[Review] Hedy’s Folly

Hedy's Folly

I don’t read much nonfiction, in the grand scheme of things. I’m getting better about it; I’ve found a number of fabulous nonfiction pieces in the last couple of years, which has helped me be more open to topics that pique my interest. I am probably not as good a judge of nonfiction quality as some, but narrative is narrative and I know what I like.

Hedy’s Folly is the story of how Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr and her inventing partner, composer George Antheil, tried to help the war effort by inventing a radio-controlled torpedo. What they created, however, was more than just a weapon and rather unintentionally landed on a new communication technique that was years ahead of its time. They called their concept “frequency hopping”: an early technique for synchronized radio channel jumping. Later evolutions on this theory would lead to the birth of spread spectrum communications. You may or may not be familiar with the concept but it’s the way that modern devices – cellphones, wi-fi, bluetooth, everything – talk to each other without wired connection.

Yeah, the woman who epitomized Hollywood glamour in the 1940s was a badass inventor who made modern wireless technology possible. Your argument is invalid.

The lady was definitely a geek; inventing was her preferred hobby all of her life. She wasn’t, however, a brain. Her smarts didn’t come from studying science as much as from studying people. She listened to powerful men as they spoke freely around her, considering her mere decoration. She had an excellent memory, and while she may not have understood all they were talking about when the conversation got technical, she knew enough to know the stuff she heard could be important. And she knew how to utilize it.

The story itself gives a fair history, though much of Hedy’s early life is glossed over as the author pays attention to broader history and context. Details mentioned in passing spark readers’ curiosity only to vanish, including references to other inventions; the singleminded focus on her most successful creation overshadows any other creativity she might have expressed. There’s also a fairly detailed bio of her partner George Antheil, detailing his life and progress at least as much as Hedy’s. (To the point where one suspects the title is purposefully misleading.) Antheil, with his avant-garde compositions and roller-coaster finances, is at least as compelling a figure as Hedy, and essential to the process. The Secret Communications System would never have existed without both parties involved.

One does get a sense, between these two portraits, of their place within larger contemporary events that would become historically significant, particularly WWII. The author has also made clear the reasons behind the partners’ motivations in developing their invention. Hedy was Austrian, and George was the son of German immigrants; both were deeply impacted and distressed by the actions of their homeland and wished to help the war effort in the US as best they could. George lost a brother to a Russian missile, his plane shot down on its way to Finland.  Hedy’s first husband was an arms supplier to the Germans and other factions; her initial escape from Europe was mostly an escape from him. They both felt a personal obligation to become involved, no matter how indirectly.

Ultimately, the Navy passed over the groundbreaking patent and it was thirty years before it would again see the light of day. There were plenty of advances in communications technology during that time, some of which employed theories similar to Hedy’s. It was her trophy-wife spying and Antheil’s player piano obsession, however, which brought the possibilities to light.

As a narrative, it holds together well in its individual treatment of both histories, but the jump from one to the other, especially in the beginning, is abrupt and sometimes confusing. In particular, while the reader knows Hedy’s inventing talents are a main focus, Antheil’s purpose in the story at all isn’t clear until more than halfway through.

The section describing the impact of the patent and the implications of its descendant technology was also fascinating but thin. I did learn the basics of how spread spectrum works, and why it was (and is) so significant. There were nifty anecdotes about this application or that, and the techy stuff was written for a general audience, keeping the descriptions recognizable.

This small but important piece of history is a competent general overview. I personally would have liked more detail, but it covers the bases. I am glad I read it, and the whole affair is fascinating, regardless of its flaws. Definitely worth a look, as long as you temper your expectations.

 

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