A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.
Sometimes being clueless makes you fearless. This was certainly the case with Hollywood star turned inventor, Hedy Lamarr.
In 1937, Ms. Lamarr abandoned a successful European film career to become a Hollywood star. Although successful, she quickly became bored with the vapid nature of stardom, once saying, “Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Unsatisfied with the intellectual limitations of Hollywood, Ms. Lamarr collaborated with an unlikely partner and together they created a fundamental invention which helped secure their lives of hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women. More significantly, their innovation subsequently became the basis one of the most significant products of the past century.
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George Antheil as an avant-garde composure with a risqué reputation. He underscored his playboy persona by titling his 1945 biography “The Bad Boy Of Music.” During the 1920s in Paris, Antheil partied with intellectuals and artists that included Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Igor Stravinsky.
Among his innovative musical creations during his Paris period was a quirky ode to the mechanized age entitled, “Ballet Mécanique.” The piece was a cacophony of percussive sounds, including 16-player pianos which Antheil never successfully synchronized. His unfulfilled vision was to create a melody that would “hop” from one piano to another. Watching the performance of the piece was intriguing, as it was unpredictable which piano would strike the next note.
Twenty years later, Antheil found himself in the same professional void as Ms. Lamarr, scoring movie soundtracks and utterly bored. The two met in 1940 and quickly appreciated each other’s intellectual curiosity and shared disdain for Hollywood.
If a movie were made about their collaboration, it would no doubt include a torrid romantic relationship. However, there is no historical evidence to indicate that their intense friendship was anything other than platonic. <Note to Millennials: It’s not always about the hookup.>
During World War II, rudimentary progress was made remote controlling devices, but the benefits of radio control were quickly thwarted by jamming the controlling signal. Even when the signals were periodically changed, the defending soldiers simply scanned the airways, until they found the proper frequency and jammed it.
As a young woman, Hedy was married to a German arms merchant. From overheard conversations, she knew that one of the capabilities desired by the Nazis was to guide missiles and torpedoes via radio signals. Clueless, yet unafraid, Hedy and Antheil set out to design a secure remote control guidance system for the US government.
While exploring potential solutions, Antheil recalled his Ballet Mécanique. The novice inventors conjectured, “What if the frequency was randomly changed while controlling the device?” just as the notes of Antheil’s melody hopped between pianos. In 1945, Hedy and Antheil codified their invention by filing a patent claim. In homage to the piano’s 88 keys, their design hopped the signal between 88 frequencies.
The duo did not allow their lack of business experience to dissuade them. They tirelessly attempted to interest the United States’ Navy in their breakthrough. However, their lack of a technical pedigree and the winding down of the war resulted in their idea remaining theoretical.
However, by the late 1950’s, the cold war spurred the US Navy to explore methods to encrypt ship-to-ship communications. Hedy and Antheil’s frequency skipping technology was rediscovered and deployed across the naval fleet, soon becoming the standard methodology of securing all of the military’s wireless communications.
In the early 1980’s, President Reagan’s administration declassified the technology, making it available for commercial use. The timing was fortuitous, as it was Hedy and Antheil’s frequency hopping epiphany that facilitated the secure transfer of cellphone signals from tower-to-tower, thereby enabling today’s cellular infrastructure.
Clueless = Fearless
Like all successful collaborations, Hedy and Antheil brought complimentary perspectives to the problem they ultimately solved. Hedy understood the utility and challenges associated with securely controlling remote devices, while Antheil had previously envisioned creating orderly music from seemingly random (and unpredictable) piano notes.
Despite their artistic talents, Hedy and Antheil were absolutely clueless regarding how to sell, market or commercialize their invention. If they had realized how derisively the market would react to a technology conceived by a musician and an actress, they may not have pursued their idea. Not only would this have placed hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ lives in greater peril, it’s possible that you wouldn’t be able Tweet a selfie from your smartphone.
The fact that Hedy and Antheil were clueless, made them fearless – two qualities all entrepreneurs should have in abundance.
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Images: Associated Press