‘Hedy’s Folly’ bares a most improbable inventor
“Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World” (Doubleday), by Richard Rhodes
Thursday, December 1, 2011
It’s always sounded like a joke in search of a punch line: Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr helped develop the technology that would make cellphones, Wi-Fi and GPS possible.
This fact suggests that there was more to Lamarr than her undeniable beauty. She is remembered, if at all, for the 1949 blockbuster “Samson and Delilah” and a few of the two dozen other movies she made in the 1940s and 1950s.
Lamarr’s effort to invent a radio-guided torpedo as a contribution to the Allied cause in World War II has been noted here and there since the 1940s. And in wonderment, of course, as if the woman who could utter dialogue like “Tondelayo make you tiffin?” (in 1942’s “White Cargo”) couldn’t be expected to think much at all.
She could think, and did. In “Hedy’s Folly,” author Richard Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer Prize while chronicling the Atomic Age in several books, provides enough interesting details to give flavor to this curious footnote in science. There isn’t all that much to tell, though, and the story, while intriguing, feels more than a little stretched.
Lamarr’s first husband was the Austrian munitions millionaire Friedrich Mandl, and she may well have been paying far more attention than anyone thought during his business-oriented dinners. Later, divorced and pursuing her film career in Hollywood, she passed up the social scene to spend nights at home working on various inventions, her mind alive with ideas.
Before the U.S. entered the war, Lamarr was distressed over Germany’s actions, particularly when it sank a ship carrying scores of children. Building a better bomb — in this case, a torpedo — may have been her best-realized project. She also sought to invent an anti-aircraft shell with a proximity fuse, allowing it to detect a target and explode near it.
Her co-inventor for such “secret weapons” was equally unlikely: the composer George Antheil. His early use of synchronized player pianos gave him the insight she needed to turn her idea — a torpedo guided by a frequency-hopping signal that couldn’t be jammed — into a reality. However, getting the U.S. military on board and protecting their patent over time proved to be another challenge altogether.
Lamarr the inventor eventually enjoyed a measure of appreciation. A few years before her death in 2000, scientific societies bestowed upon her the kind of honor and respect that her film work never reaped.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).
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