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Monday, January 20, 2020
Their View / Opinion

Hedy Lamar lit up the silver screen … and radio frequencies

Q.  In the U.S., the lifetime risk of dying in a car accident is 1 in 522, substantially lower than, for example, the 1-in-64 risk of dying from accidental poisoning, reports “New Scientist” magazine.  How is the European Union leading the way in making cars even safer?

A.  It is mandating that by 2022, all new models of car have 15 advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), including intelligent speed and lane-keeping assistance, drowsiness and attention detection and black box recorders, says the magazine’s Chris Stokel-Walker.  Already ADAS have been shown to improve safety.  Jessica Cicchino of the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that “automatic braking halves the number of rear end crashes.  And systems that warn drivers when they veer out of their lane reduced the rate of fatal crashes by 86 per cent.”

The new tech focuses on “the main cause of road accidents:  drivers not sticking to the rules.”  Drowsiness and attention detections measure the percentage of time drivers’ eyes are closed, advising them to take a break.  And event data recorders can be checked in the event of an accident, helping drivers with insurance claims and police investigations.

According to a 2018 European Commission report, ADAS could save some 73,000 lives by 2030 and reduce the number of serious auto injuries by 38,900 over this period.

Q.  What do your hands or anybody’s hands have to do with the linguistics of life?  Can you put your hands on the meanings here: “chirocracy,” “fingerpost,” “manumission” and “glad hand”?

A.  From the Greek “chiro” (hand) comes “chirocracy,” government that rules by physical force, says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website.  Now picture a post with one or more signs pointing toward one or more places and you have a “fingerpost,” so named since the sign resembles the fingers of a hand.  The word can also refer to someone or something serving as a guide.  And “manumission,” from Latin “manus” (hand), means to release from slavery, servitude or restraint.  The root also gave us “manual,” “manage,” “manicure,” “manufacture,” “manuscript” and more.

Finally, “glad hand” is a hearty welcome or greeting, often insincere.  As Garg puts it, “glad-handing is typically associated with politicians, used car salesmen and their ilk,” who are greeting you warmly not because they’re pleased to see you but rather want something from you. 

Q.  In 1942, Austrian-born Hedwig Kiesler patented an invention that made radio signals unjammable.  Eventually, it found its way into a modern device that has transformed our world.  Do you know this woman’s more famous screen name and the name of the device?

A.  The beautiful actress Hedy Lamar had been married to an armament manufacturer and arms dealer, but after she left him, she devoted her time working on inventions that she hoped would help the Allies defeat the Nazis in World War II, says Marie Benedict in her book “The Only Woman in the Room.”  Hedy’s frequency-hopping invention rendered radio signals from a ship or airplane to its torpedo impenetrable, thus improving torpedoes’ accuracy.  Although the U.S. Navy rejected her design, in the 1950’s, her top-secret patent was included in a sonobuoy that could detect submarines and transmit that information to an airplane overhead.

Eventually, the military and others developed their own inventions using this interpretation of spread-spectrum technology, but Hedy never received any recompense since her patent had expired.  Today, aspects of her frequency-hopping idea can be found in the cell phones we use every day.  “Hedy’s role in these advancements was unknown until the 1990s, when she received a few awards for her invention, recognition she considered more important than the success of her movies,” Benedict says.

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