Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Feb 24, 2010 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

I have a few personal heroes whose lives have inspired me: Abraham Lincoln, Samuel Clemens, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, Albert Einstein and Alan Turing. Recently I learned of another, and I would like to share their story with you, since in a lot of ways they had a major effect on Computers and Free Software.

It was 1937 and Europe was in turmoil. A lot of Jewish people were fleeing from the regime of the Nazis, quite a few coming to the United States to escape oppression. A lot of these immigrants were highly educated. My "hero" had received a good education in Austria, but also had a love of mathematics and science that went far beyond their formal education. My hero's mother and father were a pianist and banker respectively, and my hero picked up a broad range of knowledge. My hero went into the theater, and later to movies.

Seeing the Nazis increasingly move forward, my hero moved from Austria to Paris, then to London, using their musical and acting talents to make a living. In 1938 they moved to the United States, and started to make their living in Hollywood.

In 1939 the Nazis were using U-boats to control the seas. The Allied navies of the world were trying to use torpedoes against the U-boats, but the torpedoes of the day were slow and released a trail of bubbles that could easily be seen, so the torpedoes could be avoided. Engineers realized that radio signals could be used to steer the torpedo, but they also realized that if the radio signal was detected it could be jammed, or worse yet, be overcome and direct the torpedo back to the Allied ship that launched it!

My hero had given a lot of thought to this, and reasoned that the signal for the torpedo could be sent over several frequencies. If there was some way to coordinate both the transmitter and the receiver, so they were both using the same frequency at the same time, yet keep changing the frequency in some secret, complex pattern, then the radio signal would be a lot harder to detect and jam.

Enter George Antheil, the son of German immigrants, who had created music using automated musical instruments, such as a group of player pianos all playing simultaneously. Mr. Antheil had learned how to make these individual instruments all work together. Meeting him at a party in Hollywood, my hero discussed the idea of the "changing frequencies".

Now some of you know I collect automated musical instruments, particularly those that have a paper roll that control them. I have always found it fascinating that people in the nineteenth century could make automatons using just vacuum motors, paper rolls and linkages. In fact, some of the first "bus" and "router" designs came from the mechanisms of organs, using the flow of air channeled to various parts of the organ by mechanical means. "Amplifiers" were made by using small valves and small volumes of air (or vacuum) to control larger volumes of air (or vacuum).

Mr. Antheil sat down with my hero and in a few nights had figured out how to spread a radio signal over 88 different frequencies, using a piano roll (which typically has 88 holes for the 88 keys of the piano) to control which frequency was being used at which time.

They wrote up this idea, complete with pictures and diagrams, and submitted it to the U.S. Patent Office as a "secret communication system", giving the rights to the patent to the U.S. Government in June of 1941, about six months before Perl Harbor.

Unfortunately the technologies of the time were not up to the task. Using a paper piano roll in a torpedo, along with the associated mechanisms that it would take to make it work was not feasible, but the idea seemed sound.

My hero was told that instead of joining the "National Inventors Council" as they wanted, they should use their movie fame to sell War Bonds. My hero took their advice, and went on to generate millions of dollars of sales for War Bonds to help fund the World War II effort.

Years went past, and the patent lost its rights after 17 years. The two inventors never made any royalties on it, and their hope of it being used to overturn the Nazis would never be realized.

Twenty years later things had changed. Communications had improved, electronics (instead of mechanical paper rolls) could be used for the timing, and "secret communication" style radio signals could now be used to control torpedoes and missiles.

The mechanism described in the patent began to be used for military communications.

In 1981 the government started to release information on this system, and in 1985 the system began to be used in various commercial radio systems, for engineers found out that by using this technique they could not only transmit more signals over the same amount of bandwidth, but at much lower power consumption.

This method, no longer "secret" was named "spread spectrum", and is the basis of WiFi, Bluetooth and cellular technologies, to name just a few.

In 1997, the EFF awarded George Antheil (who was long dead) and my hero (who by that time was retired in Florida) a "Pioneer Award", fifty-six years after they had submitted their patent.

If you look at the patent, you still might not recognize the name of my hero, Hedy Kiesler Markey, nor might you know her by her birth name of Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, but most of you probably have at least heard of her stage name, Hedy Lamarr, once called "The most beautiful woman in the World".

Thank you, Ms. Lamarr, for all that you did.


  • actually that's not quite right...

    George Antheil did NOT figure out how to make multiple player pianos work together: it was one of the problems he was not able to solve. It wasn't until the 1990s--50 years after he died--that what he imagined for his music was actually possible. Visit www.antheil.org for the whole story.
    But the story of his and Hedy's invention is a compelling one, if it gets a little fuzzy in the retelling sometimes. Two good books are out there that examine it in detail: "Everything's Relative," by Prof. Tony Rothman, and "Spread Spectrum" by Rob Walters. There was also an excellent play produced in New York two years ago by Elyse Singer called "Frequency Hopping" that explained how it all worked--even if it did take some liberties with the personal side of the story.
  • early oscilloscope

    in the entrance hall of the university of toronto physics department was a display of a primitive oscilloscoe that demonstrated the sine waves of organ pipe sounds. it used the sound to modulate a gas burner that burned traces on a roll of paper. it did not use electricity at all in this task. there were many thinkers involved in acoustics that had neat ideas like hedy lamarr. at school she probably had some experience with this kind of thinking outside the box.
  • Many many thanks

    I love stories like this. It makes the banality of normal life fade into insignificance. happy
  • alan turing

    Turing's homosexuality resulted in a criminal prosecution in 1952—homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom at that time—and he accepted treatment with female hormones, chemical castration, as an alternative to prison. He died in 1954, several weeks before his 42nd birthday, from an apparently self-administered cyanide poisoning, although his mother (and some others) considered his death to be accidental.
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