All Commentary
Thursday, August 1, 2013

Putting Hedy Lamarr on Hold

Why Did It Take So Long for the World to Go Wireless?

Hedy stands naked in a field. She looks off-camera in dismay as her horse gallops away with the clothes she had draped over its back so she could take a dip in a woodland pond. 

She is not called Lamarr yet. That name will come later, in Hollywood. For now she is still Hedwig Kiesler, a Viennese teenager in Prague, playing her first starring role in a feature film, Ekstase (“Ecstasy,” 1933). The controversial Czechoslovakian film will become famous for Hedy’s nude scenes and its sex scenes (which show only her face, in close-up, in the throes of passion). 

The film will give Hedy her first taste of fame. She will be known as the Ecstasy girl. An Austrian director will tell the press, “Hedy Kiesler is the most beautiful girl in the world.” Later, MGM movie mogul Louis B. Mayer will repeat the claim, using the name he insisted she change to: Hedy Lamarr.

But while the world of her time will remember her for her photogenic beauty, history will remember her as the inventor of frequency hopping, the foundational technology of today’s mobile phones and wireless Internet.

How a Hollywood starlet invented the means of secure wireless data transfer is fascinating, and there are thorough accounts of the story in recent books and television shows. What is less thoroughly addressed is why an invention from World War II didn’t see widespread use until the turn of the century.


Wrong Number

For a technology to become broadly used, it must see commercial success. Only mass consumption can put global positioning systems in our cars and smart phones in our pockets.

Hedy Lamarr and her co-inventor, George Antheil, did not have commercial use in mind for their invention, however. Lamarr, like so many Austrians, had fled the European war for America. But she saw U.S. involvement in the war as inevitable and wanted to protect her adopted country from German aggression. 

Hedy’s first husband, Friedrich Mandl, was an international arms dealer and one of the richest men in Austria. Having hosted his lavish parties for clients (including Mussolini) and accompanied her husband to business conferences with military scientists and arms specialists, she knew that torpedoes were devastating weapons at sea—but few could hit their target. One solution was to control the torpedoes by radio. But the enemy could always jam the radio signal, leaving everyone back at square one.

When she fled Mandl and Europe for Hollywood, Hedy was still thinking of torpedoes and the looming war.

As a girl, Hedy had taken long walks in Vienna with her father, an Austrian banker, discussing how the world worked from a mechanical perspective. In her Hollywood home, she set up a drafting table. She had long periods of down time between productions, but did not drink or go to parties. Instead, she turned her acumen to radio waves—and how to beat the weapons of her ex-husband. 

The solution to radio jamming, Lamarr realized, was to change frequency repeatedly, too fast for the enemy to catch up. But both sides—the remote control and the torpedo—would need to change frequency in unison, always to the same next frequency and always with perfect timing. 

This innovation is the kernel of wireless data communications. Frequency hopping was conceived as a way to keep a signal secure from enemy jamming, but it can also be used to allow multiple signals to share the same spread of spectrum without interference. That’s how we can all use our smart phones, tablets, and laptops at the same coffee shop, sharing only one Internet connection.

But there were no computers in 1940, and the ones that would be developed in the coming years were big enough to fill a room. For Hedy’s idea to work, she needed to find a way to fit the same frequency-hopping instructions into a torpedo’s guidance system.

Fortunately, it was around this same time that she made friends with George Antheil, a struggling avant-garde composer—and fellow inventor—who happened to have experience getting remote machines to work in synchrony. In Antheil’s case, it was player pianos, but the principle could work for Lamarr’s torpedoes. 


Call Waiting

Between mobile telephony and wireless digital networking, Hedy Lamarr’s idea has profoundly changed our lives. The market demand for smart phones and tablets—not to mention all the less-visible implementations in the background, such as self-checkout scanners in supermarkets and RFID tags in industry and retail—shows that we overwhelmingly think the wireless digital age has improved our lives. One Microsoft study estimates the annual economic impact of wireless chipsets to be over $150 billion.

As a history-changing technology, digital wireless may be second only to the computer revolution. And since it is wireless computing that’s making computers ubiquitous and intimate—moving the technology from our desks to our jeans and shirt pockets, into our ears, and soon to our glasses and perhaps under our skin—it could be argued that frequency hopping has initiated a second computer revolution, possibly more pronounced than the first.

So why did it take so long?

One answer is the computer revolution itself. Just as frequency hopping complements and enhances computing, microchips make frequency hopping more viable. This wasn’t a problem for torpedoes, at least according to George Antheil. “Our fundamental two mechanisms … can be made so small THAT THEY CAN BE FITTED INSIDE OF DOLLAR WATCHES!” he wrote to an ally in the government. Still, widespread use was going to have to wait for the microchip.

But the military was already using digital frequency hopping almost half a century ago for remote-controlled surveillance drones over Vietnam. George Antheil had already passed away, but Hedy Lamarr would be around for the rest of the century. She wouldn’t learn that the military was making use of her idea for at least another 20 years.

Antheil and Lamarr’s invention earned them a patent and some initial enthusiasm from the National Inventors Council—a government body formed in 1940 to serve as a clearinghouse for inventions with possible military applications—but the U.S. Navy then did three things to change the course of technological history: They rejected the idea, acquired the patent to it anyway, and kept the technology secret for almost 40 years. 


Scores of Patents

Antheil and Lamarr’s patent expired in 1959, along with Antheil himself. The U.S. government took up the idea again in the following decades, but the technology remained classified and off-limits to commercial use until the late 1970s, when the Carter administration, looking to fix the stagflation economy created by decades of fractional-reserve banking and growing interventionism, pursued three policies to help the market recover from the burdens of the state. 

First, Alfred E. Kahn, President Carter’s “inflation czar,” pushed for government deregulation across the board. (We remember the Reagan administration for the partial deregulation of the American economy, but the process began under Carter.) Kahn, who described himself as a “good liberal Democrat,” believed that “even very imperfect competition is preferable to regulation…. Recent experience clearly suggests, instead, that the mixed system may be the worst of both possible worlds.” 

Second, the National Security Agency declassified “scores of patents,” as electrical engineering professor Robert A. Scholtz put it in his 1982 review of spread-spectrum (SS) technology, “including at least a dozen on SS techniques.” 

Third, in keeping with the administration’s emphasis on deregulation to spur economic growth, the Federal Communications Commission lowered the barriers to these innovative technologies. 

The leading players in the electronics industry were far from pleased.  

As Michael J. Marcus, assistant to the FCC’s chairman under Carter, wrote of that time,

The regulatory status quo was rather acceptable to the small “club” of major manufacturers serving the US market, all of whom were domestic companies. While regulations prevented rapid innovation, [they] also generally prevented both new entrants and technological surprise from the few competitors. Products could be planned and introduced with assurances that the R&D costs could be amortized over a long sales period. It was a cozy oligarchy for the major manufacturers, but it denied the public the benefits of rapid introduction of new technologies and services.

The loosening of government’s grip on the market in general, and on radio technology specifically, began the belated progress that has brought us into the current age of the hyperconnected, always-online generation. Could we have had these 21st-century marvels decades earlier in a less-regulated economy with a less-classified technical sector—with, in short, a freer market?

It couldn’t have hurt. Counterfactual scenarios are always contentious, but we cannot talk about causation in history without considering the what-ifs. What if Hedy’s idea (and “scores” of others) hadn’t been classified by the military? What if the federal government hadn’t cartelized the communications industry? What if the industry itself hadn’t sought government protection from innovation? What if competition had been allowed to thrive in the tech industry of the mid-twentieth century the way we’ve seen in the decades since the Carter administration?



But there’s another factor that frustrates this counterfactual. Independent of the coercively enforced regulations, cartels, and secrecy, there was also the militarized culture of FDR’s America and the Cold War that followed—a culture that allowed Leviathan to grow and flourish. Both Antheil and Lamarr fell victim to this mindset.

For Antheil, this was particularly pronounced. As he wrote to a friend, “I feel that it is futile to attempt to do anything but help National Defense, nowadays.” As a younger man, he had focused on establishing himself as an artist. Now he wanted to help save the world, and for him that meant helping the American government.

If George was a homegrown patriot, Hedy’s devotion to her adopted land had the sort of zeal that pushes patriotism past principle: George Antheil once described Hedy as “a queer girl [who] believes that spies and saboteurs are on every hand, and cannot understand why President Roosevelt does not immediately put them all under arrest. ‘That is what we’d do in Europe’ she insists, excitedly.”

When the Navy rejected the product of her mind, she offered her beauty and celebrity to the war effort instead, campaigning tirelessly to sell war bonds. For Hedy Lamarr, too, making a real difference in the world meant helping the government. 

But as Jeffrey Tucker has written in these pages on the subject of a different innovation put on hold for decades by the state, 

Super glue was “discovered” by the government in the same way that the government built the Internet. It was able to combine the elements but then didn’t do anything socially useful with the results. The technology died on the vine, as it were, until it was brought to life again by market participants with an eye to improving lives.

George Antheil and Hedy Lamarr (and Harry Coover, the inventor of super glue) wanted to improve lives, but they believed that the State was the means for such improvement. Coover was a professional scientist, and in the mid-twentieth century, science funding was most available as government funding. Antheil and Lamarr made their livings entertaining people—in Hedy Lamarr’s case, movie stardom made her millions. But when they wanted to do something serious, something to actually help people—not, as they saw it, merely to entertain them—they turned their innovative genius over to the government, not the market.

Again quoting Tucker: “Knowledge alone does not serve society. Knowledge put to use in a market setting—science turned into the ‘practical arts’—is what serves the human population.”

For many years after Antheil and Lamarr won their patent, and for many years after that patent expired unused, the American market was hampered even more than it is now. The tech industry, such as it was, was tied down by military secrecy and a growing wall of central regulations that helped bureaucracy and cartelization but did nothing for the rest of us. 

Hedy Lamarr was a creature of her environment, as are we all. Her view of the world was conditioned by the growth of fascism and communism, and by the devastation these statist ideologies wrought on her homeland. She saw the United States as the best hope for something different, and she was determined to do all she could to help her new country withstand the assault. But she failed to understand that America’s promise of freedom and prosperity lay in its private sector, in competition and voluntary exchange, not in the burgeoning bureaucracy of the federal government. Not only would the Allies fail to exploit her invention, but America would have to wait for a less-hampered market before Hedy’s dream could change the world.