Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes


Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World - Richard RhodesThere 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.

What do Hedy Lamarr, avant-garde composer George Antheil, and your cell phone have in common? The answer is spread-spectrum radio: a revolutionary inven­tion based on the rapid switching of communications sig­nals among a spread of different frequencies. Without this technology, we would not have the digital comforts that we take for granted today.

Only a writer of Richard Rhodes’s caliber could do justice to this remarkable story. Unhappily married to a Nazi arms dealer, Lamarr fled to America at the start of World War II; she brought with her not only her theatrical talent but also a gift for technical innovation. An introduction to Antheil at a Hollywood dinner table culminated in a U.S. patent for a jam- proof radio guidance system for torpedoes – the unlikely duo’s gift to the U.S. war effort.

What other book brings together 1920s Paris, player pianos, Nazi weaponry, and digital wireless into one satisfying whole? In its juxtaposition of Hollywood glamour with the reality of a brutal war, Hedy’s Folly is a riveting book about unlikely amateur inventors collaborating to change the world.

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.

Click on the cover to go to BookLikes where they provide multiple purchase options if you would like to buy this book, but I got mine from the library, as usual.

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