Google is celebrating Hedy Lamarr’s 101th birthday today, by crediting her with inventing frequency-hopping communications technology that led to today’s wireless communication networks. But did Lamarr really invent frequency-hopping?
Let’s start with some basic definitions:
Frequency-hopping is a way of sending electronic communications that involves switching between multiple sub-frequencies in a pre-determined order. If I send a message that says ‘attack at 7 PM’ on a single frequency, and someone interrupts or eavesdrops on that frequency, obviously, they get the whole message. But if I break up each individual letter in that message, and send each letter on a different frequency, it’s much harder to interrupt or capture. The person receiving the message knows which frequencies I will use, so they can assemble the message quite easily, but if you don’t know which frequencies to access, it’s all just a mess and jumble of seemingly random numbers and letters.
Most of the code being used during WWII involved elaborate substitutions of numbers and letters. Codes looked like this:
The whole message was transmitted on a single frequency, but you needed to know the code to decipher the message. Messages were broken into parts, but still all sent on the same frequency. The codes were devilishly clever, but breakable. Frequency hopping added a new level of complexity.
According to the patent issued to Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, they were involved in creating a system to control torpedoes using modulated radio frequencies.
This invention relates broadly to secret communication systems involving the use of carrier waves of different frequencies, and is especially useful in the remote control of dirigible craft, such as torpedoes.
An object of the invention is to provide a method of secret communication which is relatively simple and reliable in operation, but at the same time is difficult to discover or decipher.
Briefly, our system as adapted for radio control of a remote craft, employs a pair of synchronous records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station, which change the tuning of the transmitting and receiving apparatus from time to time, so that without knowledge of the records an enemy would be unable to determine at what frequency a controlling impulse would be sent. Furthermore, we contemplate employing records of the type used for many years in player pianos, and which consist, of long rolls of paper having perforations variously positioned in a plurality of longitudinal rows along the records. In a conventional player piano record there may be 88 rows of perforations, and in our system such a record would permit the use of 88 different carrier frequencies, from one to another of which both the transmitting and receiving station would be changed at intervals. Furthermore, records of the type described can be made of substantial length and may be driven slow or fast. This makes it possible for a. pair of records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station, to run for a length of time ample for the remote control of a device such as a torpedo.
There are a few interesting things to dig out of Lamarr and Antheil’s patent, filed on June 10th, 1941. First up, let’s deal with the frequency-hopping issue. Nowhere do either Lamarr or Antheil claim they invented frequency-hopping, so let’s dig into the patent database a bit.
Well, well, well. Look at this:
In certain systems for transmitting intelligible messages or governing the movements and operations of distant automata electrical impulses or disturbances produced by suitable apparatus are conveyed through the natural media to a receiving-circuit capable of responding to the impulses, and thereby effecting the control of other appliances. Generally a special device, highly sensitive, is connected to the receiving-circuit, which in order to render it still more susceptible and to reduce the liability of its being affected by extraneous disturbances is carefully adjusted so as to be in tune with the transmitter. By a scientific design of the sending and receiving circuits and other apparatus and skilful adjustment of the same these objects may be in a measure attained; but in long experience I have found that notwithstanding all constructive advantages and experimental resources this method is in many cases inadequate. Thus while I have succeeded in so operating selectively under certain favorable conditions more than one hundred receivers in most cases it is practicable to work successfully but a few,- the number rapidly diminishing as, either owing to great distance or other causes, the energy available in the tuned circuits becomes smaller and the receivers necessarily more delicate. Evidently a circuit however well constructed and adjusted to respond exclusively to vibrations of one period is apt to be affected by higher harmonics and still more so by lower ones. When the oscillations are of a very high frequency, the number of the effective harmonics may be large and the receiver consequently easily disturbed by extraneous influences to such an extent that when very short waves, such as those produced by I’Iertzian spark apparatus.
Sure sounds like frequency-hopping to me! That patent was filed on June 14th, 1903! By none other than Nikola Tesla, working alone.
And on November 14th, 1929, Willem Broertjes filed this patent:
The essential feature of the invention resides in the fact that messages are transmitted by means of a group of frequencies (working frequencies) known to the sender and receiver alone, and alternated at will during transmission of the messages. For example, five frequencies may be used, care being taken at the transmitting station that the signals, i.e. the dots and dashes of the Morse or any other alphabet are transmitted by these frequencies alternately. The alternation may take place, both during the transmission’ of the signals and between the signals, and be effected either mechanically or in any convenient manner by hand.
Gosh, that sounds like frequency-hopping, too!
Looks like German physicist and electrical engineer Jonathan Zenneck wrote the book on wireless telegraphy back in 1908, specifically addressing frequency-hopping, well before Lamarr and Antheil submitted their patent.
Lamarr invented frequency-hopping?
No, she did not. She missed that boat by decades. Case closed. The claim is garbage. What Lamarr and Antheil did ‘invent’ was a way to use frequency-hopping to control torpedoes. Hey, that’s cool, but it’s a far cry from inventing frequency-hopping. This is precisely the issue Richard Dawkins took with ‘clock-boy’ Ahmed. He took apart a clock, re-assembled it to resemble a bomb, and then claimed to have invented a clock. You didn’t invent jack shit, Ahmed, and neither did Hedy Lamarr.
Let’s look at Lamarr and Atheils’s patent a little more closely, specifically this:
Furthermore, we contemplate employing records of the type used for many years in player pianos, and which consist, of long rolls of paper having perforations variously positioned in a plurality of longitudinal rows along the records. In a conventional player piano record there may be 88 rows of perforations, and in our system such a record would permit the use of 88 different carrier frequencies, from one to another of which both the transmitting and receiving station would be changed at intervals.
I’ll give you three guesses as to which member of the patent team was a musician. George? Hedy?
From his Wikipedia page: ‘George Antheil was an American avant-garde composer, pianist, author and inventor whose modernist musical compositions explored the modern sounds – musical, industrial, mechanical – of the early 20th century.’
Well, I am shocked! Shocked, I tell you! Now, Lamarr’s mother was also a pianist, but according to her heavily edited Wikepedia page, Lamarr’s training was in the theatre, not the conservatory.
No doubt, Lamarr was a clever woman, able to grasp the mathematics and implications of telegraphy, but to claim that she invented frequency-hopping is absurd, and on the balance of probabilities, it was more likely avant-garde musician and pianist George Antheil who noted that frequency-hopping had an analogy in player pianos. Occam’s Razor says Lamarr piggy-backed on her smart male friends.
I honestly wouldn’t be the tiniest bit surprised to discover that Lamarr was really good at drawing and her contributions amount to pretty charts and graphs.
I’ll bet she had a lovely hand. Let’s Google ‘Hedy Lamarr autograph’, just for fun.
Hmmmm…..I wonder what George’s writing looks like?
Clearly, I’m poking fun at both George and Hedy, and at all the revisionist historians who would so dearly love to believe Hedy Lamarr invented some vital technology we can’t live without. See? Women can science good, too! Of course women can science, but the reality is that women who are brilliant at science (or anything, really) are few and far between. Holding up Lamarr as the sine qua non of women’s technical achievement is kind of pathetic, given that she didn’t invent frequency-hopping, and given that the male-cosigner to the patent was the one who had the technical expertise to notice and decipher the analogous technology cited (player pianos).
Ladies, seriously, if you want to argue that women are as good at science as men, you might want to pick a heroine who actually invented stuff. Try Yvonne Brill. She invented the hydrazine resistojet, and proposed the use of a single propellant for rocket ships, deployed to launch TIROS, Nova, Explorer 2 and the Mars Observer. And she did all that after she raised the three children she had with her beloved husband. She preferred to be called Mrs. Brill, and made a mean beef stroganoff.
Now there’s a woman to celebrate.
The six times married Hedy Lamarr, hitching her wagon to a legion of men who invented frequency-hopping?
Not so much.
Lots of love,