Blown To Bits

Frequency Hopping On Stage

Monday, June 9th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times reviews an 80-minute multimedia play about the discovery of spread-spectrum technology, now the basis of much wireless communication, by actress Hedy Lamarr and the avant-garde composer George Antheil. This is the strangest story of technological discovery I have ever heard. Blown to Bits just scratches the surface, but does give the basic outline. Lamarr, familiar with torpedo warfare because her first husband was an Austrian munitions maker, teamed up with Antheil to design a jam-proof torpedo in Hollywood. The control signal would be broadcast at a sequence of frequencies, and the control station and the torpedo would contain synchronized player piano mechanisms with identical scrolls, which would in essence encrypt the signaling sequence. Antheil’s contribution was the idea of using player piano mechanisms, with which he was familiar because he scored his masterpiece, Ballet M?©canique, for 16 player pianos. If you don’t believe me, here’s the patent (Lamarr was using her second husband’s name).

The play, now on stage in a Manhattan theater, includes a complete performance of the Ballet M?©canique. And the review includes a charming and ironic detail: This performance is the first in which the piece sounds as Antheil intended it. He could never figure out how to get 16 player pianos properly synchronized, so earlier performances substituted other instruments.

Comments are closed.