The Corner

Zeppo Marx, Technological Visionary

A friend of mine has written a poem about 2016 election that includes this passage:

Libertarians cried: “What we need is Ron Swanson!”

Instead they got dim, nondescript Gary Johnson

Who bored within seconds and blanked on Aleppo

If he were a Marx Brother, he would be Zeppo.

Perhaps Gary Johnson deserves more respect than this gives him, but so too does Zeppo. Like fellow Hollywood figure Hedy Lamarr, Zeppo Marx was an inventor who turned out to be ahead of his time. Lamarr’s “frequency-hopping” scheme, originally devised for use in guiding naval torpedoes, has become a fundamental technology for today’s cell phones, and now Zeppo is turning out to be a prophet in the field of high-tech medicine.

When he left the Marx Brothers after Duck Soup (1933), Zeppo, who had long been interested in engineering, started a machine-parts firm called the Marman Company that developed many mechanical innovations. In 1967 he patented a wristwatch that tracked the wearer’s heartbeat and compared it with a pre-set pulse rate. If the wearer’s heartbeat varied too much from the pre-set rate, the watch would set off an alarm. The device does not seem to have been commercialized, but today medical technology may be ready to support something similar.

Medical researchers have shown that wearable devices that monitor the user’s heart rate, along with skin temperature, blood oxygen levels, and other data — now used mostly by fitness buffs — can provide invaluable clues that a health problem is beginning, even before the user notices anything is wrong. The linked paper envisions having the wearer track and interpret the data, or possibly a physician using a remote link, but devices that make a diagnosis and warn the user themselves cannot be far away. Fifty years after he patented his device, Zeppo Marx’s vision of a doctor-on-your-wrist may finally be coming true.