Tuesday 11 August 2015

Not just a pretty face

Hedwig Kiesler was born affluent in Vienna 9th November 1914.  Her parents were part of the Jewish haute bourgeoisie: mother a well connected pianist from Budapest; father a banker from Львів/Львов/Lemberg.  Budapest has always-and-ever been Hungary but Lemberg has changed its name and affiliation from Galicia to Poland to Austria to Poland to Ukraine.  The last push being part of the Great Shunt Westwards of the borders of Poland to accommodate USSR and bugger Germany after WWII.  Hedy was discovered by the producer Max Reinhardt and brought to Berlin as a teenager.  In 1933, while still a "child" of 18, she starred in the notorious film Ekstase in which she is shown coming and going in the woods with her kit off.  The following year she married a successful Austrian arms dealer called Friedrich Mandl and met a lot of well-connected people in the military-industrial complex in Austria and Italy . . . Mandl's company was a little less connected with the Nazis. Young Hedy also talked to a lot of boffins at the social events associated with procurement.

In 1937, she ran out on her marriage - according to one report disguised as her own maid, as if it was an event from The Three Musketeers - and emigrated to Paris where she was talent-spotted by Louis B "MGM" Mayer and shipped to Hollywood.  Promoted as "the world's most beautiful woman" [L with axis of symmetry] , whatever that is, she became a huge movie star, starting opposite Charles Boyer in Algiers (1938) and then in other block-busters with Spencer Tracy and Clarke Gable. We watched Algiers on youtube last night: it's not as good as Casablanca (1942). We haven't yet seen Tangier (1946), Cairo (1942) or Rabat (2011).  But what's all this?? we're at Science Matters not Celebs Matter . . . because they don't.

Between Hedy's second and third [of six!] marriages, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the War came front and central for Americans, even those in the make-believe of Hollywood. She became concerned about torpedoes, of which she had some knowledge from her life as the arms dealer's wife in Vienna in the 1930s. In particular she got into the possibility of radio-controlled torpedoes and their counter-measures.  At the time she was friendly with a neighbour and musician called George Antheil. He was radically Out There when it came to composition: try his Ballet mècanique "Scored for pianos, percussion, electric buzzers and airplane propellers"?  Between the two of them, batting ideas back and forth from their very different toolboxes, they came up with the idea of "spread spectrum" signal transmission and "frequency hopping". Antheil was very familiar with player-pianos in which the instructions to a mechanical piano are conveyed by roll of heavy duty paper with holes punched in it [R]. This was incorporated into their design as the physical manifestation of the central idea.  The problem was that, if you sought to control the direction of your offensive torpedo by radio signals, the enemy could detect the frequency on which the instructions were being sent and send out a lot of white noise on that same frequency until the torpedo ran out of power or wandered off out of range. Hedy and George's solution was to send out a redundant signal at 88 [= keys on a piano] different frequencies and hop rapidly through them in a pseudo-random order.  The order of hops would be known both to the torpedo and its controller but not to the enemy and detecting and jamming 88 frequencies was more than any then-imaginable machine would be capable of doing.

On 11 August [today!] 1942, U.S. Patent 2292387 [details of their idea and its implementation] was granted to Hedy Kiesler Markey [Markey = husband #2] and George Antheil for a "Secret Communication System".  Hedy tried to use her contacts and influence to persuade the US Navy to adopt this contribution to the war effort. But the US military-industrial-complex decided that she was far more valuable to them as a pretty woman and she was volunteered to go round the country on a War Bond drive raising cash from the public to build more Sherman tanks and Liberty Ships.  Her invention was not taken up by the Navy until 1962, after the Patent had expired. But redundant signal transmission was a key idea which was developed by Claude "Bit" Shannon in his classic 1949 paper "A mathematical theory of communication".  Work in Bell Labs, his problem was investigating how much of the signal can be dropped [over long, slightly crappy, copper wires] and still be intelligible at the other end. Telecoms soon became so important in our lives that technology needed to scale up to service the exponentially increasing demand for what became known as 'band-width'. 

As the ether (and our poor heads) got filled to brimming with electromagnetic waves it became a problem as to how signal could be propagated through all this noise and still be intelligible at the other end.  Hmmmm, like unjamming radio-controlled torpedoes?  Kiesler and Antheil's ideas have thus been incorporated into such omnipresent tools as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. But neither of them made big money from their fundamental creative idea. Lamarr hardly needed the extra cash, because at one time she estimated she had earned and spent $30 million. When she stopped being young-and-sexy, her Hollywood career slowed to a halt: 90% of her films were made between Algiers (1938) and My Favorite Spy (1951) when she was 37.  It's ever thus, vanishingly few female film stars find work after menopause. A career as a woman in science is damned hard work but at least you can expect to work as long as you want.  Maybe an uphill struggle is better for your morale than slinking downhill from stardom to dustbin.

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