communication system. Hedy and George submitted them to the National Inventors Council shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. They received their patents on August 11, 1942, and the Navy wasn't interested. This inspired the ti- tle of Richard Rhodes' book. Hedy's belief that her in- vention could change the course of the war was "fol- ly in two senses of that fine old word: extravagant in consequential invention; and founded on the foolish notion that the United States Navy would take cor- rection from a Hollywood actress of great beauty in a matter about which it was not prepared to listen to its own submarine commanders." Despite its disinterest, somehow the U.S. Navy ac- quired the patent rights. It promptly classified them and kept them secret for 40 years. The duo's patent rights expired in 1959, as did George. Around that time, the Navy shared the Secret Communication Patent with an engineer developing jam-proof sonobuoys, air dropped devices that listen for submarines. As technology caught up with the concept of frequency hopping, engineers renamed it "spread spectrum communications." The govern- ment declassified the technology in 1976. Unable to change the Navy's mind, George con- tinued to compose film scores and suggested Hedy put her celebrity to work selling war bonds. Keeping true to her decision not to become a slave to film, she made only three or four a year and took a month off after each of them. Deciding to prove how successful a salesperson she could be, she hit the road. Speaking at a $5,000-a-plate bond luncheon in Philadelphia, she sold $4,547,350, with pledges for another $2.25 million. By the end of her tour, Hedy's sales total was $25 million. Then she worked two nights a week at the Hollywood Canteen, washing dishes and dancing with servicemen. Hedy continued to invent. Among her creations were a stoplight, modifications for the Concorde, a fluorescent dog collar, and a device to get the im- paired in and out of the bathtub. Her bouillon-like cube that created a soft drink when mixed with water was, she said with a laugh, "a flop." None of her sub- sequent inventions came close to frequency hopping. She followed its maturation and was sometimes bit- ter about the lack of recognition, but it wasn't until 1993 when the sonobuoy engineer connected Hedy's frequency hopping patent to spread spectrum tech- nology. With the nomenclature synced, the Electronic Frontier Foundation awarded its prestigious Pioneer Award to Hedy and, posthumously, George, in 1996. In 1999, living alone in Florida on a Screen Actors Guild pension, Hedy answered a "Proust Question- naire" for Vanity Fair. Perfect happiness, she said was "living a very private life," and that she was happiest "between marriages." Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were her heroes. Bart Simpson was her fictional hero, and like him, her motto was, "Do not take things too seriously." Her ultimate goal was to live into the millennium. Hedy Lamarr, who's inventive mind made possible much of the technol- ogy that defines the 21st century, died in her sleep, at age 85, on January 19, 2000. ✈ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . An aviation journalist since 1989, Scott M. Spangler lives outside of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and writes about the many facets of aviation. Filmmaker Alexandra Dean explores Hedy's fascinaƟng life in a new documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. Avail- able in select theaters, the film will premiere in the U.S. on PBS sta- Ɵons in May 2018. The producƟon will also be available to stream via www.PBS.org/ americanmasters and PBS apps on May 19. Pulitzer-Prize- winning author Richard Rhodes pub- lished Hedy's Folly: The Life and Break- through InvenƟons of Hedy Lamarr, the Most BeauƟful Woman in the World.

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