Hedy’s Folly Reviewed: Richard Rhodes on Hedy Lamarr, Inventor

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 28 2011 7:14 AM

The Inventor in Hollywood

Richard Rhodes explores Hedy Lamarr’s other career.

(Continued from Page 1)

As a youth, Antheil practiced the piano up to 20 hours per day, soaking his hands afterward in fishbowls of cold water to ease the swelling. He composed as well, most notably the Ballet Mecanique—a cacophony of bells, sirens, airplane propellers, and gongs that provoked the second-most-famous classical-music riot in Paris history (after Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). Beyond the machine “music,” Ballet Mecanique demanded a half-dozen electrified, self-playing pianos, an instrument Antheil adored because it could reproduce his music precisely. He even experimented with wiring these player pianos together, to tinkle in perfect synchrony. Such talents didn’t lead to many paychecks, though, and Antheil moved to Hollywood to write movie scores.

Antheil’s aptitude with machines reveals a more scientific bent than most artists have. He even fancied himself an endocrinologist, and wrote endocrinology-based sex columns for Esquire. Lamarr in fact demanded an introduction to Antheil through friends because she thought his endocrinology tips could plump up her breasts a few sizes. Antheil thought this experiment a swell idea, and legend has it that, after their first meeting, Lamarr wrote her phone number on his windshield in lipstick. But they soon discovered a common interest beyond Lamarr’s figure—World War II. Antheil had lost a brother in Finland in 1940, one of the first American casualties. The artists began scheming about ways to improve torpedoes.

Lamarr envisioned airplanes controlling torpedoes remotely, flying high above them and adjusting their direction with radio pulses. This setup had some precedent in Nazi Germany, and Rhodes suspects that Hedy overheard the idea from Mandl. But torpedoes could receive radio instructions only on one predetermined radio frequency. If the enemy figured out that frequency, he could jam transmission, flooding the signal with noise and sending the torpedo off-course. Lamarr had an idea of how to circumvent this threat. Both plane and torpedo would jump in tandem to different frequencies over and over, much like turning a radio dial every few seconds. So even if the enemy jammed one frequency, it wouldn’t matter, since both sender and receiver would soon switch to another.

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The problem was that plane and torpedo had to hop in perfect step. That’s the know-how Antheil provided, since he was, Rhodes notes, “an expert on making machines talk...in synchrony.” In short, Antheil used something like the hole-punched “sheet” that rolls through self-playing pianos. But instead of the sheet depressing ivory keys, it shifted electronic switches. Provided the torpedo and plane start shifting at the same instant, they could communicate indefinitely without fear of jamming.

Neither Lamarr nor Antheil could have invented this system alone, and Rhodes bristles over insinuations that Lamarrr merely regurgitated Mandl’s ideas. Her frequency-hopping concept was elegant and original. That said, it’s a truism in technical fields that ideas themselves are cheap and facile—worth little until tested or built. And if being “useful” is the crucible for inventive genius, then actually making something should count for as much as, or more than, inspiration. By this measure, the book’s title and subtitle give Antheil the shaft. In the 1940s, Hedy’s studio did the same thing, leaking a story to the New York Times about her weapons work, omitting Antheil. But the invention would not have existed without him. Rhodes breezes by this other key ingredient of creativity as well—that a fortuitous collaboration can sometimes allow two people to do better work than either could alone. Genius can exist in relationships, too.

In the end, Lamarr and Antheil’s system proved too sophisticated to incorporate into the clumsy torpedoes the United States deployed during the war. Lamarr did far more useful work to defeat Germany by flaunting herself to sell war bonds, raising over $25 million ($340 million today). But after frequency-hopping languished for decades, engineers eventually realized that it could solve some sticky problems that arose when multiple electronic devices had to communicate, without interference, in close proximity. Today, Rhodes notes, a more general version of frequency hopping undergirds GPS, Wi-Fi, cell phones, and Bluetooth.

In later life Lamarr felt cheated of credit for these developments, a view Rhodes sympathizes with in portraying her as an inventive genius. But this emphasis risks diminishing Lamarr. She wasn’t just an inventor. She was, as Rhodes reveals so brilliantly, the scintillating adolescent in Ekstase; the cunning wife who wrenched herself free from a dead marriage; the Mark Zuckerburg-esque twentysomething brash enough to believe her inventions would upend the world; the faded starlet vain enough both to insist on recognition from inventors and to decline to appear in public to receive a lifetime achievement award. In the end, her gadgets shouldn’t distract from the most incredible thing that this refugee from an unremarkable Austrian family ever invented—herself.

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