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The most beautiful inventor in the world

Hedy’s Folly: the Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr. By Richard Rhodes. 261 pages.

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Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-born film star often described as the most beautiful woman in the world was more than just a pretty face. She was an intelligent, energetic and inventive woman, who tried to help the Allies win World War II.

Hedy, née Hedwig Kiesler, was an only child, and as often happens with daddies and their little girls, her father, a wealthy Jewish banker, doted on her. He spent much time with her, and whenever they were together, he explained to her how everything worked. Later, when she married Fritz Mandl, an autocratic Austrian arms manufacturer considered the third richest man in Europe, she and her husband entertained European elites—diplomats, financiers, dictators (Mussolini, but not Hitler; Mandl was also Jewish), generals and admirals. She wasn’t expected to say much at table, but she did listen and as she listened, she learned a lot.

Hedy’s parents had expected her to be like other girls of her time and class, to marry and produce children, but Hedy didn’t want that. She wanted to be a film star. And what she wanted, she usually got, so her parents agreed to let her have a go at it. An early film titled Ecstasy, however, gave them cause to regret their decision. In that 1932 film, Hedy appears nude, and she simulates adulterous sex. The film gave Hedy trouble the rest of her career.

However, this book isn’t really about Hedy’s film career. It is about her inventions, including the proximity fuse, which saved many American lives during the Japanese kamikaze attacks. As important as that development was, the book devotes most of its attention to a device she and composer George Antheil created. Antheil, the bad boy of music of his day, was something of an expert on player pianos and endocrinology. They met when Hedy consulted him on how to increase her breast size. They became friends, and he and Hedy devised a means of controlling torpedoes by radio waves broadcast from a ship or a plane, the device made use of perforated rolls of paper, much as player pianos do. Remote controlled torpedoes had been tried before, but it was easy to defeat. All the target had to do was jam the frequency the signal was broadcast on. To overcome the jamming, she and Antheil developed something they called “frequency hopping.” They sought a patent and offered their idea to the Navy. Prominent scientists endorsed the idea, but the Navy brass rejected it, possibly because their sexism prevented them from believing a beautiful woman had brains.

After the war, others built on Hedy’s idea and that is why we have cell phones and GPS. Only late in her life, after a retired colonel in the American army took up the cause, did Hedy and Antheil receive any credit for their work.

Rhodes explains the torpedo control device in great detail. He has a talent for presenting highly complex information so that the lay reader can understand it. He is also very good on Hedy's early life and her six marriages. In short, a book well worth reading.