Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes

Hedys-Folly_211x320Hedy’s Folly: The life and breakthrough inventions of Hedy Lamarr the most beautiful woman in the world
by Richard Rhodes
2011

Hedy Lamarr is best known for being “the most beautiful woman in the world.” She was a film actress from 1930 through 1958, and once said, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Hedy was anything but stupid, although it’s amazing (and depressing) how many people discounted her intelligence. She broke into the film industry in Austria when she was 16, married at 19, escaped her controlling husband at 22, moved to Hollywood ahead of WWII, broke into the film industry in Hollywood to become a movie star, married (and divorced) five more times, raised three children, and died in January 2000. She also maintained a significant hobby of invention.

However, while I learned a great deal about Hedy Lamarr from reading this book, the title is somewhat misleading. It’s not so much the story of Hedy Lamarr as it is the story of one of her inventions: the frequency-hopping secret communication system.

Frequency-hopping is now known as spread-spectrum and is the technology that allows wireless communications to happen without interference or jamming. It’s one of the foundational technologies for cell phones, Bluetooth, military drones.  And it was developed by Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, the composer of Ballet Mecanique, in Hollywood during WWII as a bit of civilian support of the war effort.

This book tells the story of how this technology came about, starting with background on these two famous artists. While it is an interesting perspective on the two characters, it is not a comprehensive biography of either, and it was a bit disingenuous of the author to title and illustrate the book as if it were a biography of Hedy Lamarr alone.

For what it is, though, the book is well written (with the only a few wrong notes, where the author inserts a few generic homilies), quite interesting, and not that long. I recommend it.

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