Sunday, June 10, 2018

Oh, patents! Bombshell:The Hedy Lamarr Story

Much has been written about Hedy Lamarr, the glamorous Holywood star, and brilliant (patented) scientist. The most recent tribute has been put together by Alexandra Dean, in the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival award-winning documentary, titled Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. 

Bombshell is based on four unreleased telephone interview audio-tapes of the famous actress and scientist, where she talks with Forbes journalist Fleming Meeks, about her unbelievable life. Thus, in many ways, Bombshell, is a documentary presenting:  “Hedy Lamarr in her own words” which are heard throughout the 1.5-hour documentary.

Who was Hedy Lamarr? Hedwig Eva Maria Keisler was born on Nov. 9, 1914, and died on Jan. 19, 2000. She was an Austrian Jewish immigrant, a "tyrolean beauty" by her own admission, with a dual career as Hollywood actress, and scientist-inventor.  

Bombshell has the great merit of making sense of the duality of her story, suggesting that her career as a Holywood beauty icon was incompatible with her brilliance as a scientist. A dissonance that, in turn, completely obscured the scope, and importance, of her invention, until the very end of her life. As one of the documentary voiceovers states: “You don’t get to be both Hedy Lamarr and smart”. 

Indeed, Hedy Lamarr’s face was selected as the model for the Disney character “Snow White” –as well as for Cat Woman. But it was only with the advent of WiFi, Bluetooth® and GPS technologies that she was credited for the brilliance of her contribution to secure radio communication signals, with a frequency hopping invention during, World War II. As the graphics animator, Jennifer Hom, who Google Doodled Hedy Lamarr, states in Bombshell, Hedy was also “the perfect underdog, a crime-fighter by night” whose accomplishments were unknown.

What did Hedy Lamarr invent? Hedy Lamarr invented radio frequency hopping to prevent the Axis forces during WWII from jamming the Allied British and American radio communications, particularly between ships and torpedos, though unlimited to horizontal communication. In other words, she invented a system for securing radio communication signals, using up to 88 different frequencies. Unless the enemy knew the hopping sequence, which changed, communication could no longer be jammed. 

To bring her invention to life, Hedy Lamarr collaborated with a well-known music composer called George Antheil, an expert in player piano synchronization (i.e.; using piano rolls to activate keys). The invention was recognized by the National Inventor’s Council in 1941.  Lamarr and Antheil then collaborated with an expert physicist, Pr. Sam Mackeown, at Cal Tech for the electronic implementation of the invention.  

The frequency hopping invention was thus patented and awarded to Hedy Keisler Markey and George Antheil. It is recited in the US patent, US2292387, titled Secret Communication System. Once awarded, the patent was donated to the US Navy, who rejected it, sending the glamorous and famous Hedy Lamarr, instead, to entertain the troops, and raise money, selling 25 million dollars worth of war bonds for the war effort. The patent was also subsequently seized, in 1942, by the US Government as enemy alien property. Hedy Lamarr was not yet an American citizen.

After the war, and her fundraising activity on behalf of the US Armed Forces, Lamarr went back to a successful acting career, also producing her own motion pictures and raising a family. She had been married a few times, including a first marriage to an Austrian arms manufacturing tycoon, which probably explains her interest in WWII weaponry.

By the 1960s, the frequency hopping communications invention was in use on all US Navy ships, in particular during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962. But, none of the proceeds of the invention were ever distributed to Lamarr and Antheil, on the grounds that the patent had expired.  A fact that Lamarr and her biographers disputed,  using written evidence from an Army-commissioned contractor, who was given her patent to use as a blueprint in 1955, and who acknowledged her invention.

It was only in 1990, in an article titled Hedy Lamarr was also a brilliant inventorwritten by Fleming Meeks (the Forbes journalist who supplied the four interview tapes for Bombshell ), that Hedy Lamarr, at age 76, received the first recognition for her work as an inventor, and her aspirations to change the course of World War II.

Hedy Lamarr then received accolades from the communications industry that recognized the use of frequency hopping in WiFi, Bluetooth® and GPS technologies, as well as from the military for use in satellite communications. The overdue accolades culminated in an award granted by Lockheed Martin, Milstar satellites and the US Navy, which was accepted by her son. However, the glamorous tide had turned for Lamarr, who was now living a very private and finally fully reconciled life.

Included below, the first sheet of drawings extracted from the Lamarr/Antheil patent, showing Figures 1-3. Figure I schematically illustrates the transmitting apparatus. Figure 2 schematically illustrates the receiving apparatus. Figure 3 schematically illustrates a starting circuit for simultaneously starting the transmitting and receiving motors.

Alexandra Dean on Hedy Lamarr (Interview)
Google Doodle  (Nov. 9,2015)  Hedy Lamarr’s 101sr birthday 
Meeks, F. (May 1990) Hedy Lamarr was also a brilliant inventor. Forbes Magazine
Shmavonian, K.  (Aug. 14, 2013) Thoughts On Innovation And Hedy Lamarr. Forbes Magazine

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