In a ridiculous case of truth being stranger than fiction, the origins of spread spectrum – the technology that makes it possible for millions of people to securely connect to wireless communications for voice and data including cordless phones, cellular, satellite and Bluetooth – includes player pianos, the Nazis, one of the world’s most beautiful women and an avant garde composer known as the “bad boy of music,” George Antheil.
Born to German immigrant parents in Trenton, NJ, on July 8, 1900, Antheil started taking piano lessons at the age six and, at age 16, started studying with a former student of Franz Liszt. When he was 19, Antheil starting socializing with leaders of New York's modernist movement, then traveled to Europe to start his composing career, meeting with modernist luminaries including Igor Stravinsky, Ezra Pound and Jean Cocteau. Reactions to his work were mixed, but his Carnegie Hall performance of his best known work, the radical Ballet Mécanique, performed by an orchestra that included 16 synchronized player pianos, turned into a disaster when a wind machine went awry.
Disappointed, Antheil moved to Germany, where he served as an assistant music director. The rise of Hitler, however, drove Antheil back to the U.S. in 1933. Three years later, Antheil moved to Hollywood, where he soon became a sought-after composer for the movies, scoring 30 films for directors including Cecil B. DeMille and Nicholas Ray.
Antheil also wrote a mystery novel, music criticism for Modern Music magazine and articles on a number of disperse topics for Esquire magazine, including one on glands. In the summer of 1940, his gland article caught the attention of actress Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr asked mutual friends, costume designer Adrian and his wife, actress and singer Janet Gaynor, to ask Antheil to dinner. After dinner, Lamarr quizzed a flustered Antheil on how a glandular treatment might help her enlarge her breasts.
Antheil discovered the actress was an amateur inventor; her former husband was a munitions manufacturer in her native Austria and she had picked up knowledge about science and engineering. She proposed a scheme to ensure a radio-controlled torpedo could reach its target without being detected or jammed by the enemy.
The screen siren and composer continued to work on their invention for the next several weeks. It was based on something called “frequency hopping,” randomly altering the radio signal between the control center and the torpedo across 88 bands – 88 being the number of keys on a piano – so it couldn’t be tracked. The actual frequency hopping mechanics were controlled by something Antheil knew something about – player pianos, using the same synchronization techniques he had employed in his cacophonous ballet.
On August, 11 1942, the U.S. government issued Patent 2,292,387 to Antheil and “Hedy Kiesler Markey,” Lamarr’s married name at the time. Except the government wasn’t interested, so Antheil and Lamarr simply returned to their day jobs.
Antheil wrote his best-selling autobiography, Bad Boy of Music in 1945, and continued to write movie scores including the Humphrey Bogart starrer In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Pride and the Passion (1957) with Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant, as well as for the Walter Cronkite-narrated TV series The Twentieth Century (1957-66). He also continued to compose his own works; his opera Volpone opened to mixed reviews in 1953.
Meanwhile, in the late 1950s, Sylvania’s Electronic Systems Division, not knowing the origins of the patent since Lamarr had used her maiden name, devised an electronic version of frequency hopping technology and applied it to the problem of securing military communications, later using for ship-to-ship communication during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis quarantine, unbeknownst to frequency hopping’s inventors.
Even though Lamarr’s and Antheil’s patent expired in the late 1950s, frequency hopping, which morphed in a digital technology called spread spectrum, began to be commercialized in a variety of fashions by a variety of government and commercial entities in a variety products and wireless platforms. No wireless data technology would be viable without some type of spread spectrum employed.
Unfortunately, Antheil did not live to see the success of his and Lamarr’s brainchild. Antheil suffered a heart attack and died February 12, 1959, in New York City. But an original version of his player piano-centric ballet, Ballet Mécanique, was performed in 1999 at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, followed by sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall and by the San Francisco Symphony.
Antheil’s and Lamarr’s role in the invention of this foundational technology wasn’t widely known until 1997, when their roles were acknowledged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation after a campaign by an online net freedom activist named Dave Hughes. In 2014, Antheil and Lamarr were inducted into the