Sunday, June 30, 2019

George Antheil - Ballet Mécanique

The early years of the 20th century was a very strange time in the art world.  Strangest of them all were the dadaists - surrealists and absurdists of an almost Monty Pythonesque stature.   Ballet Mécanique was a film and a musical score from 1923 that was perhaps the height of the Dada movement.

The name comes from the replacement of human dancers with industrial machines and propellers, and replacement of the orchestra with a brigade of player pianos.  Like I said, surreal and absurd.

But what is stranger is the unlikely friendship that the composer struck up with an actress.   George Antheil ended up collaborating with Hedy Lamar on an idea that would receive a US Patent.  I wrote about this story on this day ten years ago.

U.S. Patent #2,292,387

At State U, I studied Electrical Engineering (among other things). One thing that we studied was frequency hopping radio, which is a cool way to make your conversation hard for someone to eavesdrop on. It works kind of like this:

You and I both tune our radios to a particular frequency, say WRDK-Redneck FM. I speak the first word of the sentence, "Lever".

You and I both tune our radios to a different drequency, say WLTE-Lite FM. I say the next word, "guns".

We tune to a third frequency, for a third word "are", then a fourth "sweet."

If the adversary doesn't know the order of frequencies and the timing of the changes, he'll never know our secret: Lever guns are sweet (unless he reads this blog, of course).

What I didn't learn at State U was who invented this technique, and got a patent from the US Patent and Trademark Office: Hedy Lamarr:
The idea was ahead of its time, and not feasible owing to the state of mechanical technology in 1942. It was not implemented in the USA until 1962, when it was used by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba after the patent had expired. Neither Lamarr nor Antheil, who died in 1959, made any money from the patent. Perhaps owing to this lag in development, the patent was little-known until 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr an award for this contribution.
From the EFF's award:
Actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil are being honored by the EFF this year with a special award for their trail-blazing development of a technology that has become a key component of wireless data systems. In 1942 Lamarr, once named the "most beautiful woman in the world" and Antheil, dubbed "the bad boy of music" patented the concept of "frequency-hopping" that is now the basis for the spread spectrum radio systems used in the products of over 40 companies manufacturing items ranging from cell phones to wireless networking systems.

Pretty darn impressive, especially given how open the 1940s scientific community was to contributions from women.

And so, I hereby pledge my allegiance to Hedy Lamarr:

Sorry, I meant "Hedley" ...


Tom in NC said...

Have always been attracted to women with more brains than looks, but it's always sweet to have both. Hedley, I mean Heddy, was one of those patriotic celebrities who made a contribution to the common defense. Far too few of those today, although they do exist.

JC said...

Smart and beautiful. My father knew a guy who once dated her. A friend of mine owns the Cord they went out in. Small world.

Borepatch said...

Tom, we live in sadly degenerate times.

JC, that's pretty cool.

libertyman said...

Hedy Lamarr sued the people behind Blazing Saddles, and won a settlement. A very remarkable woman.

The Ballet Mechanique is awful, I won't listen to that again, I am glad that idea has come and gone.

McChuck said...

Bombshell: The Hedey Lamarr story, available on Netflix.
Includes interviews with Ms. Lamarr about her life. She was a truly remarkable woman in several ways.

Richard said...

She also invented the nude scene in movies.

Unknown said...

Minor bit of trivia: George Antheil also wrote a mystery novel, which was published under a pseudonym.

Quoting the Amazon blurb:

"Antheil, an expatriate avant-garde composer whose works were performed throughout Europe in the 1920s had a disastrous Carnegie Hall concert in 1927 and wrote ‘Death in the Dark’ out of revenge in 1929."

(It was reprinted fairly recently, and the reprint is available from Amazon.)


Borepatch said...

Libertyman, yeah. As far as I can tell, Dada was the birthplace of the current "we're so refined that we completely understand what this art means and the fact that you don't means that you're not refined". Bah.

I also think that this is the first time that I've posted this sort of music. It is likely the last, but the story of him and Lamar was so interesting that I kind of sort of had to.

McChuck, that's a good tip. Thanks.

Richard, alas, I don't run that sort of blog. ;-)

Unknown, I hadn't known that. But he seemed a real piece of work, so that fits.

Rickvid in Seattle said...

The best of the 1920's European avant-garde was "Metropolis." Had some of the same weird imagery though the original score was not anywhere near as bizarre. The story, however, and remembering it was filmed in pre-Nazi Germany, made it amazingly prescient.

lee n. field said...

I vaguely remember that Robert Heinlein also wrote about a frequency hopping system, in one of his '50s juvenile novels. "Between Planets"?

The Wikipedia article (YMMV) indicates that the idea came up from different folks at different times.