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Friday, August 11, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Hedy Lamarr and the Invention of Wi-Fi

An actual postcard for "Postcard Thursday"! (OK, so it's Friday, but one step at a time.)

The home above belonged to the woman in the inset, actor Hedy Lamarr, star of such films as Ziegfeld Girl, Tortilla Flat, and Samson and Delilah, the highest-grossing film of 1949.

But on August 11, 1942 -- 75 years ago today -- Lamarr's most lasting contribution to the world happened with little fanfare: she was awarded a patent for a frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication system. The system, which she invented with composer George Antheil, was not the first to use random sequences to create a covert communications system, but the method patented by Lamarr and Antheil was later adopted by the US Navy and became the basis for both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies.

There's a brief article at CultureLab that's worth reading in full about Lamarr's contributions to science, but here's a brief excerpt:
The invention was not her first. Lamarr previously experimented with cola-flavoured bouillon cubes for homemade soft drinks. But her new idea, which officials would only say was "related to remote control of apparatus employed in warfare", would become a signal innovation of the century, the technology now underlying cellphones and Wi-Fi. Expertly explaining the genesis and consequences of Lamarr's invention, in Hedy's Folly, Richard Rhodes transforms a surprising historical anecdote into a fascinating story about the unpredictable development of novel technologies. 
When Lamarr turned her attention to national defence, following the tragic sinking of a ship full of refugees by a German U-boat in 1940, she knew far more about armaments than most movie stars. Before arriving in Hollywood, she had been married to the Austrian munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, who supplied the Axis powers. Dining with Nazi generals, Lamarr not only learned about the latest submarines and missiles but also the problems with them: notably the challenge of guiding a torpedo by radio, and shielding the signal from enemy interference. 
Her insight was that you could protect wireless communication from jamming by varying the frequency at which radio signals were transmitted: if the channel was switched unpredictably, the enemy wouldn't know which bands to block. But her ingenious "frequency-hopping" idea was just a hunch until Lamarr met fellow amateur inventor George Antheil at a Hollywood dinner.

Notorious in the music world for avant-garde compositions featuring airplane propellers and synchronised player pianos, prior to the war, Antheil had galvanised Paris, and incited riots, with his cacophonous Ballet Mécanique. He had also attempted to invent an open-top pianola with which to teach basic keyboard technique. It flopped, but this background came in handy. To realise Lamarr's idea, Antheil proposed coordinating transmitter and receiver by controlling the switching between channels with two identical piano rolls running at the same speed.
Lamarr died in 2000, but not before being recognized in 1997 with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award for her contributions to modern technology. In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Postcard Thursday: "For the Accommodation of the People"

As you sweat through the "summer of hell" (to use Governor Cuomo's term) at Penn Station, here's a look back at what things were like before the Pennsylvania Railroad even had a terminal in Manhattan. We recently ran across this advertisement in the New York Herald from 1909 for all the various ways the Pennsylvania Railroad Company used to be able to get people into and out of Manhattan.

As the "bulletin" points out, the railroad had "nine conveniently located gateways" to the city. Four were ferry terminals, at Cortlandt Street, Desbrosses Street, West 23rd Street, and Fulton Street in Brooklyn. The remaining five were what we today know as PATH train stations, though many of these are now defunct. For example, in 1909 there was a PATH station at 19th Street, which closed in 1954, and there was a direct connection (for an additional five-cent fare) between the 23rd Street PATH and Jersey City.

(Today, if you ride in the front car of the PATH from 23rd Street, you can see the remnants of the 19th Street station as you head toward 14th Street.)

The ad mentions that the "wholesale district" (today's Tribeca) is served by the Desbrosses Street station (by which they mean ferry slip), but doesn't point out that you could also pick up a street car here that would whisk you across the island to the Grand Street ferry slip, and thence to Brooklyn. (This is probably omitted because the Pennsylvania Railroad did not have any financial interest in the street car company.)

Also interesting is the information at the end, almost as an aside, about the "largest, handsomest, and most commodious" railroad station that the Pennsylvania Railroad was building at 34th Street. Penn Station, as it came to be known, opened less than a year after this ad ran, and the ability for trains to run directly from Jersey and Long Island into Manhattan made most of the "nine conveniently located gateways" touted in this ad virtually obsolete.

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