Hedy Lamarr a techno-wizard? Dandekar Explains

Professors are occasionally asked to step out of their roles as classroom educators to engage a public thirst for stories about the wonders of their research. So, when College of Engineering Professor and Associate Dean Dr. Kapil Dandekar lectures on the actress Hedy Lamarr at an area event this weekend, he’ll be expanding the audience’s grasp of technology. Honest.

It turns out that Lamarr, an Austrian-born citizen and one of the most ravishing actresses of the last century, conceptualized inventions that led to early advances in secure wireless technologies. She even earned several patents. Lamarr was given scant credit or remuneration for her work – in particular, a radio frequency obfuscation technique that helped protect the launch directions of Navy torpedoes. She died alone and nearly penniless in 1965.

Her story was captured in the 2017 documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. The film will provide a springboard for Dandekar’s lecture at a screening this Sunday, May 20, at the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville.

Dr. Kapil Dandekar
Dr. Kapil Dandekar

Dandekar will present his talk “From Weapons to WiFi: How Hedy Changed History,” as part of the theater’s “Science on Screen” series. The series offers creative pairings of classic, cult, and documentary films with introductions by notable figures from the world of science, technology, and medicine, according to the Association for the Colonial Theatre. The program is funded by the Sloan Foundation, and supports screenings at theaters across the nation.

“It’s not often that a movie theater reaches out to you to talk about something that I love anyway, which is working on wireless communications,” said Dandekar, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and CoE’s Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies. “It’s not my usual audience, so it’s going to be an interesting challenge. But there’s a lot about what I do that can certainly be made accessible to a lay audience.”

As Dandekar explains it, Lamarr’s idea envisioned a radio frequency hopping signal that made it difficult for hostiles to jam US Navy torpedo guidance systems.

“She did a lot of the conceptualization work, from what I understand. But I had never heard about it until I saw the film,” said Dandekar. “Let’s say you’re listening to a specific radio station and there’s someone out there who really doesn’t want you to listen to that station. It’s well known what frequency that’s on, and very easy for someone to put a jammer in there so you can’t listen. And there’s not a lot you can do about that.”

“What frequency hopping does is, it changes the frequency randomly in a way that is known to the legitimate participants of the communication. So, instead of the jammer finding a signal to jam at 101.2 MHz, for example, it’ll jump to 102 or 103 and then back down, all around the spectrum. The jammer would have to either obscure a large portion of the spectrum, which is expensive, or somehow hop in the same sequence with the legitimate users in order for it to jam the signal.”

Hedy Lamarr in The Heavenly Body
Hedy Lamarr in The Heavenly Body (1944)

Lamarr’s process was partially inspired by the way a player piano follows the punched dots on a piece of scrolled paper in order to play a song. Those dots signify different piano keys, and the piano plays them accordingly. A frequency-hopping process would direct the torpedo guidance system to “follow the dots,” hopping around the possible frequencies sporadically in order to evade jammers. Under such a technique, torpedoes would be able to follow the prescribed directions given them by Navy technicians without interference.

“I believe that’s the intuition that she had with her co-inventor, George Antheil. The dots would say, listen to this frequency at this time and that frequency at that time, and would receive the direction about how the torpedo would be steered,” said Dandekar.

Asked how the film changed his opinion of Lamarr and, more broadly, the provenance of groundbreaking ideas, Dandekar said the actress’ story reinforced the way he tries to approach his own research.

“In my mind, it underscores the importance of recognizing that good ideas can often come from unlikely places. You just have to be receptive. There are many different types of creativity. In my field, we have a term called diversity, which in the way we use it refers essentially to different perspectives,” said Dandekar.

“One form of diversity is that you choose what you think is the best approach and pursue that. But the best form, generally, is where you combine the best of all the different perspectives and get something better than you could achieve on your own. That’s the lens I like to use in approaching my own research.”

Elsewhere around the country, “Science on Screen” lectures have focused on movies like The Martian, The Unbelievers, The Clash of the Titans, and the Isle of Dogs, all introduced by accomplished scientists who find the approach whimsical and engaging.

Dandekar said he hopes to achieve the same, and currently has pen-and-paper within reach of his nightstand in case a great idea wakes him up and begs to be recorded.

“I’m working on that now,” he said.

Dandekar’s lecture begins at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 20. It will be followed by the screening of “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.” The program will take place at the Colonial Theater, 227 Bridge, Street, Phoenixville, PA. More information on the screening and the theater’s “Science on Screen” series is available at www.thecolonialtheatre.com.

--By Wendy Plump, Staff Writer, CoE