Blinded by Bias

Modern battlefield communications are often coded through a process called “Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum” (FHSS.) In short, a transmission is spread over a wide number of frequencies at extremely short intervals, so if you are listening to any one frequency, all you’ll hear is a series of unintelligibly short bursts some time apart.

During World War II, inventors Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler and George Antheil approached the Department of the Navy with a special adaptation of FHSS technology for guiding torpedoes. At the time, Navy torpedoes used a single-band radio frequency to find and guide themselves toward targets (ships) but the target was often able to detect and jam the signal. However, using FHSS the signal is extremely difficult to detect, and almost impossible to jam. The idea would have made American guided torpedoes nearly unbeatable. The patented invention used a simple roll similar to that used on a player piano to operate the system. Unfortunately, the Navy rejected it. Some said that the Navy procurement officers could not understand how you would fit a piano on a torpedo (in reality, the device could have fit in a matchbox.)

A more likely explanation stems from the fact that the inventors were already well-known, but not as inventors. George Antheil was a successful composer (which perhaps explains the officers’ inability to rid their minds of the image of a whole piano as part of the invention.) The other inventor was even more famous. Hedwig Kiesler was the well-known actress “Hedy Lamarr.”She was the first actress to appear nude in a major feature film (the Czech film, “Ecstasy,” in which she was also depicted as having an orgasm – scandalous in that day.) In spite of this bit of infamy, she became a Hollywood staple, often referred to as “the most beautiful woman in pictures.”

If the Navy had adapted the invention, U-boats would have been far more vulnerable and less effective. As a result, many Allied ships would have been spared attacks from the German “wolf-packs.” The war would likely have ended much earlier, saving lives on both sides. Certainly, desperately needed civilian aid to Allies, particularly Britain, would have made it safely across the Atlantic, alleviating unnecessary suffering.

Some (if not most) modern historical analysts believe that Hedy’s sex-kitten image (and the simple fact she was a woman) prevented the Navy from taking the invention seriously.

Bias can be a very costly thing indeed. It cost us, it cost the British citizenry, and it cost Hedy Lamarr: though she had many other very successful inventions, the brilliant beauty never saw a dime from FHSS, because the US Navy only adopted it in 1962 — after her patent ran out.


About Jess

Jess Harris started writing fiction at a very early age. As editor of his High School paper, his motto was “All the news that might have happened if life in this town was just a bit more interesting.” Any reporting of actual events was produced by others. A Bachelor’s Degree in Music and Theater opened the gateway to a variety of exciting jobs, imparting invaluable skills such as basic home repair and car deal negotiations. He also became privy to more knowledge than any human should be allowed about where turkeys come from. While none of these noble professions turned into a career, they provided a lifetime’s worth of scenes, situations and characters. Several reputable publishers have demonstrated temporary lapses of judgment and published his stories, including Toad’s Corner,, Short Story America, and Fiction 365. We sincerely hope you won’t hold it against them, and visit their sites anyway.


Blinded by Bias — 5 Comments

  1. Fascinating bit of techno-trivia, Jess. I didn’t know anything about torpedo guidance mechanisms or the costly application of apparent bias that prevented a great innovation from being accepted.

    This is the human condition, from A to Z. Facts almost never stand on their own. They are presented by human beings with varying reputations and skills of persuasion. Despite the intent and desire of scientists and engineers to be guided only by the facts, in reality that is not possible.

    I’ve been an engineer for over 30 years (a scary thought in itself). I have come to the conclusion that an engineer’s greatest possession is not his/her technical skills, and not their ability to present their ideas, it is their reputation. Rarely is a technical recommendation presented in such complete detail that anyone else can, or will, fully replicate the technical reasoning and independently validate it. In most cases a summary of the important assumptions, conclusions, and methods will be presented. Most reviewers will follow that technical argument, detect errors or omissions–based upon their own knowledge–and probe at the proponents reasoning or facts. Rarely will anyone understand the problem, or the analysis, as deeply as the presenter.

    If the proponent has a solid reputation and the idea is non-controversial, the probing won’t be too hard or too deep. Sounds like any other business, right?

    So, even in a profession driven by empirical facts, reputation and confidence can count more than the facts themselves. If the presenter makes a significant technical error, that is like blood in the water. All the sharks in the audience, clickety-clicking on their e-mail during the presentation will be on alert and the bloody final outcome is almost foregone.

    And, of course, if the facts are not convenient for the audience, there are always doubts or concerns that can be waved to justify denying the “facts.”

    Imagine how much more ambiguous the reasoning must be in situations where the problems are so hard, or so ill-defined, that “facts” are mostly missing or decorative? There have been numerous times when I had all the “facts” on my side in an argument and left the loser because my world-view wasn’t broad enough. I couldn’t see the other forces at work that demanded a solution other than what I thought made sense. Were those world views correct? Who knows? How can you tell? It’s the Heisenberg uncertainty principle at the macro level.

  2. This story has always fascinated me, because I’ve always thought of the military in wartime for being one of the greatest vectors for social change, and a great source of experimentation. The unwillingness of the military to consider an invention that would have given them an edge flies against that assumption. Does the military only change when backed against a metaphorical wall? Perhaps a certain level of desperation is needed for them to consider changes that fly in the face of social convention.

    I have another question for you, Jess. How effective was the normal targeting system on WWII torpedoes? How much of an improvement would this targeting system have been over the status quo?

    • It is true that the US military as an institution has long been at the forefront of social change. We gave women important roles and authority while it was still an oddity in society. We racially integrated far in advance of the civilian population. However, individuals within the military are just people, and bring their individual biases with them. That said, as individuals spend time in environments that challenge their biases, they tend to modify their views. For instance, inter-racial marriages have been common in the military for decades, when the rest of society still reacted with shocked whispers. That could never be a result of “policy,” it is the natural outcome of people spending time together. The military as in institution is intensely practical, and does what is required to get the job done. Nevertheless, prejudice never dies easily, and cannot be legislated away.
      As for your question, the FHSS-based targeting system would have been a total “game-changer.” The targeting systems the Navy used at the time were terribly ineffective. The Navy’s torpedoes for the first few years of the war rarely hit their target. They fired their torpedoes in “spreads” (patterns) but still missed because they usually travelled below the target. The Navy made the existing torpedo design heavier to accommodate more explosives, without fully accounting for that difference. A radio targeting system had been considered, but a steady signal (non-FHSS) was easy to jam and detect, and revealed the presence of the torpedo and the vessel firing it – a net disadvantage with little chance of significantly improving hit ratios. FHSS would have made the torpedo nearly a “never-miss” weapon.

      • Jess: RF (radio frequency) signals don’t propagate very well in sea water because of the high attenuation. A guidance system would have had to generate a very powerful signal to overcome the losses and that would only be one of the engineering problems. Systems that transmit a pulse from the torpedo and listen for an echo from the ship hull are widely used today, however, they utilize sound waves. RF systems were used very successfully in anti-aircraft proximity fuses during that era. Of course they operate in air.

        • Sam, you are correct about radio propagation in water, and certainly the engineering requirements would be extensive.

          Heddy Lamarr did devise and patent a system that is in use today, and if it had been implemented, may well have saved countless lives.

          Here are the facts as I can ascertain them:
          The original patent submission in 1941 was for “secret radio communications,” not torpedo guidance. However, in 1942 she received a patent for her invention as a “torpedo guidance device.” I do not know the engineering details of the patent. I imagine that the principle of frequency hopping applies to sonar signals as easily as to radio, so perhaps that was the modification that led to the patent. Perhaps the guidance system only took over at very close range, so the power requirement was not as steep, or perhaps it was some other method altogether. The point, however, is that the navy was having trouble using guidance systems on torpedos because it was easy to detect a single, steady frequency (whether sonar or radio) and jam the signal.

          Heddy Lamarr’s invention, with little modification, is in use today, both in torpedo guidance and secure radio communications (as she had originally envisioned it.) Sadly, she received no compensation, because the Department of Defense waited until 1962, three years after the patent ran out, to use it.

          Thanks for commenting.