The story sounds almost like a Hollywood plot, except it is true: A young starlet doing nude scenes as a teenager, goes on to invent a critical wartime technology that is ignored by the US Navy but ultimately forms the basis of WiFi and cell phones that we use today. Of course, I am talking about the life and times of Hedy Lamarr, the subject of a new biography from Richard Rhodes.
I heard Rhodes a few weeks ago on the radio promoting his book, and there is a review in this weekend’s NY Times. She is a fascinating study in how someone with both beauty and brains can not necessarily make the best of both worlds.
Lamarr’s invention, which she developed with her music composer neighbor George Antheil, came about through an odd inquiry. Lamarr was interested in a boob job and Antheil had written about early efforts in that area, again presaging another important intersection of Hollywood and technology. The duo went on to get a patent in 1941 for a new technique for frequency-hopping radio communications. While not taken seriously at the time, it ultimately was deployed by the military in the 1960s during the cold war. While the technique involved piano rolls, the basis of frequency hopping continues to be used as part of spread-spectrum radio communications that are in common use today. Along the way, Lamarr made many movies (although none quite as provocative as Ecstasy, the one cited earlier) and married and divorced six husbands, one of who was a Nazi arms merchant that got her interested in developing new technology for the war effort once she fled to America. She lived to be honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation a few years before she died in 2000. Rhodes’ book is the first detailed recounting of her various inventions with Antheil.
It is hard for many of us to grok a movie star with her trips to the patent office, but she was the real deal. Rhodes is the author of many intriguing history of science works, including the story of the Manhattan Project, and his new book is worth reading.
Lamarr once said that “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” She was anything but.