August 15, 2012
The summer of 2012 will be remembered as a time when people around the world were caught up in events in the skies above Mars, where the rover Curiosity eventually touched down onto the red planet. Fifty years ago this summer there were strange doings in the skies above earth as well. In July 1962, eight airplanes, including five commercial flights, plummeted to the ground in separate crashes that killed hundreds. In a ninth incident that month, a vulture smashed through the cockpit window of an Indian Airlines cargo plane, killing the co-pilot. Higher in the atmosphere, cameras mounted in U-2 spy planes soaring above the Carribean captured images of Soviet ships that, unbeknownst to the U.S. at the time, were carrying missiles to Cuba.
In gray skies over Cape Cod, a 20-year-old telephone operator named Lois Ann Frotten decided to join her new fiancé in a celebratory jump from an airplane at 2,500 feet. It was her first attempt at skydiving. While her fiancé landed safely, Frotten’s chute got tangled and failed to open fully. She tumbled end over end and landed feet-first in Mystic Lake with a terrific splash—and survived the half-mile free fall with a cut nose and two small cracked vertebrae. “I’ll never jump again,” she told rescuers as she was pulled from the lake.
But of all the things happening in the skies that summer, nothing would be quite as spectacular, surreal and frightening as the military project code-named Starfish Prime. Just five days after Americans across the country witnessed traditional Fourth of July fireworks displays, the Atomic Energy Commission created the greatest man-made light show in history when it launched a thermonuclear warhead on the nose of a Thor rocket, creating a suborbital nuclear detonation 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean.
In the fifty minutes that followed, witnesses from Hawaii to New Zealand were treated to a carnival of color as the sky was illuminated in magnificent rainbow stripes and an artificial aurora borealis. With a yield of 1.45 megatons, the hydrogen bomb was approximately 100 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima 17 years before. Yet scientists underestimated the effects of the bomb and the resulting radiation.
Knowledge of radiation in space was still fragmentary and new. It was only four years before that James A. Van Allen, a University of Iowa physicist who had been experimenting with Geiger counters on satellites, claimed to have discovered that the planet was encircled by a “deadly band of X-rays,” and that radiation from the sun “hit the satellites so rapidly and furiously” that the devices jammed. Van Allen announced his findings on May 1, 1958, at a joint meeting of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society, and the following day, the Chicago Tribune bannered the headline, “Radiation Belt Dims Hope of Space Travel.” The story continued: “Death, lurking in a belt of unexpectedly heavy radiation about 700 miles above the earth, today dimmed man’s dreamed of conquering outer space.”
News of the “hot band of peril” immediately cast doubt on whether Laika, the Russian dog, would have been able to survive for a week in space aboard Sputnik II, as the Soviets claimed, in November of 1957. (The Soviets said that after six days, the dog’s oxygen ran out and she was euthanized with poisoned food. It was later learned that Laika, the first live animal to be launched into space, died just hours after the launch from overheating and stress, when a malfunction in the capsule caused the temperature to rise.)
What Van Allen had discovered were the bands of high-energy particles that were held in place by strong magnetic fields, and soon known as the Van Allen Belts. A year later, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine as he opened an entirely new field of research—magnetospheric physics—and catapulted the United States into the race to space with the Soviet Union.
On the same day Van Allen held his press conference in May 1958, he agreed to cooperate with the U.S. military on a top-secret project. The plan: to send atomic bombs into space in an attempt to blow up the Van Allen Belts, or to at least disrupt them with a massive blast of nuclear energy.
At the height of the Cold War, the thinking may have been, as the science historian James Fleming said recently, that “if we don’t do it, the Russians will.” In fact, over the next few years, both the United States and the Soviet Union tested atomic bombs in space, with little or no disruption in the Van Allen Belts. Fleming suspects that the U.S. military may have theorized that the Van Allen belts could be used to attack the enemy. But in July 1962, the United States was ready to test a far more powerful nuclear bomb in space
The first Starfish Prime launch, on June 20, 1962, at Johnston Island in the Pacific, had to be aborted when the Thor launch vehicle failed and the missile began to break apart. The nuclear warhead was destroyed mid-flight, and radioactive contamination rained back down on the island.
Despite protests from Tokyo to London to Moscow citing “the world’s violent opposition” to the July 9 test, the Honolulu Advertiser carried no ominous portent with its headline, “N-Blast Tonight May Be Dazzling; Good View Likely,” and hotels in Hawaii held rooftop parties.
The mood on the other side of the planet was somewhat darker. In London, England, 300 British citizens demonstrated outside the United States Embassy, chanting “No More Tests!” and scuffling with police. Canon L. John Collins of St. Paul’s Cathedral called the test “an evil thing,” and said those responsible were “stupid fools.” Izvestia, the Soviet newspaper, carried the headline, “Crime of American Atom-mongers: United States Carries Out Nuclear Explosion in Space.”
Soviet film director Sergei Yutkevich told the paper, “We know with whom we are dealing: yet we hoped, until the last moment, that the conscience, if not the wisdom, of the American atom-mongers would hear the angry voices of millions and millions of ordinary people of the earth, the voices of mothers and scientists of their own country.” (Just eight months before, the Soviets tested the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated—a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb—on an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean in the north of Russia.)
Just after 11 p.m. Honolulu time on July 9, the 1.45-megaton hydrogen bomb was detonated thirteen minutes after launch. Almost immediately, an electromagnetic pulse knocked out electrical service in Hawaii, nearly 1,000 miles away. Telephone service was disrupted, streetlights were down and burglar alarms were set off by a pulse that was much larger than scientists expected.
Suddenly, the sky above the Pacific was illuminated by bright auroral phenomena. “For three minutes after the blast,” one reporter in Honolulu wrote, “the moon was centered in a sky partly blood-red and partly pink. Clouds appeared as dark silhouettes against the lighted sky.” Another witness said, “A brilliant white flash burned through the clouds rapidly changing to an expanding green ball of irradiance extending into the clear sky above the overcast.” Others as far away as the Fiji Islands—2,000 miles from Johnston Island—described the light show as “breathtaking.”
In Maui, a woman observed auroral lights that lasted a half hour in “a steady display, not pulsating or flickering, taking the shape of a gigantic V and shading from yellow at the start to dull red, then to icy blue and finally to white.”
“To our great surprise and dismay, it developed that Starfish added significantly to the electrons in the Van Allen belts,” Atomic Energy Commission Glenn Seaborg wrote in his memoirs. “This result contravened all our predictions.”
More than half a dozen satellites had been victimized by radiation from the blast. Telstar, the AT&T communications satellite launched one day after Starfish, relayed telephone calls, faxes and television signals until its transistors were damaged by Starfish radiation. (The Soviets tested their own high-altitude thermonuclear device in October 1962, which further damaged Telstar’s transistors and rendered it useless.)
Both the Soviets and the United States conducted their last high-altitude nuclear explosions on November 1, 1962. It was also the same day the Soviets began dismantling their missiles in Cuba. Realizing that the two nations had come close to a nuclear war, and prompted by the results of Starfish Prime and continuing atomic tests by the Soviets, President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on July 25, 1963, banning atmospheric and exoatmospheric nuclear testing. And while the U.S. and the Soviet Union would continue their race to space at full throttle, for the time being, the treaty significantly slowed the arms race between the two superpowers.
Books: James Clay Moltz, The Politics of Space Security: Strategic Restraint and the Pursuit of National Interests, Stanford University Press, 2008. Rosemary B. Mariner and G. Kurt Piehler, The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives, The University of Tennessee Press, 2009.
Articles: “H-Blast Seen 4000 Miles, Triggers Russian Outcry,” Boston Globe, July 10, 1962. “Britons Protest Outside Embassy,” New York Times, July 10, 1962. “Pacific Sky Glows After Space Blast,” Hartford Courant, July 10, 1962. “Blackouts Last Only About Hour,” New York Times, July 10, 1962. “How Not to Test in Space” by Michael Krepon, The Stimson Center, November 7, 2011, http://www.stimson.org/summaries/how-not-to-test-in-space-/ “A Very Scary Light Show: Exploding H-Bombs in Space” Krulwich Wonders, NPR, All Things Considered, July 1, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128170775 “9 July 1962 ‘Starfish Prime’, Outer Space” The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty-Organization Preparatory Commission, http://www.ctbto.org/specials/infamous-anniversaries/9-july-1962starfish-prime-outer-space/ “Nuclear Test Ban Treaty” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty.aspx
July 5, 2012
At the age of 14, Ida Tarbell witnessed the Cleveland Massacre, in which dozens of small oil producers in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, including her father, were faced with a daunting choice that seemed to come out of nowhere: sell their businesses to the shrewd, confident 32 year-old John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and his newly incorporated Standard Oil Company, or attempt to compete and face ruin. She didn’t understand it at the time, not all of it, anyway, but she would never forget the wretched effects of “the oil war” of 1872, which enabled Rockefeller to leave Cleveland owning 85 percent of the city’s oil refineries.
Tarbell was, in effect, a young woman betrayed, not by a straying lover but by Standard Oil’s secret deals with the major railroads—a collusive scheme that allowed the company to crush not only her father’s business, but all of its competitors. Almost 30 years later, Tarbell would redefine investigative journalism with a 19-part series in McClure’s magazine, a masterpiece of journalism and an unrelenting indictment that brought down one of history’s greatest tycoons and effectively broke up Standard Oil’s monopoly. By dint of what she termed “steady, painstaking work,” Tarbell unearthed damaging internal documents, supported by interviews with employees, lawyers and—with the help of Mark Twain—candid conversations with Standard Oil’s most powerful senior executive at the time, Henry H. Rogers, which sealed the company’s fate.
She became one of the most influential muckrakers of the Gilded Age, helping to usher in that age of political, economic and industrial reform known as the Progressive Era. “They had never played fair,” Tarbell wrote of Standard Oil, “and that ruined their greatness for me.”
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
April 3, 2012
They were two young Jewish men who grew up just a few years apart in the New York area during the Great Depression, and though they were both drawn to the study of medicine and did not know each other at the time, their names would, years later, be linked in a heroic struggle that played out on the front pages of newspapers around the world. In the end, both Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk could rightfully claim credit for one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments—the near-eradication of polio in the 20th century. And yet debate still echoes over whose method is best suited for the mass vaccination needed to finish the job: Salk’s injected, dead-virus vaccine or Sabin’s oral, live-virus version.
In the first half of the 20th century, Americans lived in fear of the incurable paralytic poliomyelitis (polio) disease, which they barely understood and knew not how to contain. That the disease led to some kind of infection in the central nervous system that crippled so many children, and even a president (Franklin D. Roosevelt) was alarming enough. But the psychological trauma that followed a neighborhood outbreak resonated. Under the mistaken belief that poor sanitary conditions during the “polio season” of summer increased exposure to the virus, people resorted to measures that had been used to combat the spread of influenza or the plague. Areas were quarantined, schools and movie theaters were closed, windows were sealed shut in the heat of summer, public swimming pools were abandoned, and draft inductions were suspended.
Worse, many hospitals refused to admit patients who were believed to have contracted polio, and the afflicted were forced to rely on home care by doctors and nurses who could do little more than fit children for braces and crutches. In its early stages, polio paralyzed some patients’ chest muscles; if they were fortunate, they would be placed in an “iron lung,” a tank respirator with vacuum pumps pressurized to pull air in and out of the lungs. The iron lungs saved lives, but became an intimidating visual reminder of polio’s often devastating effects.
March 14, 2012
Thomas Alva Edison’s sprawling complex of laboratories and factories in West Orange, New Jersey, was a place of wonderment in the late 19th century. Its machinery could produce anything from a locomotive engine to a lady’s wristwatch, and when the machines weren’t running, Edison’s “muckers” —the researchers, chemists and technologically curious who came from as far away as Europe—might watch a dance performed by Native Americans from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in the inventor’s Black Maria movie studio or hear classical musicians recording on Edison’s wax cylinder phonographs.
The muckers happily toiled through 90-hour work weeks, drawn by the allure of the future. But they also faced the perils of the unknown—exposure to chemicals, acids, electricity and light. No one knew this better than Edison mucker Clarence Madison Dally, who unwittingly gave his life to help develop one of the most important innovations in medical diagnostic history. When it became apparent what Dally had done to himself in the name of research, Edison walked away from the invention. “Don’t talk to me about X-rays,” he said. “I am afraid of them.”
Born in 1865, Dally grew up in Woodbridge, New Jersey, in a family of glassblowers employed by the Edison Lamp Works in nearby Harrison. At 17 he enlisted in the Navy, and after serving six years he returned home and worked beside his father and three brothers. At age 24, he was transferred to the West Orange laboratory, where he would assist in Edison’s experiments on incandescent lamps.