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Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough…

Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,… (2011)

by Richard Rhodes

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Richard Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer for his book on the making of the atomic bomb, once again turns to technology, but this time tech embodied by the famous Hollywood star, Hedy Lamarr. Ms. Lamarr’s intelligence was often overlooked due to her great beauty, but she was creative and practiced inventing as a hobby. Except that she was really good at it.

Her most important invention, frequency-hopping, was a collaboration with the American modern compose George Antheil, who tried to write mechanistic sounding music to reflect the 20th century. When Ms. Lamarr conceived of frequency hopping as a way to guide torpedoes to their targets, Mr. Antheil had the experience to reduce her concept to a working model. The two inventors were awarded a patent in 1942, but the Navy, which acquired and classified the patent, never used it.

Later, the Navy used the patent to inspire spread spectrum technology for various uses. Today that technology lies behind Wi-Fi, cell phones, GPS, etc. But the basic idea that makes it all work begins with a glamorous actress and a struggling composer.

Well written, putting complex ideas into clear language. ( )
  barlow304 | Jun 8, 2018 |
Hedy Lamarr was known for her glamour and beauty. During MGM's "Golden Age" she was a much sought after actress starring alongside Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Victor Mature. But there was more to Ms. Lamarr than Hollywood parties and fancy dresses. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914 in Austria, Hedy always wanted to be an actress, and after a short, unhappy marriage to munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, Hedy made her way to America.

In between filming movies, Hedy enjoyed inventing. Her hobby took off when she met composer George Antheil. When America entered World War II, both the actress and the composer were inspired to help in any way they could. The result of their collaboration was a patent application for a Secret Communication System, which featured "frequency hopping." This technology later became known as spread spectrum communication technology which we still use today for GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth devices. It's amazing to think that the smartphones we depend on today rely on an idea that came from "the most beautiful woman in the world."

The Bottom Line: This book is part biography about Hedy Lamarr, part biography of George Antheil, and part science text. It is an interesting look at how everything came together at the right time to bring about a technology we depend upon today. Readers interested in women of science will find this slim book fascinating. However, fans of Hedy Lamarr looking for salacious tidbits of her Hollywood life and numerous marriages will have to look elsewhere.

For the complete review including Book Club Notes, please visit the Mini Book Bytes Book Review Blog. ( )
  aya.herron | May 17, 2018 |
Hedy's Folly There is so much to love in this book! I've been wanting to read more about her ever since I first heard that it was Hedy Lamarr who had so much to do with today's technology and it did not disappoint.
The story was sure to be interesting, having heard about Lamarr's participation in this invention prior to reading (well, listening to) this book. I knew of her Hollywood fame too, and that she had emigrated to the US, but I didn't know about the Nazi ex or the way she came to acting or what prompted the invention.
The book takes the time to tell her whole story, not just the inventing timeframe. When I think of celebrity biographies, I don't tend to think of women who were on the run from Nazi's or who invent things. All told, her story is pretty exciting.
Funny enough, the word "folly" isn't totally appropriate but I get why it was used in the title here. She had all the beauty and brains that one could hope for, but she had made a fairly significant error in her calculations for what her invention could do or be used for and she trusted the wrong people, not that it was stolen. It just wasn't appreciated for what it could do. Her thoughts were on a weapon whose guidance can't be jammed while her idea was so much more versatile.
It was also nice to know that she did live to see that not only was her work appreciated and used by a wide range of things, but also long enough to be accredited the invention and appreciated for bringing it to the world. It was interesting to see the ideas she was privy to that ultimately led to her putting them together in this way.
The other great thing about the book is that "spread spectrum radio" had two inventors and it may not equally go into both, but Antheil wasn't exactly neglected here. His progress through life was also told. I particularly loved the way he was approached about meeting her and his response to his friends. It was really cute.
Altogether, this is a must read for women in science, and should count for Read Harder's task 13, Read a nonfiction about technology. It wasn't my pick for that but I came across it and am glad I gave it a listen. It was read by Bernadette Dunne, who did a beautiful job with it. ( )
2 vote Calavari | Apr 5, 2018 |
Interesting story, but I must admit that I skimmed the parts about how her communications system worked. ( )
  EllenH | Oct 11, 2017 |
Interesting story, but I must admit that I skimmed the parts about how her communications system worked. ( )
  EllenH | Dec 3, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385534388, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, December 2011: Hedwig (Hedy) Kiesler may be one of the greatest unsung heroes of twentieth century technological progress. An opportunistic Austrian immigrant driven by curiosity and a desire to make it as a Hollywood actress in the early years of World War II, Hedy worked with avant-garde composer George Antheil to create the technology that we depend upon today for cell phones and GPS: frequency hopping. Though Richard Rhodes presents details about everyone involved in the separate experiences that the two inventors drew upon to make their breakthrough in Hedy’s Folly, the invention itself takes center stage, driving the remarkable story with precision. Rhodes skillfully weaves together all the disparate parts of the story, from how Hedy learned about Nazi torpedoes to why George’s knowledge of player pianos was key to the invention, in order to create a highly readable genesis of the technology that influences billions of lives every day. --Malissa Kent

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:11 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Describes the lesser-known technological talents of actress Hedy Lamarr and the collaborative work with avant-garde composer George Antheil that eventually led to the development of spread-spectrum radio, cell phones, and GPS systems.

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