Badass of the Month: Martyl and the Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock first appeared in the June 1947 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a newsletter-turned-journal for the discussion of science and policy related to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The Bulletin included this statement on the inside of the back cover:

When the bomb fell on Hiroshima, it broke a six-year silence which security imposed on the atomic scientists. It also shattered the scientists’ “ivory tower” of detachment from the social and political implications of their discoveries. For the scientists — who had six years to consider the implications of atomic warfare before these implications exploded on a stunned world — recognized that they had a responsibility to see that this force would be used for the benefit and not the destruction of mankind.

One of the greatest works in all of information design, The Doomsday Clock was a brutally visceral symbol of how the world was now (and possibly forever) near to nuclear war. With the hour hand near midnight and the minute hand only seven minutes away, the clock cut through all the rhetoric and hyperbole of nuclear politics with a clear and clinical measurement: This is where we are. This is how close we are to the end of everything. We are seven minutes away.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Cover, June 1947

Two years later, the clock moved forward four minutes after the Soviet Union successfully tested a nuclear weapon. Three minutes to midnight.

We do not advise Americans that doomsday is near and that they can expect atomic bombs to start falling on their heads a month or a year from now; but we think they have reason to be deeply alarmed and to be prepared for grave decisions.

The designer of The Doomsday Clock was Martyl Langsdorf, an accomplished visual artist with a fondness for landscapes. Known to the art world by her first name, by the age of 25 Martyl had sold a painting to George Gershwin at a private showing, painted a now-iconic New Deal mural of African American history, and beat classmate Tennessee Williams in a playwriting contest.

Martyl Langsdorf

Her husband Alexander was a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project only a few years earlier. They once took a train through Japan that stopped in Hiroshima, to allow all the passengers to step off the train and spend a moment at the Peace Memorial. He stayed in his seat, crying.

Road Ink, Martyl

The Langsdorfs bought a landmark Paul Schweikher home in 1953 and never moved out, drawing the constant attention of the CIA, FBI, and State Department through their activism for peace.

Martyl died March 26th. She was 96 years old.

Badass of the Month (First in a series)

On this first day of the Octomonth (birthstone: opal; flower: calendula), I would like to introduce you to Hedy Lamarr, the first (of many) BADASS OF THE MONTH(s):

Hedy Smoking

“Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Hedy was a successful actress as a young teenager, but her big breaththrough came in the controversial Bohemian (as in, from Bohemia) film, Ecstasy. It was 1933, and people were excited and outraged about a skinny dipping scene; the most outstanding thing about this movie, however, is that it was the first studio film to have a sex scene in it — and the first to depict a female orgasm.

The movie is special not just for its prurient content (and it should be said, the camera never leaves the actors’ faces when things get heavy), but for being an powerful study of a young woman’s sexual empowerment. It was released a year before the Hays Code crackdown began, and so there’s no moral play at work. No virgin/whore complex to feed, no pretense that women live identically sexless lives, who only acquiesce to their husbands after shopping trips (while thinking about their kitchen duties the entire time).


After Ecstasy’s release, Hedy married an controlling Austro-fascist arms manufacturer thirty years her senior who forbade her from making movies. He would take her with him to his business meetings (where military technology and highly technical problems were debated), and force her to entertain at his parties (which Mussolini often attended).

In 1937, after having enough of his crap (and after being forced by her husband to sleep with Hitler to get an arms contract), Hedy dressed up for a ‘party’, drugged her husband, and left Austria (with all of her magnificently expensive jewelry).

Over the next 10 years she made close to twenty films, had two children, and developed a backstage reputation as a voracious bisexual (second only to her sometimes-lover, Marlon Brando). In her time, she was reportedly involved with Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Johnny Carson, Howard Huges, Errol Flynn, JFK, and even Charlie Chaplin.

“I don’t think that anyone would call me a lesbian, it’s just that I seem to be the type that other women get queer ideas about.”

More importantly, however, she also did this.

U.S. Patent #2292387

U.S. Patent #2292387

That is the design drawing for her 1942 invention of Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum communication, upon which all WiFi, CDMA cell networks, and countless other technologies rely. It went like this: Radio controlled torpedoes are more accurate than ‘dumb’ torpedoes, but it’s easy to jam the frequency that the torpedo control channel is on. By rapidly changing the frequency that the control channel was transmitted on, you prevent the adversary from jamming your signals.

Working with experimental composer George Anthiel (who once composed a symphony that required 16 player pianos), she placed a modified piano roll in the torpedo and the controller plane, allowing them to switch frequencies in sync with each other. Unfortunately, it was nearly two decades later before her the importance and potential of her invention was realized. The Navy of the time did not take seriously a device invented by a woman that ran on musical equipment, and suggested to Hedy that she could best support the war effort elsewhere. She did, once raising $7,000,000 in a single event where she sold kisses for fifty grand each. (When honored by the EFF in 1997 for her contribution of spread spectrum technology, she was quoted as saying “It’s about time.”)

Her later years were noteworthy for her lavish parties, five husbands, two shoplifting arrests, a star on Hollywood’s walk of fame, and a Boeing recruitment ad featuring her as a woman of science, with no mention of her film career.

So, here’s to you, Hedy Lamarr. You kicked ass, you took names, you did what you wanted, who you wanted, when you wanted, and you changed the world.

Hedy Lamarr

“Jack Kennedy always said to me, Hedy, get involved. That’s the secret of life. Try everything. Join everything. Meet everybody. “