28 January 2012

Hedy's Folly (Richard Rhodes), plus a personal failure

I can't remember where I first heard about the connection between bombshell actress Hedy Lamarr and the invention of spread-spectrum radio (blah blah blah science, but anyway without it cell phones wouldn't be possible)--I had thought it was on the listifying website Cracked, but I can't for the life of me find it. Anyway, having read the story in capsule form, I was excited to read Richard Rhodes' latest book, Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World--and also to introduce myself to Rhodes, author of some heavy-hitting histories, including The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

It is, no doubt about it, a fascinating story. Austrian-born actress Hedwig Kiesler ("oh, of course that's what Hedy is short for!") fled an unhappy marriage to an arms dealer to take Hollywood by storm in the late 30s. She was, though, as whip-smart and inventive as she was pretty, and somewhat bitter about being known only for the latter--once saying "Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." During the now-unimaginable celebrity fervor to support the war effort during WWII, she teamed up with avant-garde composer George Antheil, whose compositions often depended on synchronized player pianos (for research, I looked up and listened to his most famous piece, Ballet méchanique, which sounds to my philistine ears like a rolling suitcase full of spoons being pulled over a broken sidewalk. With an air-raid siren in the background). Together, they developed a communication system to make the signals guiding radio torpedoes more difficult to jam. While they patented the idea and submitted it to the Navy, the military demurred . . . until they realized in the 60s it was immensely useful. Conveniently after the patent rights had expired. In fact, Lamarr didn't get credit for what turned out to be a world-changing invention, the basis for wi-fi and cell phone technologies, until 1997. Antheil had died in 1959.

The only problem with the book is that it's not a book-length story--more of a long article. So even though Hedy's Folly is already slim (272 pages, with a heckuva lot of notes), it feels padded, especially Rhodes' digressions into how an inventor differs from a scientist or how to write a patent properly. In that sense, it's not a successful book. But it does bring this weird little slice of history to a larger audience, and that's a worthy endeavor.

As for that personal failure? Well, with apologies to my friend M. Sullivan, I could not for the life of me get through the first volume of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, Master and Commander. It was actually the meticulously researched historical accuracy that did me in, I'm afraid--I appreciate the intricate knowledge of how Napoleonic-era sailing ships worked and all, but I don't really . . . care about the names of the different sails and bits of rigging? For me, at least, there was too much of that and too little of the people. Whether it swings towards the latter later on, I will never know.


  1. I only saw this just now (sorry I don't check in more often!). It took me three tries to get through Master and Commander. The end is very exciting but it takes some getting to. When I finally finished it I liked it enough to give the second one, Post Captain, a try. I was still a bit dubious through that one, though I liked it better. Somewhere around the middle of the third one, though, (H.M.S Surprise) I realized that the series was the best historical series ever and that I was going to devour all 20 as soon as I could possibly get my hands on them, finals week or no. Which I promptly did. I've now read through the whole series three times.

    So I would strongly recommend giving it one more go despite the initial slog.

  2. Oh, that's heartening! It's thoroughly possible it's just not the right time. Started reading M&C during December retail, and THAT was a recipe for failure.


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