Author Richard Rhodes' biography of an unlikely innovator ahead of her time.
Thomas Edison. Alexander Graham Bell. Hedy Lamarr?
In 1940, the Austrian-born movie star Hedy Lamarr, known as the most beautiful woman in the world, dined with a young avant-garde composer named George Antheil at the home of the actress Janet Gaynor. The topic of conversation: how Antheil's knowledge of endocrinology could help Lamarr with what she saw as a career-threatening physical imperfection - the size of her breasts. That seemingly inconsequential meeting, documented in Richard Rhode's fascinating biography Hedy's Folly, led to one of the most unusual collaborations in Hollywood history, eventually resulting in a breakthrough technology that would later form the foundation for cell phones, Bluetooth and other forms of modern communication.
Born Hedwig Kiesler in 1913, Lamarr's active, inquisitive mind and fiercely independent spirit defied her bombshell image. Favoring nights at home at her drafting table, she avoided Hollywood's party circuit. Horrified at the Nazi U-boat attacks on civilian liners, particularly the 1940 sinking of the City of Benares, which was transporting 90 British schoolchildren to Canada, she tapped her new friend Antheil to help her devise a solution. At issue was the fact that American torpedoes were woefully inaccurate. By controlling them via radio, Lamarr and Antheil reasoned, operators could manually adjust their trajectory and guide them to their targets. The problem: It would be all too easy for the enemy to jam the signal. When Lamarr suggested changing the transmission's frequency at random - a process now known as signal-hopping or broad-spectrum transmission - Antheil developed a synchronizing receiver and transmitter using a pair of devices analogous to player-piano rolls. Granted a patent for the system in 1942, the team offered their invention to the U.S. Navy, which promptly ignored it, suggesting instead that Lamarr's skills were better suited to selling war bonds.
There are many lessons to take away from Rhodes' account of the life of Hedy Lamarr. First and foremost: Don't judge a book by its cover. It also teaches us that brilliant ideas can come from unexpected sources and that individuals have the power to effect change (though not always when and how they expected to). And, it highlights the virtue of perseverance in the face of seemingly intractable obstacles. Sadly, it's also a story of gender and cultural bias that stifled innovation that could have saved lives.
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