Thursday, May 17, 2018

Book Review: 'Hedy's Folly' by Richard Rhodes

✰✰✰ 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.

Book Club Notes: Many of our members were fans of Hedy Lamarr and very familiar with her work as a Hollywood film star. We were all excited to learn about this amazing technology and lost piece of history. However, several members thought the title was misleading. As noted above, this book has three parts to it, and information about Hedy's glamorous life in Hollywood is limited. Several members were discouraged by the dry writing style. Also the technology was difficult to understand at times.

On a scale from 1 - 5, our ratings ranged from 2 - 5 with a group average of 3 stars. Recommended for book clubs interested in science, technology, and the contributions of women in science. This is not a well known topic, but a very worthy one. Our discussion was supplemented with talk about the movies Ms. Lamarr starred in. I also shared information about the patent. Book clubs interested in discussing this title can find a discussion guide at LitLovers.

Additionally, I created a few extra questions to add to the discussion: 
1.) What were your impressions of Hedy Lamarr before reading this book? Did these change after reading this title? 
2. What is invention? What is discovery? How are they similar or different? 
3.) What would George Antheil think about recent technology in music?  
4.) It was during her marriage to Fritz Mandl that Ms. Lamarr learned about weapons over dinner conversations. Were Hedy's ideas original or mostly borrowed? 
5.) Why did it take so long for Hedy to receive the recognition she deserved? 
6.) How would things be different today if Hedy's ideas of frequency hopping had been adopted earlier by the military? 
7.) Does anyone in the group invent or tinker?  

Finally, for those interested in learning more about Ms. Lamarr and her invention, there is a new documentary film out by Zeitgeist Films. Our group met before the release date, but many of us were interested in viewing it at a future date.

Details: Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr The Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes. Paperback published by Vintage Books in 2011. 262 p. ISBN: 978-0-307-74295-7 

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