Monthly Archives: March 2016

Hedy’s Folly – Richard Rhodes

 Summary (Amazon): Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes delivers a remarkable story of science history: how a ravishing film star and an avant-garde composer invented spread-spectrum radio, the technology that made wireless phones, GPS systems, and many other devices possible.

Beginning at a Hollywood dinner table, Hedy’s Folly tells a wild story of innovation that culminates in U.S. patent number 2,292,387 for a “secret communication system.” Along the way Rhodes weaves together Hollywood’s golden era, the history of Vienna, 1920s Paris, weapons design, music, a tutorial on patent law and a brief treatise on transmission technology. Narrated with the rigor and charisma we’ve come to expect of Rhodes, it is a remarkable narrative adventure about spread-spectrum radio’s genesis and unlikely amateur inventors collaborating to change the world.

My Review:

Executive Summary: zzzzzzz

Holy cow was this book boring. I was really excited about reading this because I’m an engineer myself, and I thought it would be really interesting. Unfortunately, no.

Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil worked together during WW2 to create a patent for a radio frequency hopping torpedo, the technology from which helped form things we use today like GPS and wireless technology. Sounds cool, right? And Hedy Lamarr is a famous movie star, the most beautiful woman in the world. And George Antheil, who you maybe have never heard about (I hadn’t), wrote an autobiography called The Bad Boy of Music so he has to be cool (or at least crazy and therefore interesting). Somehow a Pulitzer Prize winning author managed to turn this story into something less interesting than reading a phone book.

Hedy was born in Austria to progressive parents. She dropped out of school to pursue theater and star in a risque German movie. She married Friedrich Mandl, who was involved in munitions during WWI. He forbade her to continue acting, and eventually she had had enough, left him, and moved to Paris. There she met the head of MGM who encouraged her to move to Hollywood.

Through a mutual friend, Hedy and George meet and begin to realize the joining of their skills could be very useful. George spent many years trying to figure out a way to join player pianos together to create a sort of orchestra. Hedy spent time listening in on munitions secrets of her first husband’s. Together they realize that they can come up with a design for a frequency hopping torpedo which cannot be jammed. They apply for the patent which is filed as secret and is sent to the Navy, who decides not to implement it. In the 1970s, it gets revived and is used to progress computer technology leading to wireless, cellular phones, GPS and more although no money ever trickles down to either original inventor as the patent has expired by that time. In 1997, posthumously for George, they are given an award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Verdict: 2.5 stars

As a memoir, also specifically titled to Hedy, you’d expect her to be the star of the book, when in fact, upon finishing, I knew almost the same about her as when I started. Over half the book talks about Antheil, which while fair since he is the co-author of the patent, was not in any way alluded to by the title of the book. And it is strange that the author spent more time talking about Antheil and the patent itself than he did about Hedy. Basically, I expected and wanted this to be a book about a powerful woman inventor, and it spent more time on her male lecherous partner. Fail.

 

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Filed under 2.5 stars, Book Club, Book Review