- Butler, Alun
- Ship design and development, Naval technology, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1999 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
After four years of marriage, Lamarr left her domineering husband, met director Louis B. Mayer and travelled to Hollywood for a new career in films. According to Robert Price, an electrical engineer and spread spectrum historian, Lamarr was staunchly anti-Nazi. “She wanted to bring a weapon across the Atlantic to use against Hitler,” he says. In the US, she came across the push-button radio. “She knew if you pushed a button, you changed the radio’s frequency,” Price says. “That got her started on the idea of frequency hopping.”
The position of the holes determined the frequency of the signals, and their length controlled the delay between hops. And enemy eavesdroppers would find it almost impossible to monitor this broad range of frequencies at the same time.
The pair gave their invention to the US government but despite the advantages, frequency hopping spread spectrum wasn’t used during the Second World War – perhaps the components were too heavy or maybe the US Navy disliked the thought of paper rolls inside their shiny torpedoes. Instead, the system was reinvented independently years after the war and miniaturised using transistors.
Today, frequency hopping technology is used in the US Milstar military communication system, and in mobile phone systems too. Since it relies on many frequencies, callers can share the same frequencies without their messages interfering with each other. Other uses are appearing all the time: in interactive television transmission, wireless access to the Internet and for sending data along power lines, for instance.
Lamarr’s and Antheil’s patent was, according to Price, “the generic invention ––the first in the field”. But recognition has been slow to arrive. They received an Electronics Frontier Foundation 1997 Pioneer award and Loder recently accepted the Victor Kaplan medal for invention from the Austrian Academy of Sciences on his mother’s behalf. Honour has come too late for Antheil – he died in 1959. But from her house in Florida, Lamarr still follows the development of their idea with interest. In a world with all too few scientific heroines, many now believe her contribution should be universally recognised. “She is the Marie Curie of spread spectrum,” says Price. Loder agrees: “There’s no equivalent,” he says. “Let’s see what Mel Gibson’s going to give us.”
Alun Butler is a science writer based in London.
- see a website created by George Antheil’s son, Chris Beaumont, at:http://www.ncafe.com/chris/pat2/index.html.
- New Scientist Dec. 1998 – Jan 1999