The Corner

Is That a Cell Phone in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Glad to See Me?

Mike, “beefcake” is indeed the mot juste to describe Victor Mature. After watching him and Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah, Groucho Marx told Cecil B. DeMille that he had gotten the lead roles backwards, because “Victor Mature has much bigger knockers than Hedy Lamarr.”

Lamarr was self-conscious about her modest endowment, and in the late 1930s she took her quest for enlargement to the polymathic George Antheil, a modernist composer who, when he wasn’t scoring compositions for aircraft engines, also wrote music for films and dabbled in many other areas, including endocrinology. He suggested hormone treatments, which did not help much, though Lamarr managed to look halfway decent nonetheless.

The two remained friends, and a little while later Lamarr told Antheil about an idea she had. Her first husband, whom she had divorced, was the Austrian arms manufacturer Fritz Mandl, who did extensive business with Nazi Germany (though his father was Jewish, as were Lamarr’s parents). From Mandl and his associates, she had learned about radio-controlled torpedoes, and how the enemy could jam the signals that were used to guide them. Lamarr wondered: What if the guidance signals were sent out in a series of brief bursts, each on a different frequency, and then decoded with a device inside the torpedo? In that case jamming, which requires a steady signal, wouldn’t work.

Antheil immediately grasped the importance of this idea, and after he and Lamarr worked out the details, they took out a U.S. patent, which was initially kept secret for security reasons. The patent can be seen here (Hedwig Kiesler Markey was Lamarr’s legal name at this point; she would eventually rack up half a dozen husbands). While somewhat similar schemes had been proposed or discussed earlier, this was the first patent in the field of what is now called frequency-hopping spread spectrum. The technology is used today in many military, industrial, and consumer communication devices, including mobile phones, and the Lamarr-Antheil patent is often the first one cited in later patents.

So that’s how your cell phone can trace its origins to Hedy Lamarr’s breasts.

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