Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
by Richard Rhodes
97807636385534383 – Hardcover
9780307742957 - Paperback
272 pages
Doubleday
November 2011

Barnes and Noble
Powells
Indiebound

“Her energy, curiosity and generosity were enormous.” – Robert Osborne on Hedy Lamarr

Louis B. Mayer dubbed her “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Hedy Lamarr dazzled audiences from all over the world with her good looks and her charm. When she was away from the studio, Lamarr spent much of her free time working on her inventions. She was a great thinker and although she didn’t have much of a formal education Lamarr proved that genius comes in all forms.

Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes explores Lamarr’s life, her hobby and her greatest contribution: the invention of spread spectrum, otherwise known as frequency hopping. Or at least that’s what you would think was the main focus of the book. The title and the cover’s arresting image of Hedy Lamarr sitting on a torpedo are misleading. This book tries to do three things:
  1.  to lure in Hedy Lamarr fans who may or may not know about her contribution to technology
  2. to tell the parallel stories of Lamarr and her co-inventor George Antheil with equal time given to each
  3. to fulfill any obligations for the Arthur P. Sloan Foundation grant which funded the research of this book. (The foundation funds research on science and technology) 
Rhodes is successful at doing all three of these things. However, the title and cover leads readers to believe this book is primarily about Lamarr. It's not. I think it’s important to know this first before you start the book. Once you know what to expect, then it proves to be an interesting read.

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig “Hedy” Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Austria. Her father encouraged her interest in technology and she picked up inventing as a hobby at an early age. By her late teens she was already an actress on stage and film and at 18 she married munitions dealer Fritz Mandl. Mandl was much older than Lamarr but she was attracted to his business savvy and intelligence. Lamarr would listen in on conversations Mandl had during business luncheons and dinners. Mandl’s lengthy discussions about advances in military technology inadvertently gave Lamarr a valuable education on bombers, torpedoes, submarines, cruisers and weapon systems.

Lamarr’s marriage to Mandl was a toxic one. He valued her opinions on business matters but that was the extent of his respect for her. Mandl was controlling and did not want Lamarr to pursue her acting career. Lamarr had gotten much notoriety for appearing nude in the film Ektase. Mandl became obsessed and would often use the notoriety of the film against her. He spent a fortune trying to buy and destroy all the prints of the film he could get his hands on. Unfortunately for him but fortunate for us, he wasn’t able to get rid of them all. The situation became too much for Lamarr. She needed her independence. There are differing accounts about how she escaped the “prison” that was their marriage but escape she did. She left for London and it was there she met Louis B. Mayer. Mayer had seen her perform on stage and was struck by her beauty. He signed Lamarr, then 22, to an MGM contract and Mayer’s wife Margaret Mayer changed her name to Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr comes from Barbara La Marr, an MGM actress, also known for her beauty but who met an early and tragic demise. With a new contract and a new name, Lamarr was headed for Hollywood.

In 1940, Lamarr was introduced to George Antheil by Hollywood costume designer Adrian and his wife actress Janet Gaynor. Antheil was a pianist and composer who worked on different music technologies including player pianos. Lamarr and Antheil were both influenced by deaths in their respective families. On the death of her father, Lamarr reflected “I had met death for the first time and death had shown me among other things, how brief life is”. Antheil was similarly affected by the death of his brother Henry. These tragic events along with the onslaught of WWII (and a couple horrifying instances of children becoming victims of torpedo attacks on ocean vessels) spurred Antheil and Lamarr’s interest in improving military technology.

Lamarr provided the ideas and Antheil the implementation. Together they worked on a few inventions but the one that showed the most promise was for remote-controlled torpedos. Their main objective was to avoid frequencies from being jammed or intercepted by enemy forces. They came up with the idea of spread spectrum or frequency hopping. Rhodes explains,

“Hedy’s original idea is simple to state: if a radio transmitter and receiver are synchronized to change their tuning simultaneously, hopping together randomly from frequency to frequency, then the radio signal passing between them cannot be jammed.”

Lamarr and Antheil worked on getting their idea, submitted it to the National Inventors Council and eventually received a patent. The technology was rejected by the Navy but was kept on file for many years. Even though the technology could have been very useful during WWII but it proved to difficult to implement. The technology was rediscovered in the 1950s and evolved over the years. In the late 1970s, spread spectrum technology became public and in the 1980s there was a push to use this in non-government capacities. This led to the development of microwave technology, cell phones, LANs, wireless cash registers, bar-code scanners, bluetooth and WiFi among other technologies. Rhodes describes “the advent of the cellular phone: allowing many different phones to talk at once by arranging for them to hop in many different sequences thus staying out of each other’s way.” It’s amazing to think how Hedy’s idea and Antheil’s technological detail contributed to our Information Age!

This book has its flaws. It tends to be rather simplistic and repetitive especially in the first half of the book. It’s difficult to get over how that title and cover misleads you into thinking this book is something it’s not. However, it’s well-researched and Rhodes does a great job explaining all of the technology without overwhelming the reader. I got confused a few times but there was enough explanation for me to grasp the basic concepts of the technologies. It was interesting to see how Lamarr and Antheil’s work developed over time into other ideas and devices. Hedy Lamarr was aware of the importance of the Kiesler-Antheil patent, as it was called, and was frustrated by the lack of recognition. She did receive some recognition before her death but this book serves as a great tribute to the fine work accomplished by Lamarr and Antheil.

Disclaimer: I purchased this book from Random House (Doubleday).

Update: Listen to author Richard Rhodes' interview with NPR here.

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