Tuesday, 4 September 2012

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

In 1942 Hollywood movie star Hedy Lamarr and avant-garde composer George Antheil received a patent for  what was called a "secret communication system." That invention would pave the way for spread spectrum technologies today, from mobile phones to GPS. Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes details how these two unlikely people would create something that would revolutionise the world.

It is a fascinating story and one that was not widely known until the late Nineties, and even then only among a very few familiar with the history of communications technology or the career of Hedy Lamarr. In 1942 Hedy Lamarr was one of MGM's biggest movie stars, proclaimed "the Most Beautiful Woman in the World." George Antheil was a well known composer and writer who was struggling to make ends meet. What the two shared was an interest in technology and a knack for invention. Together they developed a new torpedo guidance system whereby a torpedo would be guided by radio signals that would hop from frequency to frequency. In effect this would make the radio signals that guided the torpedo to its target nearly impossible to jam. Miss Lamarr and Mr. Antheil's invention probably provided the basis for every technology that has depended upon "frequency hopping" or spread spectrum techniques ever since, from WI-Fi to automotive electronic systems to mobile phones. Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil also developed a n anti-aircraft shell fixed with a proximity fuse that would use radar to detect the target and detonate at a predetermined distance away. It would never be put into practical use.

Given that Hedy's Folly concentrates on Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil's invention of what could have been the first practical technique for frequency hopping and spread spectrum, one should not expect a typical Hollywood biography. Richard Rhodes covers the two inventors' pasts in some detail, but for the most part Hedy Lamarr's film career and George Antheil's composing and writing careers are only background for the book's primary concern (their invention of a "secret communications system"). Mr. Rhodes goes into a good deal of detail on their invention, including their relationship (which was strictly "just friends," in case you're wondering). This naturally means explaining the technical details of their invention, a feat which Richard Rhodes accomplishes admirably. Unlike many writers dealing with science and technology, Mr. Rhodes explains the details of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil's secret communications invention, as well as other technologies, in language that is simple and easy for the layman to understand. Of course, here I must state that Richard Rhodes has a very readable writing style, whether discussing Hedy Lamarr's film career or various technologies.

Not only is Hedy's Folly very readable, but it shows that Richard Rhodes did his research. He used biographies, letters, unpublished memoirs, newspaper articles and other print sources for much of the grounding of the book. He also conducted interviews and visited the places where Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil lived. While many are already familiar with even the tiniest details of Miss Lamarr and George Antheil's invention, there is still enough new information in the book that even the biggest Hedy Lamarr fan might learn something new. For those who know little about Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil's invention, the book will prove very informative on multiple levels.

If there is one criticism I have of Hedy's Folly, it is that it does seem to end all too soon. Mr. Rhodes does an admirable job of covering the further development of frequency hopping and spread spectrum techniques would have and he also does an admirable job of covering the impact that Miss Lamarr and Mr. Antheil's invention would have on the modern world. That having been said, I would have liked to have seen a bit more coverage of Hedy Lamarr's other inventions (everything from a cube that when dropped into a glass of water would become a cola drink to a new sort of traffic light), as well as a little bit more on the later careers of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil. Here I must stress that this is only a minor criticism. The book is a great read as it is.

Whether one is a tech geek or a classic movie buff, I cannot recommend Hedy's Folly enough. It provides insight into what was once a little known facet in the lives of both Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil in a format that is easy for even those unfamiliar with spread spectrum technology to understand. I must confess that once I started reading Hedy's Folly I had real difficulty putting it down. I'm sure most readers will be the same.

1 comment:

Bobby Rivers said...

Thanks for taking time to read and review that book. Just wanted you to know that your work is appreciated.