They did what? Thank Hedy, Bing, Lucy and Arthur for our techie life

A recent Facebook post from someone in the Windows group got me thinking about contributions by people whom you would not otherwise associate the contribution.  This particular post was about Hedy Lamarr and the Spread Spectrum method that is the basis of most modern communication systems.

Hedy LamarrYep, Hedy Lamarr, the gorgeous and glamorous star from Hollywood’s earlier days is one of two people responsible for the foundation of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cell phones.  How’s that?  Turns out, Lamar was a mathematical whiz.  Taking an idea from her neighbor that involved multiple player pianos playing at the same time.  Lamar and the neighbor, George Antheil, patented the idea in 1942.  The idea was also submitted to the Navy as a means of protecting radio guided missiles (using piano rolls to switch 88 frequencies on the fly) but was ultimately rejected.  The idea was put into use in the 1960’s during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Of course, the idea is in wide use today and is taken for granted, but in 1941, when the patent was submitted, it was ahead of its time and was due, in part, to an amazing actress named Hedy Lamarr.Patent drawing

Bing Crosby also lent his hand, or funding, rather, to technology. During the 1940’s and through most of the 1950’s, many television programs, especially variety shows, were broadcast live.  When coast to coast live programming became a reality, this meant that those news and variety shows had to be done twice: once for the east and once for the west.  Bing Crosby, tiring of this practice for his show, commissioned his laboratory to come up with a better way.  Kinescope recording was the standard method at the time for recording shows. This process involved placing a movie camera in front of a video monitor and filming it.  The result, while viewable, was less than ideal as it meant a muddy picture, film that had to be processed and edited and cost.  Bing’s labs, in conjunction with Ampex Corporation, developed the first practical magnetic video recorder, a direct descendant of today’s (or yesterday’s) VCR.

Lucille Ball also left her mark on pop culture and, indirectly, on technologies in use today. How’s that? Well, America’s favorite redhead was owner of DesiLu Studios.  So what? Well, DesiLu is the original studio that produced Star Trek and, as head of said studio, Lucy gave the final word on productions.  She reportedly liked Gene Roddenberry and loved the Star Trek premise. When the original pilot was rejected, she stood firm behind the show and it, ultimately was sold to NBC.  While Lucy unloaded the studio in 1967 to Gulf + Western, she had left her mark and didn’t realize it.  Many astronomers, inventors, scientists and a few business people have said that it was Star Trek that influenced them and many of those people have gone on to be responsible for many aspects of our lives. Perhaps the most public of those influences is NASA. Not only was a space shuttle named after the iconic starship, but Lt. Uhura herself worked at NASA for several years.  A person you may not have heard of, but has certainly left his mark on technology is Rob Haitaini, a designer for Palm. He is the person who designed the UI for the Palm OS. He has credited Star Trek as the inspiration for his work. Arguable, Palm set the standard for small, touch oriented devices such as those seen in the Star Trek the Next Generation program, which, again, would never have been made if it were not for Lucy. The original show also portrays many devices we take for granted: Bluetooth earpieces like the one used by Uhura, ultra portable communications in the form of cell phones (the communicator, which also suffered similar problems that we have with the phones), portable computing and others.  While Lucy’s motivation may have been profit, that she stuck with the show as long as she could says a lot about her. Lucy, we still love you.

Arthur C. Clarke, well known science fiction author, is responsible for pretty much our modern means of entertainment and communication…sort of. In 1945, Clarke proposed the notion of extra-terrestrial relay stations.  His idea was to use such stations to relay radio signals around the globe. These stations would be in a geo-synchronous orbit so they appear to be in a fixed point overhead.  That orbit is roughly 22,500 miles above the earth.  Though this idea was put forth in a slightly different manner some twenty years earlier by a German named Herman Oberth.  Clarke acknowledged this in a later work.  Regardless, Clarke is widely acknowledged as the ‘father of the satellite’ and, as such, is indirectly responsible for the delivery mechanism for the way in which 99% of our phone calls, television, internet and even astronomical observations are handled.

So, you have two actresses, a crooner and a science fiction author who, collectively, had a tremendous influence on our lives.   Kudos to them and kudos to the thousands who actually made all of this stuff just work.

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