Chasing the will-o’-the-wisp

So, is the iPhone going to be a winner?  Many analysts seem to have their knives out for it.  Reading between the lines, it appears that the heat of the controversy is caused by colliding world views.  Traditionally, devices are made by hardware designers.  However, Apple has carved out its market niche by taking a different design approach, particularly seen in the iPod.

The touch-screen interface and the user experience of the iPhone (quick scrolling and navigation with a range of hand movements) are much more software-driven than any other mobile phone.  Even though its mobile phone features are apparently not particularly revolutionary, it is the design and operation of the iPhone that could reshape an industry.  We may soon see similar touch-screen interfaces not only in mobile phones, but in many other devices.

Technological shifts are often a matter of clever marketing, but can also have a lot to do with timing.  Many inventions and ideas never quite “make it” at the time of their conception, often due to shortcomings in available technology or manufacturing.  Years later, new developments pave the way, and the original idea is finally born.  By this time, the original creator often receives no credit or glory.

One of my favourite stories on this topic is the story of Delilah and the Mobile Phone.

Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler, an actor from Vienna, made her movie debut in Hollywood in 1939, in Lady of the Tropics, under the better-know name Hedy Lamarr.  She had changed her name at the insistence of Louis Mayer, to avoid association with her notorious 1932 film Ekstase (Ecstasy), in which she appeared nude.  She was perhaps better known for her appearance in Cecil B de Mille’s 1949 Samson and Delilah.


Hedy Lamarr


So where does the mobile phone come in to the picture?  In 1942, Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil were awarded patent number 2,292,387 for a “Radio-Controlled Torpedo Homing System”.  The basic concept used in this system is known as Spread Spectrum Transmission (SST), which is at the heart of CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and other recent cellular mobile technologies.

Lamarr became aware of a wartime problem – the enemy could easily disrupt radio-controlled torpedoes by simply interfering with the radio signal.  Lamarr conceived a solution that would “hop” between different frequencies, on a pre-arranged pattern, much like channel-surfing.  If both transmitter and receiver switch on the same pattern, then the signal cannot easily be found and blocked.

The problem was synchronising the surfing with pre-transistor technology.  Antheil suggested a solution based on player piano rolls (remember them?), which were obviously impractical!  By the time the transistor came along, the patent had expired, leaving no reward for the inventors.

Another example of this phenomenon is the Quartz Halogen globe.  Light globes are simply a tungsten filament in a glass envelope, heated by an electric current.  The light can be made brighter by passing more current and making the filament hotter, but the filament loses its tungsten faster, and “blows”.  It was known early in the development of the electric light that higher temperatures could be maintained by inserting halogen gas into the glass envelope.  This has the effect of replacing the tungsten on the filament.  However, glass technology of the day could not support the higher temperature.  It was only many years later that quartz glass was developed, and the brighter Quartz Halogen globe became possible.

What happened to Hedy Lamarr?  In the 1980s, she sued Warner Bros and Mel Brooks for the use of the character name Hedley Lamarr in the movie Blazing Saddles.  In 1998, at the age of 84, she was writing and performing songs in a Greenwich Village cafe.  She was granted an award at a computer conference in the same year for “blazing new trails on the electronic frontier”.  She died in January 2000, at the age of 86.

And what is a will-o’-the-wisp?  It is “a flitting phosphorescent light seen at night, chiefly over marshy ground, and believed to be due to spontaneous combustion of gas from decomposed organic matter;” or more generally “anything that deludes or misleads by luring on.”

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