This fascinating little book (only 219 pages of text) is full of revelations. The biggest, of course, is that legendary Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor who helped develop the technology that is now the basis for using cell phones, wi-fi and other wonders of the digital age.
So why is this a revelation? Why didn’t the Austrian-born Hollywood star get proper recognition at the time and why have most of us remained blissfully unaware of her achievement in spite of a couple of biographies of the actress that discuss her inventions in detail?
Perhaps details of her inventions got lost in the glamour of her life in a general biography and we needed this book devoted exclusively to the topic to focus on it — and who better to undertake the task than Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books on the atomic bomb? In this work, Rhodes explains lucidly how the synchronized frequency-hopping Lamarr developed with composer George Antheil for use in remote guidance of torpedoes in World War II was patented in 1942, became the property of the U.S. Navy and, for various reasons, was never implemented in the war.
In fact, the original patent was kept secret for four decades, and it was only in the 1990s that the actress and the musician received recognition for their invention, which came posthumously for Antheil and well past her prime for Lamarr, who was living modestly in Florida as a semi-recluse on a Screen Actors Guild pension. Because of the classified nature of the original invention, it is not possible to trace what role this patent played in the subsequent development of spread spectrum technology, which is what allows millions of cell phones to use the same radio spectrum without interfering with each other.
But getting the answer to this question hardly matters, as Rhodes masterfully unfolds his tale of a Paris as the cultural capital of the world in the 1920s, of a Vienna still in intellectual ferment in the 1930s, New York in the jazz age and Hollywood in the glamour years of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard — and Hedy Lamarr.
These were epic times, when a young Austrian actress, Hedwig Kiesler, could already earn the monicker of “the most beautiful woman in the world” for her stage performances as the beloved Sissy (Empress Elizabeth of Austria) before fleeing an oppressive husband and the Nazis to become a Hollywood icon, appearing as Hedy Lamarr. It was a time when an avant-garde composer like Antheil could perform his controversial music in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées before an audience that included Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce and Sylvia Beach, and then go on to compose movie soundtracks in Hollywood.
Rhodes takes us effortlessly through this array of personalities and events. His ability to provide context and make connections constantly leads to unexpected insights. For instance, because Antheil needed at one point to synchronize several player pianos for an ambitious composition, he was able to contribute the synchronization to the frequency-hopping needed in the torpedo guidance system to avoid jamming by the enemy. But, in these pre-specialization days, Antheil could also indulge his interest in the effect of glands on behavior and become an expert in glandular criminology who presented his theories to J. Edgar Hoover.
Likewise, when Lamarr and Antheil conducted their research on the torpedo guidance system under the auspices of the wartime National Inventors Council in Washington, one of the key decision-makers on the council was Thomas Midgley. Rhodes identifies Midgley as the inventor of leaded gasoline and Freon, a fact that prompted one historian to note that Midgley had more impact on the atmosphere than “any other single organism in Earth’s history.”
For the non-scientifically minded reader, however, it is more likely the glimpses of Vienna, Paris and Hollywood that will appeal. Antheil’s new Hungarian wife describes Paris when the young, ambitious couple arrives there in June 1923: “Paris was like a carnival. I will never forget its busy ebullience on the early morning of our arrival: shops opened, housewives wearing slippers marketing, carrying shopping baskets for bread and milk, carts full of vegetables, noise, bustling, cheerful, sunny … I suddenly knew that just simply living could be fun.”
At the center of the book, though, is Hedy Lamarr — a young Austrian girl devoted to her father. Having resolutely decided on an acting career, she created a scandal by appearing nude in a 1933 film, the famous “Ecstasy” of Gustav Machatý, which was quite racy for the time. Not long after, Hedy was forcefully wooed and virtually imprisoned by her much older husband, Friedrich Mandl, a leading Austrian arms dealer. But the resourceful young actress turned the painful situation to the good and took her revenge, for it was during dinners and parties at Mandl’s hunting lodges with visiting military officials that she played dumb and kept her ears open, picking up her knowledge of ships, submarines and torpedoes. It was this knowledge she put to use in an effort to aid the war effort of her adopted country after she escaped her husband for her Hollywood career.
Hedy Lamarr met George Antheil through a mutual friend, and they began work on a number of inventions, including the torpedo guidance system and proximity fuses, a device that would enable anti-aircraft shells to explode only when near their target. Rhodes patiently guides the lay reader through the process of invention and patenting, which requires not only an idea but a way of reducing it to practice — making it actually work. Lamarr and Antheil refined their torpedo system and finally won a patent in 1942.
But it was, as Rhodes drily notes, a “bad time” for the U.S. Navy, which was scrambling after the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into the war. Budget cuts on torpedo testing prior to the war meant that most American torpedoes did not work — they either missed their targets or failed to explode. As Rhodes explains, naval officials just wanted to solve these basic problems rather than invest time and energy in sophisticated guidance systems. So Lamarr joined other Hollywood stars raising millions of dollars for the war effort through sales of war bonds, went on making movies and retired from public life when her glamour faded. Her role as an inventor went largely unnoticed for decades.
Rhodes is clearly sympathetic to the actress — the book is dedicated to the two children from her marriage to John Loder, third of five husbands — but this is not really a biography. Lamarr is at the center of this intriguing tale of invention and technology but, in the end, not that much of her personality emerges. The author cites Robert Osborne’s glowing encomium of Lamarr young and old: “Few people were ever blessed with a merrier sense of humor, few sailed through the calamities of life with more of a blithe spirit, few apologized less frequently and seemed to be having more fun …” Yet we see little of that Hedy Lamarr in this book. In addition, Rhodes omits any mention of the bizarre shoplifting arrests in her later life that color the attitude of many born too late to appreciate her acting career.
It is perhaps a measure of Rhodes’s success, though, that you want to know more about Hedy Lamarr when you finish this book. Most important, it leaves you with a much greater appreciation for the diverse forms of creative talent and the many works of genius that have gone into creating the world of digital wonders in which we live.