Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes

When I first heard about this book, I thought "A '40's movie star was the inventor a technology that is now used in cell phones and GPS? How fascinating". Certainly, as a film fan, I was familiar with the name, Hedy Lamarr, but when I thought about it, I couldn't recall a single movie in which she starred. In fact, I realized I knew her name best from the running gag in Blazing Saddles ("Its 1874. You can sue her!"). Still, it was intriguing enough for me to borrow the book from the library. 

Hedy's Folly is a breezy read. It tells the story of Austrian-born Hedwig Kiesler, a beauty who pined for the stage, married a munitions mogul, and then made her way to Hollywood where she became part of the MGM stable of stars. It was there she met George Antheil, an avant garde composer and a lover of gadgets and gear even then. One of his compositions, Ballet Mecanique, was written to be performed by syncing sixteen player pianos, a difficult technological feat at the time. Author Rhodes gives almost as much of the book to Antheil as he does Hedy. 

Their idea that received a patent was for a technology known as frequency hopping which allowed radio control of a torpedo (at least in its original intent) that would jump radio frequencies so as not to be jammed by the enemy, thus making the torpedoes more efficient in actually hitting their targets. The U.S. Navy, initially supportive of it, never adopted it and it was shelved. Later the technology would become standard throughout telecommunications and, now known as spread spectrum, is utilized by the cell phone in your pocket. 

While Lamarr and Antheil did indeed receive a patent for the technology, it remains somewhat vague in detail. The author attributes some of it to Lamarr's lifelong fascination with invention and that her father explained complicated machinery to her as a child (!). Rhodes also posits that she was able to learn about some of the technology by overhearing conversations while married to the munitions mogul. No doubt Antheil was a gearhead but it all sounds a little far-fetched to me. I don't doubt that it's true but it seems the author wasn't able to make clear just how it all came to be. In fact, all this talk of invention and patents doesn't really become the main subject of the book until the last ninety pages in a book that is only two hundred twenty pages long. 

Perhaps I'm a little thick (Mrs. Next is likely to agree with that) but, if nothing else, it left me feeling unsatisfied with an otherwise lively and entertaining tale.