Hedy’s Folly: The life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr by Richard Rhodes
Richard Rhodes has written extensively about the dawn of the nuclear age, the scientific and technical cutting edge in the US in the 1930s and 40s. (I read “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (1986) a long time ago.)
In 2011, he turned his attention to a fascinating little story in the same time period, when film super star Hedy Lamarr immigrated from central Europe to Hollywood. Rhodes paints a picture of a woman who may have made a living off her looks, but also was very bright.
In her free time, she enjoyed inventing. Most of her inventions were insignificant failures. But the “Folly” in question was a doozy: mashing up the most advanced contemporary radio control technology with ideas drawn from cutting edge mechanical music reproduction (from her collaborator, composer George Antheil), she imagined and patented the basic idea of spread spectrum radio—a crucial and ubiquitous technology today (e.g., it makes your mobile phone possible).
For various reasons, including wartime secrecy, and dismissive attitudes toward amateurs and women, her invention was not know until late in her life.
Rhodes tells the story of the Bohemian life of Lamarr (her screen name), Antheil, and their contemporaries. It was a more innocent age, so we did not get naked pictures of movie stars in our inboxes, though we can be sure boys and girls got up to the same things then as now. Rohodes’ understated prose leaves many details to our imagination, but left in enough so we can imagine the goings on. This is actually a relief from today’s TMI.
Rhodes is well prepared to tell about the technical developments, knowing both the technology and the culture of the time. He does a decent job of sketching how Antheil’s fiddling around with player pianos and modern musical composition may have influenced their design, and documents his previous experience with patent processes. He also sketches Lamarr’s life, suggesting that she may well have picked up a lot of technical information by listening to guests of her Austrian munitions maker husband.
We also learn a bit about the pre-DARPA R&D bureaucracy in Washington, including the marvelously name “National Inventors Council”, to which the design was presented. And, of course, avante guarde Paris in the 30’s, Hollywood in the 40’s, and all that.
This is a nice little book, a true story, and a bit of nostalgia for a simpler, if dark, time.
- Richard Rhodes, Hedy’s Folly: The life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman In the World, New York, Vintage Books, 2011.
Sunday Book Review