Hedy Lamarr, Adolf Hitler, and your cell phone

Can you name the Hollywood bombshell that partied with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, then developed a communications system to defeat them both… which is still an integral part of modern wireless communications?

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna on November 9, 1913. Aside from being amazingly beautiful, Eva was as smart as a whip, too. When she married her first husband – Friedrich Mandl, a German arms manufacturer – it wasn’t long before she knew his trade inside and out. And it was at various “business social” events that Kiesler ran in to Hitler and Mussolini… which is ironic, because both Kiesler and Mandl were Jewish. Mandl did everything he could do disguise his Jewish background, even converting to Christianity. Mandl was also insanely protective of his wife, and had her followed nearly everywhere she went. Between her husband’s obsessive jealousy and Germany’s ever increasing anti-Semitism, Kiesler just couldn’t take it anymore, so she fled to London.

It was in London that Kiesler met movie legend Louis B. Mayer – the last “M” of MGM. Mayer hired her on the spot and personally changed her name to the one film buffs and geeks everywhere still remember: Hedy Lamarr. She had already appeared in several European films – including the sexually provocative Ecstasy. But it would be in Hollywood where she’d have her greatest success, appearing in Algiers (1938), White Cargo and Tortilla Flat (both 1942) and Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949).

The story might have ended there, had Lamarr not had harbored a burning hatred for the Nazi regime. Lamarr teamed up with composer George Antheil to develop an amazingly clever way to scramble radio transmissions. Are you familiar with player pianos… you know, those old-timey pianos that play themselves? Player pianos usually had a roll of paper mounted just above the keyboard. The roll – about the size of a roll of paper towels – was fed through the player and on to a take-up roll – much like the film in a projector. The paper had holes cut into it at various locations; as the paper was fed through a “reader”, a metal pin either went through a hole (causing the corresponding note to be played) or there was no hole for the pin to go through (and a note was not played). What Lamarr and Antheil did that was so clever was to hook a piano roll up to a radio transmitter. Because if you attach a piano roll to both a transmitter and a receiver, and if the rolls are identical and in sync, their broadcasting and receiving frequencies can be rapidly and automatically changed – which means that the enemy can’t easily listen in.

Lamarr and Antheil received U.S. patent #2,292,387 for their work. Sadly, the US military didn’t see the utility of such a system at the time, and the patent had nearly expired by the time the military did, in fact, begin using a similar system in 1962. It wasn’t until the 1980s that such a system was used for commercial applications, such as newswire services, aircraft navigation, and communications to commercial trucks. Later on, spread spectrum technology – which such radio frequency hopping is now called – would be used in most 2.4 and 5.8 GHz cordless phones and CDMA cellular phones, as well as WiFi and Bluetooth devices.

BONUS GEEKERY: The first piano rolls weren’t very sophisticated; they were nothing more complex than your basic music box. However, as time passed, several techniques were invented that allowed roll makers to record every aspect of a performance, such as pedal usage and the strength with which the performer pressed down on the keys of the special “recording piano”. There are several surviving piano rolls that captured the performances of highly-respected composers like Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, Edvard Grieg, Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff and George Gershwin. I, for one, would love to hear Mahler’s work played “live” by the composer himself.

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