Scientific Innovation in 'Frequency Hopping'

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Scientific breakthroughs can come from the most surprising places. A new drama set in the 1940s explores a real-life innovation developed by two amateurs: a Hollywood starlet and an avant garde composer. WNYC's Ilya Marritz brings us this glimpse of the play “Frequency Hopping”.

REPORTER: It's a heck of an invented excuse to meet someone. And a heck of a person to be making excuses. Hedy Lamarr. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, some called her the most beautiful woman in the world.

In the play “Frequency Hopping”, it’s the year 1940. Hedy Lamarr summons a b-list scientific dabbler to her home, ostensibly for advice on enhancing her figure.

LAMARR: My breasts?

ANTHEIL: Your breasts. They are too small?

LAMARR: Go on.

REPORTER: The dabbler is George Antheil. He’s a respected composer with a side line writing articles on the endocrine system.

But her C-cups aren’t Hedy Lamarr’s real reason for calling him. She wants his brain for a dazzlingly ambitious project: to help the Allies win the war, by developing an advanced torpedo signaling code.

They test her idea in the bath tub. Instead of Americans versus Germans, it's rubber ducky versus lipstick.

LAMARR: OK...So sink by U-boat!

ANTHEIL: Using? - radio controlled rockets, by Max Factor.

SINGER: The Lamarr-Antheil secret communication system is now recognized as being frequency hopping spread spectrum.

REPORTER: Elyse Singer, the writer and director of the play "Frequency Hopping." The technology also known as frequency hopping is still with us today. It's used in cell phones and wireless devices. But during World War II, Lamarr and Antheil conceived it as system of a torpedo guidance.

They figured that if you could rapidly switch the radio frequencies used to guide allied missiles in a way that seemed random, but really wasn't, the Axis forces couldn't jam the missile.

Although neither of them had scientific training, both inventors had special know-how.

Before emigrating to America from her native Austria, Lamarr had been living a story straight out of Hollywood. She was a trophy bride for an unscrupulous Vienna arms dealer, Fritz Mandl.

SINGER: When she was married to him, she became privileged to all this secret information, specifically radar. She knew what the Germans were working on, and she wanted to counteract it.

REPORTER: Antheil was a composer who understood automation and robotics. He’d written the “Ballet Mechanique,” a soundtrack for 16 player pianos.

Over the course of a year, Lamarr and Antheil devised their secret communication system. They used cards with punched holes, like player piano rolls. In 1942, they received a US Patent. But when they brought it to the US Navy, Lamarr was told she could be more useful to them selling kisses for war bonds.

SINGER: It really is kind of a geek love story. In another era, she might have been a great electrical engineer.

LAMARR: I think we should put additional condensers in the transmitting station.


REPORTER: Singer admits the romantic element of her play is pure speculation. But isn’t it a secret communication system based on signals...a deliciously romantic idea?

ANTHEIL: What do you suggest?

LAMARR: something that would let both sides know they were tuned in to the same frequency.

For WNYC, I'm Ilya Marritz.