BOOKS: Hedy Lamarr Vs. The Nazi U-Boats

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[Illustraton by Illustration by David Plunkert]

THE NEW YORK TIMES: That a glamorous movie star whose day job involved hours of makeup calls and dress fittings would spend her off hours designing sophisticated weapons systems is one of the great curiosities of Hollywood history. Lamarr, however, not only possessed a head for abstract spatial relationships, but she also had been in her former life a fly on the wall during meetings and technical discussions between her ­munitions-manufacturer husband and his clients, some of them Nazi officials. Disturbed by news reports of innocents killed at sea by U-boats, she was determined to help defeat the German attacks. And Ant­heil, arguably the most mechanically inclined of all composers, having long before mastered the byzantine mechanisms of pneumatic piano rolls, retained a special genius for “out of the box” problem ­solving. Over several years the composer and the movie star spent countless hours together drafting and redrafting designs, not only for the torpedo system but also for a “proximity fuse” antiaircraft shell. In reality, their patent was an early version of today’s smart bombs. The device as they made it employed a constantly roving radio signal to guide the torpedo toward its target. Because the signal kept “hopping” from one frequency to another, it would be impossible for the enemy to lock onto. To solve the problems of synchronizing receiver and transmitter, Ant­heil proposed a tiny structure inspired by the workings of a piano roll. This was a feat that years later would be used in everything from cellphone and Bluetooth technology to GPS instruments. MORE

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