May 25, 2012
On December 22, 1940, a former Manhattan housewife named Etta Kahn Shiber found herself in Hotel Matignon, headquarters of the Gestapo in Paris, sitting across from a “mousy” man in civilian clothes who said his name was Dr. Hager. Shiber, a 62-year-old widow, planned to follow the advice that had replayed in her head for the past six months—deny everything—but something about the doctor’s smile, smug and imperious, suggested that he didn’t need a confession.
“Well, the comedy is over,” he began. “We now have the last two members of the gang.… And I have just received word that Mme. Beaurepos was arrested in Bordeaux two hours ago. So there really wasn’t any reason to allow you to wander around the streets any longer, was there?”
A clerk appeared to transcribe everything she said. Dr. Hager asked hundreds of questions over the next 15 hours. She answered each one obliquely, being careful to say nothing that could be used against her friends and accomplices, and was escorted to a cell at the Cherche-Midi prison.
As he turned to leave, Dr. Hager smiled and reminded her that the punishment for her crime carried a mandatory sentence of death.
May 24, 2012
“There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present,” Dr. Gilbert Hadow wrote in a letter to his sister in Britain in March 1857. “No one seems to know the meaning of it.… It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called ‘the chupatty movement.’ ”
The “movement” that Hadow was describing was a remarkable example of rumor gone wild. It consisted of the distribution of many thousands of chapatis—unleavened Indian breads—that were passed from hand to hand and from village to village throughout the mofussil (interior) of the subcontinent. The chapatis were real, but no one knew for sure what they were for. Most Indians thought they were the work of the British, who—through the East India Company—had ruled over large portions of the country for almost a century (and were, according to one well-known prophecy, due to be unseated at that century’s end). The British, who had nothing to do with the mysterious transmission, guessed the breads were a piece of mischief-making on the part of the Indians, though opinion was divided as to whether the breads came from the east, near Calcutta (Kolkata), from the north, in the province of Oude (Avadh) or from Indore, in the center of the country. Extensive inquiries into the meaning of the breads produced plenty of theories but few facts; even the runners and watchmen who baked them and carried them from village to village “did not know why they had to run through the night with chupatties in their turbans,” though they took them just the same.
May 23, 2012
By the start of World War II, they were two of the most accomplished talents in Hollywood. Leading lady Hedy Lamarr was known as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and composer George Antheil had earned a reputation as “the bad boy of music.” What brought them together in 1940 was that timeless urge to preserve one’s youth and enhance one’s natural beauty, but what emerged from their work was a secret communications system that Lamarr and Antheil hoped would defeat the Nazis.
It didn’t work out that way: The patent they received—No. 2292387—simply gathered dust in the U.S. Patent Office until it expired in 1959. But three years later, the U.S. military put their concept to use during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And ultimately, the two unlikely pioneers’ work on “frequency hopping” would be recognized as a precursor to the “spread-spectrum” wireless communications used in cellular phones, global positioning systems and Wi-Fi technology today.
She was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1913, in Vienna; her father was a well-to-do Jewish banker and her mother was a concert pianist. Sent to finishing school in Switzerland, she grew into a strikingly beautiful teen and began making small German and Austrian films. In 1932, she starred in the Czechoslovakian film Ecstasy—which was quickly banned in Austria for the starlet’s nudity and for a scene in which her facial expressions, in closeup, suggested that she was experiencing something akin to the film’s title.
In 1933, she married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy Jewish arms manufacturer 13 years her senior who converted to Catholicism so he could do business with Nazi industrialists and other fascist regimes. Mandl hosted grand parties at the couple’s home, where, she would later note, both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were guests. Lamarr would later claim that Mandl kept her virtually locked away in their castle home, only bringing her to business meetings because of her skill at mathematics. In these meetings, she said, she learned about military and radio technologies. After four years of marriage, Lamarr escaped Austria and fled to Paris, where she obtained a divorce and eventually met Louis B. Mayer, the American film producer with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Mayer signed the young Austrian beauty and helped her find the screen name Hedy Lamarr. She immediately began starring in films such as Algiers, Boom Town and White Cargo, cast opposite the biggest actors of the day, including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and John Garfield. MGM was in what became known as its Golden Age, and Mayer promoted Lamarr as “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Yet despite her unquestionable beauty, Lamarr thought there was room for improvement. At a dinner party in Hollywood, she met George Antheil, a dashing and diminutive composer renowned in both classical and avant-garde music. Born in 1900 and raised in Trenton, New Jersey, Antheil had been a child prodigy. After studying piano both in the United States and Europe, he spent the early 1920s in Paris, where he counted Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway as friends.
By the mid-1930s, Antheil had landed in Hollywood, composing dozens of scores for some of the great filmmakers of the time, including Cecil B. DeMille. He’d also written a mystery novel, Death in the Dark, as well as a series of articles for Esquire magazine. In one of those articles, “The Glandbook for the Questing Male,” he wrote that a woman’s healthy pituitary gland might enhance the size and shape of her breasts. Lamarr was taken with the idea, and after meeting Antheil, she went to him for advice on enlarging her bust without surgery, Richard Rhodes writes in his recent book, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
At some point, their conversation veered from breast enlargement to torpedoes, and the use of radio control to guide them toward their targets. (At the time, torpedoes were generally free-running devices.) Clearly, Lamarr had gained some understanding of weaponry during her first marriage. She was aware that radio transmission on one frequency could be easily jammed or intercepted—but she reasoned that if homing signals could be sent over multiple radio frequencies between the transmitter and the receiver, the enemy would perceive them only as a random series of blips on any one frequency. The actress had envisioned a system of “frequency hopping.” The challenge was how to synchronize the pattern of frequencies between transmitter and receiver.
Anthiel was no stranger to weaponry himself; he had worked as a United States munitions inspector. Moreover, he had written Ballet Mecanique, which called for the synchronization of 16 player pianos. With radio signals hopping about different frequencies like notes on a piano, Lamarr and Anthiel believed they could create a jam-proof homing system for torpedoes. Their system involved two motor-driven rolls, like those on a player piano, installed in the transmitter and aboard the torpedo and synchronized through 88 frequencies—matching the number of keys on a piano.
Consulting with an electrical engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology, the two inventors worked out the details of their invention in their spare time. Antheil continued to compose film scores, and Lamarr, at 26, was acting in Ziegfeld Girl alongside Jimmy Stewart and Judy Garland. They submitted their patent proposal for a “Secret Communication System” in 1941, and that October the New York Times reported that Lamarr (using her married name at the time, Hedy Kiesler Markey) had invented a device that was so “red hot” and vital to national defense “that government officials will not allow publication of its details,” only that it was related to “remote control of apparatus employed in warfare.”
After they were awarded their patent on August 11, 1942, they donated it to the U.S. Navy—a patriotic gesture to help win the war. But Navy researchers, believing that a piano-like mechanism would be too cumbersome to install in a torpedo, didn’t take their frequency-hopping concept very seriously. Instead, Lamarr was encouraged to support the war effort by helping to sell war bonds, and she did: Under an arrangement in which she would kiss anyone who purchased $25,000 worth of bonds, she sold $7 million worth in one night.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that engineers from Sylvania Electronics Systems Division began experimenting with ideas documented in Lamarr and Antheil’s system. Instead of a mechanical device for frequency-hopping, engineers developed electronic means for use in the spread-spectrum technology deployed during the U.S. naval blockade of Cuba in 1962. By then, Lamarr and Antheil’s patent had expired and he had died of a heart attack.
It is impossible to know exactly how much Lamarr and Antheil’s invention influenced the development of the spread-spectrum technology that forms the backbone of wireless communications today. What can be said is that the actress and the composer never received a dime from their patent, they had developed an idea that was ahead of its time.
Later years would not be so kind to Hedy Lamarr. “Any girl can be glamorous,” she once said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” She was married and divorced six times, and as movie offers began to dwindle, her finances did, too. She was arrested in 1966 for shoplifting at a Los Angeles department store. She had plastic surgery that her son, Anthony Loder, said left her looking like “a Frankenstein.” She became angry, reclusive and litigious. She once sued Mel Brooks and the producers of Blazing Saddles for naming a character in that film “Hedley Lamarr,” and she sued the Corel Corporation for using an image of her on its software packaging. Both suits were settled out of court. She ended up living in a modest house in Orlando, Florida, where she died in 2000, at the age of 86.
Hedy Lamarr has a star on the Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, but in 1998, she received an award uncommon for stars of the silver screen. The Electronic Frontier Foundation named her and George Antheil the winners of that year’s Pioneer Award, recognizing their “significant and influential contributions to the development of computer-based communications.”
“It’s about time,” she was reported to have said.
Books: Richard Rhodes, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, Doubleday, 2011. Hedy Lamarr, Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman, Fawcett, 1967. Asoke K. Talukder, Hasan Ahmed, Roopa R. Yavagal, Mobile Computing: Technology, Applications and Service Creation, Tata McGraw Hill, 2010. Steve Silverman, Einstein’s Refrigerator and Other Stories From the Flip Side of History, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001. Rob Walters, Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the Mobile Phone,” ebook published by Satin via Rob’s Book Shop, 2010. Stephen Michael Shearer, Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr, Macmillan ebook, 2010.
Articles: “Hedy Lamarr Inventor,” New York Times, October 1, 1941. “Hop, Skip and a Jump: Remembering Hedy Lamar” (sic) by Jennifer Ouelette, Scientific American, January 9, 2012. “From Film Star to Frequency-Hopping Inventor,” by Donald Christiansen, Today’s Engineer, April, 2012, http://www.todaysengineer.org/2012/Apr/backscatter.asp “Secret Communications System: The Fascinating Story of the Lamarr/Antheil Spread-Spectrum Patent,” by Chris Beaumont, http://people.seas.harvard.edu/~jones/cscie129/nu_lectures/lecture7/hedy/pat2/index.html “The Birth of Spread Spectrum,” by Anna Couey, http://people.seas.harvard.edu/~jones/cscie129/nu_lectures/lecture7/hedy/lemarr.htm “Hedy Lamarr Biography: Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes (Review), by Liesl Schillinger, The Daily Beast, November 21, 2011. “Glamour and Munitions: A Screen Siren’s Wartime Ingenuity,” by Dwight Garner, New York Times, December 13, 2011. “Unlikely Characters,” by Terry K., http://terry-kidd.blogspot.com/2009_10_01_archive.html “Mechanical Dreams Come True,” by Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, June 9, 2008. “Secret Communication System, Patent 2,292,387, United States Patent Office, http://www.google.com/patents?id=R4BYAAAAEBAJ&printsec=abstract&zoom=4#v=onepage&q&f=false
May 17, 2012
Amid the collection of thugs, sycophants, stone-eyed killers and over-promoted incompetents who comprised the wartime leadership of Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels stood out. For one thing, he was genuinely intelligent—he had earned a doctorate in Romantic literature before becoming Hitler’s propaganda chief. For another, he understood that his ministry needed to do more than merely hammer home the messages of Hitler’s ideology.
Goebbels knew he needed to engage—with an increasingly war-weary German public, and with the Allied servicemen whose morale he sought to undermine. This clear-eyed determination to deal with reality, not fantasy, led him to some curious accommodations. None, however, were quite so strange as his attempts to harness the dangerous attractions of dance music to Hitler’s cause. It was an effort that led directly to the creation of that oxymoron in four-bar form: a Nazi-approved, state-sponsored hot jazz band known as Charlie and His Orchestra.
By the late 1930s, swing and jazz were by far the most popular music of the day, for dancing and for listening. But, originating as they did from the United States, with minimal contributions from Aryan musicians, the Nazis loathed them. The official party line was that these forms were entartete musik (“degenerate music”), and that their improvised breaks and pounding rhythms risked undermining German purity and discipline. In public speeches, the Nazis put it more harshly than that. Jazz, Goebbels insisted, was nothing but “jungle music.”
Throughout the war years, it was German policy to suppress the music, or at least tame it. This resulted in some remarkable decrees, among them the clauses of a ban promulgated by a Nazi gauleiter in Bohemia and recalled (faithfully, he assures us—“they had engraved themselves deeply on my mind”) by the Czech dissident Josef Skvorecky in the introduction to his novella The Bass Saxophone. They are worth quoting in full:
May 16, 2012
For Lawrence Oates, the race to the South Pole had a portentous start. Just two days after the Terra Nova Expedition left New Zealand in November 1910, a violent storm killed two of the 19 ponies in Oates’s care and nearly sank the ship. His journey ended almost two years later, when he stepped out of a tent and into the teeth of an Antarctic blizzard after uttering ten words that would bring tears of pride to mourning Britons. During the long months in between, Oates’s concern for the ponies paralleled his growing disillusionment with the expedition’s leader, Robert Falcon Scott.
Oates had paid one thousand pounds for the privilege of joining Scott on an expedition that was supposed to combine exploration with scientific research. It quickly became a race to the South Pole after the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, already at sea with a crew aboard the Fram, abruptly changed his announced plan to go to the North Pole. “BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC—AMUNDSEN,” read the telegram he sent to Scott. It was clear that Amundsen would leave the collecting of rock specimens and penguin eggs to the Brits; he wanted simply to arrive first at the pole and return home to claim glory on the lecture circuit.
Born in 1880 to a wealthy English family, Lawrence Oates attended Eton before serving as a junior officer in the Second Boer War. A gunshot wound in a skirmish that earned Oates the nickname “Never Surrender” shattered his thigh, leaving his left leg an inch shorter than his right.
Still, Robert Scott wanted Oates along for the expedition, but once Oates made it to New Zealand, he was startled to see that a crew member (who knew dogs but not horses) had already purchased ponies in Manchuria for five pounds apiece. They were “the greatest lot of crocks I have ever seen,” Oates said. From past expeditions, Scott had deduced that white or gray ponies were stronger than darker horses, though there was no scientific evidence for that. When Oates told him that the Manchurian ponies were unfit for the expedition, Scott bristled and disagreed. Oates seethed and stormed away.
Inspecting the supplies, Oates quickly surmised that there was not enough fodder, so he bought two extra tons with his own money and smuggled the feed aboard the Terra Nova. When, to great fanfare, Scott and his crew set off from New Zealand for Antarctica on November 29, 1910, Oates was already questioning the expedition in letters home to his mother: “If he [Amundsen] gets to the Pole first we shall come home with our tails between our legs and make no mistake. I must say we have made far too much noise about ourselves all that photographing, cheering, steaming through the fleet etc. etc. is rot and if we fail it will only make us look more foolish.” Oates went on to praise Amundsen for planning to use dogs and skis rather than walking beside horses. “If Scott does anything silly such as underfeeding his ponies he will be beaten as sure as death.”
After a harrowingly slow journey through pack ice, the Terra Nova arrived at Ross Island in Antarctica on January 4, 1911. The men unloaded and set up base at Camp Evans, as some crew members set off in February on an excursion in the Bay of Whales, off the Ross Ice Shelf—where they caught sight of Amundsen’s Fram at anchor. The next morning they saw Amundsen himself, crossing the ice at a blistering pace on his dog sled as he readied his animals for an assault on the South Pole, some 900 miles away. Scott’s men had had nothing but trouble with their own dogs, and their ponies could only plod along on the depot-laying journeys they were making to store supplies for the pole run.