Today, we peel away a mask of beauty and find
what's under it. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
I began my movie-going in
the heyday of the old star system. Movie stars had
set up housekeeping in the American mind. The men
were all strong, handsome, and soft-spoken -- with
pomade on their hair. The women were stunningly
beautiful. These were man-made people -- icons
without counterparts in reality.
somewhere there was a physical reality -- one that
was not for us to know. Take the case of Hedy
Lamarr: No star was more beautiful than she. She
outran even the beauty factory of 1940 Hollywood.
Hedy Lamarr came to America from Austria. She'd run
away from a bad marriage to an arms maker who had
helped to arm armed Mussolini for his invasion of
Ethiopia. Her flight to America had also been a
flight from the horrors of fascism as well as her
In 1940 Lamarr met composer George Antheil at a
dinner party. They fell to talking. The next
evening, she invited him to dinner at her place. A
peculiar chemistry had risen between two remarkable
minds. They talked far into that night.
Between them, they had an idea. Allied subs, it
seems, were wasting torpedoes. Ocean currents and
evasive action worked against them. Lamarr and
Antheil meant to do something about that. Lamarr,
just 26, had been only a girl when she'd listened
to her husband talking about torpedoes. She might
have looked like pretty wallpaper, but she'd been a
quick pupil. And Antheil had done ingenious early
work with the technology of modern music.
The solution, they reasoned, was a radio-controlled
torpedo. But it would be easy for the enemy to jam
a radio-control signal. So they cooked up something
called "frequency-hopping." The trick was to set up
a sequencer that would rapidly jump both the
control signal and its receiver through 88 random
frequencies. They patented
the system and gave it to the Navy.
The Navy actually did put the system to use, but
not in WW-II. Sylvania engineers reinvented it in
1957. The Navy first used frequency-hopping during
the 1962 blockade of Cuba. That was three years
after the Lamarr/Antheil patent had expired.
In his 1945 autobiography, Antheil gave full credit
for the idea to Lamarr. Neither of them ever pushed
their case. Lamarr didn't even talk about it.
Today, she shrugs and says, without rancor, "I
can't understand why there's no acknowledgement,
when it's used all over the world."
The 17-year limit on patents does that to a lot of
people. But the patent wasn't the point. Hedy
Lamarr had stepped out from behind the icon for
just a moment. And, when she did, we saw creative
flesh and blood that was far more than the stuff of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds