Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr is remembered most for the asset she valued least: her beauty. Richard Rhodes, himself best known for doorstop histories including 1986’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb, is out to change that with Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr. The slim volume may not possess the gravity of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s four-part history of the nuclear age, but it certainly doesn’t lack for charm or contemporary relevance. For in addition to being a legendary screen siren, Hedy Lamarr was an inventor whose contributions to the technology that now surrounds us (you may be employing some of it to read this article) have largely gone unheralded.
Rhodes begins his captivating narrative in Vienna, where the young Hedwig Kiesler, born in 1913, dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to become an actress. Within a year she’d won the lead role in a Czech film, Ekstase, which was so steamy for its time that Hedy’s father forced the family to walk out during the premiere. Two short years later found her married to Fritz Mandl, a wealthy Austrian arms dealer almost twice her age. Mandl had become obsessed with the young actress after seeing her on the stage, but after their marriage he not only prohibited her from acting but fruitlessly attempted to buy up every existing copy of Ekstase.
While the unhappy union left her feeling, as she later wrote, like “an object of art which had to be guarded,” it also introduced her to the subject of modern weapons development, as apparently chatty Austrian and German politicians, diplomats, and engineers were guests at the couple’s frequent parties.
In 1937, Hedy finally escaped her marriage, fleeing to London, where she met film mogul Louis B. Mayer, who was visiting from Hollywood. She managed to book passage on the same transatlantic ship as Mayer; by the time they arrived in the United States, he had signed her to his MGM Studios and rechristened her Hedy Lamarr. Her American film career was launched with 1938’s Algiers, which made her a star.
Lamarr, possessed of a restless intellect, “didn’t drink and…didn’t like to party, so she took up inventing” to fill the idle months between movies, Rhodes writes. Her early projects included a tissue-box attachment to hold used tissues and a bouillon cube that, when dropped in water, would create cola. But with the start of World War II, her inventing took a more purposeful turn, particularly as German forces attacked British passenger ships evacuating children from London to protect them from the Blitz. Devastated by the September 1940 sinking of the SS City of Benares, which left seventy-seven children dead, Lamarr “decided the Allies had to do something about the German submarine menace. She began thinking about how to invent a remote-controlled torpedo to attack submarines.”
Around this time, the actress met the avant-garde composer George Antheil, whose story Rhodes tells in alternating chapters with Lamarr’s. Once she’d freed herself from Mandl’s clutches, Lamarr’s path to stardom was relatively effortless. Antheil had a more difficult time. Performances of his far-out compositions were enough to cause riots, and he struggled to make a living in both Europe and America. A gifted polymath, he’d begun writing to earn extra money and had published a series of articles on his theories of endocrinology for Esquire. In his bestselling memoir, Bad Boy of Music, Antheil claims that the actress had requested the introduction from mutual friends in the hopes that Antheil could apply his knowledge of glandular science to helping her enlarge her breasts.
Whether or not that eyebrow-raising claim has any truth to it, the two soon began to collaborate on a project of indisputable seriousness. After discussing the war, they commenced work on Lamarr’s concept for the remote-controlled torpedo. The actress’s idea was to create a frequency-hopping radio signal and to synchronize the frequency changes between a ship or plane and its torpedo, thus preventing the enemy from jamming the signal; Antheil’s role, according to Rhodes, was “to help her reduce [the idea] to practice.” He was an appropriate partner: not only had he been a onetime munitions inspector for the U.S. government, but as a composer, he was, Rhodes writes, “something of an expert on making machines talk to each other in synchrony.” His infamous Ballet Mécanique had involved the synchronization of 16 player pianos.
The two worked tirelessly and received a patent for their efforts in 1942, but the military, after evaluating their system, declined to use it. Years later, unbeknownst to Lamarr and Antheil (who died in 1959, the year their patent expired), the government secretly revived research on the frequency-hopping system. It became the basis of spread-spectrum technology, which makes wireless networking possible, but the two remained uncredited, which Lamarr noted with bitterness late in her life. Recognition, though long delayed, did come at last, and in 1997, the eighty-two-year-old Lamarr, by then married and divorced six times and living alone in Florida, received the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, three years before her death.
Rhodes uses this fascinating sliver of history to ruminate on the “strange business” of invention. He also touches on the “misogynistic debate” about Lamarr’s contributions, which has seen detractors insisting that she must have lifted her idea wholesale from Mandl’s circle. Indeed, for some it might be simply impossible to accept not just that a woman, but a woman as beautiful and glamorous as Lamarr, could also be so brainy. When the Navy rejected her idea, Lamarr turned to a more conventional route for helping with the Allied effort, traveling the country, using her fame and face to sell war bonds. They sold like gangbusters.