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Hedy's Folly: the Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (Vintage) Paperback – 20 Sep 2012

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Hedy's Folly: the Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (Vintage) + Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone
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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; Reprint edition (20 Sep 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307742954
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307742957
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 1.6 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 275,763 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


As described in unprecedented detail by the American journalist and historian Richard Rhodes in his new book, Hedys Folly, Lamarr and her business partner, the composer George Antheil, were awarded a patent in 1942 for a secret communication system. It was meant for radio-guided torpedoes, and the pair gave to the US Navy. It languished in their files for decades before eventually becoming a constituent part of GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology. --The Guardian, 5th December 2011

Theres enough technical and military history here to keep Rhodess hard-core fan base satisfied. But the cultural history is just as interesting. --Very Short List

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Gail Cooke TOP 500 REVIEWER on 24 Dec 2011
Format: Hardcover
It makes a remarkable story is the way the author describes Hedy Lamarr's partnering with George Antheil "to invent a fundamental new wireless technology." Indeed, it is a remarkable story and ably told by Richard Rhodes. Hedy's Folly is a unique pairing in more ways than one. First, who would believe that the woman who owned the sobriquet "the most beautiful woman in the world" and created a scandal by baring all in an erotic 10 minute film scene when she was but 17 could possibly be intelligent enough to invent a technology that makes today's cell phones and GPS devices possible? Why, that's a bit like asking someone to believe that Marilyn Monroe discovered a cure for cancer.

Secondly, how likely is it that Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes who penned four books about nuclear history would spend time writing about a Hollywood legend? Quite unlikely you might say. Nevertheless, here is Hedy's Folly, an eyebrow raising, absorbing true story.

Born into a wealthy family in pre-war Vienna Hedy was an inquisitive child, full of questions and encouraged by her father to pursue her interest in how things worked. Her first marriage was to Fritz Mandl, one of the wealthiest men in Austria who sold weapons to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. While that union was short-lived she learned a great deal by simply listening to dinner table discussions re technology as it related to the military. She was to remember what she learned.

After running away from her overbearing spouse and unsafe Austria (she was Jewish) she came to America and Hollywood. There, at a dinner party she met composer George Antheil who had come to Hollywood to write sound tracks for films.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Georg Strøm on 16 Feb 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It is a greater than real story about Hedy Lamarr, described as the most beautiful woman in the world, who also invented a radio system that is indispensible today. I also used the book in teaching product development. In addition to engaging the students, he story very well describes the knowledge that probably lead to her invention and the the importance of a good network when making an invention successful.

I only give the book four stars, because I disagree with one of its major conclusions. According to the book her invention was rejected by the US Navy because Hedy Lamarr was a woman, so the Navy did not give it a serious treatment. However, there is nothing to substantiate that. In contrast, the US Navy had serious unsolved technical problems at the time, and probably made their decision based on the effort it would take to turn her invention into a something that could be used In military operations. Even though her invention was made in 1941 and had obvious advantages, it was only finally used in 1962.

Given this point where I disagree with the author, it is an exciting book and absolutely worthwhile reading.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is quite the worst biography I have ever read. I have managed to 34 per cent and have given up . What could have been an extremely interesting book about a fascinating subject is simply a meandering mess of irrelevances culled from other people,s unpublished memoirs, most of which is wholly irrelevant to the subject of the biography. Of the 34 per cent, I doubt if 4 per cent actually relates to Hedy. Maybe it will improve in the remaining 66 per cent but I am too bored by it to find out. I had never heard of the author but apparently he has a following. I cannot imagine why anyone should want to read anyone so boring.
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By MR A SMITH on 2 Nov 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
No problems whatsoever.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 96 reviews
152 of 166 people found the following review helpful
Hollywood beauty, wireless technology whiz 1 Dec 2011
By A. Jogalekar - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Hedy Lamarr was a Hollywood star, considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. She was also an inventor. These two disparate sounding facts would make anyone sit up and take notice. We are fortunate that a writer of the caliber of Richard Rhodes did notice. What he gives us is a fascinating account of Lamarr and her fellow inventor, musician George Antheil, as well as a host of other topics including evocative portraits of 1920s Vienna and Paris, insightful commentary on Hollywood and World War 2 and a crystal clear account of the technical details behind Lamarr and Antheil's key invention- spread-spectrum frequency hopping, a technique which can be used for jam-proof wireless communication in everything from submarine transmission to cell phones.

As is the case with his other commanding works, Rhodes is most adept at creating sharp character portraits of the main protagonists and an evocative recreation of the times that they lived in. He also offers a characteristically lucid account of science and technology reminiscent of the accounts in his landmark "The Making of the Atomic Bomb". Wherever possible he lets the characters speak in their own voices. He starts by describing Hedy's childhood in 1920s Vienna, a city that was a mecca for the arts and a sort of dream world for the young and ambitious. Acting was in Hedy's blood and with the encouragement of a doting father, she never looked back. After starring in a variety of roles, some scandalous for the times, she had the misfortune to marry a charming but opportunistic arms dealer who was cozy with fascists and Nazis and who turned Hedy into a trophy wife trapped in a golden cage. Endowed with an exceptionally keen mind and remarkable powers of observation, she soaked up discussions of weapons systems and armaments while attending lavish parties thrown by her husband. Even as she was expected to sit still and smile, she would carefully listen to descriptions of advances in military hardware from experts like the rocket and submarine pioneer Hellmuth Walter.

Tired of the growing brutality in Germany and trapped in an unhappy marriage, Lamarr fled to Paris, London and then to the United States where she was swept up right away by a Hollywood which was then eagerly showcasing immigrant European actors. Lamarr acted in a string of successful Hollywood movies and became known for her beauty, but the most consequential event in her life was her meeting with her California neighbor George Antheil, an avant garde musician who had spent the 1920s socializing with American expatriates in Paris and musicians like Igor Stravinsky. Like Lamarr, Antheil had an exceptional technical bent which he exploited in arranging complex combinations of player pianos and other musical instruments - an early analog version of orchestration and automated control. His "Ballet Mécanique" featuring a joyous panoply of diverse instruments and sounds had been a sensation in Paris. Apparently Lamarr first met Antheil for advice on breast augmentation since Antheil had written a few articles on the topic. But when she learnt about his background and mechanical inclination, the two struck up a close professional relationship and friendship (although Antheil was married and Rhodes finds it very unlikely that they were intimate). Distressed partly by the sinking of passenger ships by German submarines and wanting to use her secretly gained knowledge of weapons systems, Lamarr had an idea for transmitting radio signals to torpedoes to guide them to their target.

In those days, wireless transmission was risky since it was based on a single frequency which the enemy could intercept. Based on her understanding of these limitations gathered from listening on conversations that her ex-husband had had with military personnel, Lamarr came up with an idea for rapidly switching transmission and reception between various frequencies, thus thwarting easy attempts at detection. Knowing about Antheil's technical bent, she took the idea to him and together they filed a key patent laying out the features of the idea in 1942. While early incarnations of the invention involved manually switching the frequency, the design soon metamorphosed into one using piano rolls (with which Antheil was intimately familiar) to semi-automatically hop between different frequencies. An ingenious addition was the inclusion of three empty channels for broadcasting "dummy" frequencies devoid of information to further confuse the enemy's jamming attempts. After final refinements, Antheil and Lamarr made a presentation to the U.S. Navy which failed to take them seriously, partly because they found it hard to believe that a Hollywood actress and an avant garde musician could come up with such a novel idea. As usual, Rhodes is excellent when explaining the scientific background of radio communication and the novelty of the Lamarr-Antheil model.

The innovative and strategically key invention languished in the shadows until it was discovered out of necessity by the Navy which was looking for a way to enable jam-proof communication between ships and aircraft. It started to be implemented in a variety of important devices and systems and was used in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Today its remnants are used in a wide variety of communications technologies, from cell phone networks to sophisticated radar systems to GPS. In 1997 the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr an award for her work. Hedy herself withdrew from public life and died in 2000; Antheil had sadly died long before in 1959 without being recognized for his contributions.

Perhaps the most revealing and saddening part of Rhodes's story is its description of how people failed to take Lamarr seriously as an inventor because she was a beautiful woman and a Hollywood actress. Lamarr herself used to say that her beauty was a curse, blinding people to any other talent she might have. In fact she was unlike most celebrities, eschewing parties and drinks and preferring quiet evenings filled with interesting conversations. Sadly, stereotypical views endure and beauty continues to be often regarded as incompatible with scientific or intellectual talents, especially among women. In a society that can value looks above everything else, Lamarr's story is a resounding counterexample and a role model for young girls that should help shatter stereotypes and reinforce the notion that disparate talents can manifest themselves in the same individual. Rhodes has picked an exceptionally interesting character to showcase this fact and he tells her story with verve, sympathy and clarity.
75 of 85 people found the following review helpful
Far and Away one of the best books of the Year. 2 Dec 2011
By James R. Holland - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a page-turner by any definition of the word. It arrived yesterday and I took it to the gym with me this afternoon with the intention of reading it for the hour I spend riding the exercise bike to nowhere. Two and a half hours later, I had to put it aside at the insistence of my leg muscles who made it clear that while I was enthralled with my book, my muscles had a different opinion. After dinner I read more until my eyes were too blurry to continue. This book is more interesting than fiction. In fact, the story might not be believable as fiction. Truth is definitely stranger than fact.
It's amazing that a successful Hollywood Starlet--widely considered the most beautiful woman in the world at the time and who had been married to one of the world's most successful arms dealers could combine her talent for inventing things with the similar talents of George Antheil. He was an avant-garde composer of who had lived in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, and who had moved to L.A. to compose music for the movie business, but who was also an amateur inventor.The two of them devised a system of radio control based on Antheil's production of his musical piece "Mechanisms." Working in their home workshops they devised and patented a radio controlled torpedo for the U.S. Navy. The technique remained secret for decades but their combined invention eventually resulted in today's wireless cell phones, Bluetooth networks and the various GPS systems. "Most military communications rely on Lamarr and Anthiel's breakthrough."
This is a wonderful and very uplifting true story. I don't know how any reader could fail to be mesmerized by it.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Since I nominated Her, its a Good and Accurate Book! 3 April 2012
By David R. Hughes - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Since I was the individual who Nominated Hedy Lamarr for the Electronic Freedom Foundation Award in 1996 (which she got) and helped in the nomination for the prestigious Austrian Academy of Science award - her native country - which she also received, I was keen to see how accurate and balanced Richard Rhodes account was.

It was excellent and accurate on pages 112-114 where he describes my seminal role.

He was ALSO accurate and informative about 'Scibor Marchocki' ( pages 196-2040) the young Naval Technical Contractor who actually used her Patent in early 1950s to design the Naval 'Sonabuoy' to help detect hostile submarines - the VERY FIRST use of her 'frequency hopping' concept. When an old Scibor in 1996 read about the EFF award I got for her, he emailed me detailed information on when, how, and why he used her patent 50 years earlier. I provided that to Rhodes, who used it to accurately not not only describe the device, but also prove that her patent was actually used earlier than MANY try to claim.

So while I have been sent and seen many publications about her 'invention' Rhodes is both the most complete and accurate of them all.

By the way CBS did a March 4th 2012 8 minute 'Sunday Morning' program about her, the invention, Rhodes, and even her son Anthony. You can access [...]

Oh yeah, I might be a little biased, for when I was 13 years old in 1941, and she was 26 I was in love with her, from her pictures and movies.

So when I was doing heavy lifting for the National Science Foundation on wireless technologies in 1993 (I too was awarded the EFF Pioneer Award at the same time that Vint Cerf, technical founder of the internet, and Paul Baran, the founder of Packet Switching were honored too) when I ran across her patent and realized SHE was the originator of frequency hopping as a technical concept, that was then patented by she and George Anthiel.

I correctly surmised and learned from her son Tony she had NEVER been honored, much less enriched by her invention. So that is when I gave the love of my early life the honor she deserved.

And I still have the tape recording where she - at 82 - thanked all for being recognized - in her lilting Austrian voice.
85 of 106 people found the following review helpful
Disappointingly thin 16 Dec 2011
By Eirik M. Newth - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
Having seen a TV documentary about Hedy Lamarr and her co-invention of frequency-hopping spread-spectrum with George Antheil, I was looking forward to reading Richard Rhodes' biography (I've read his brilliant books on the US nuclear weapons program). But in this case I feel cheated. Although you do get a pretty detailed account of the history of the invention itself, information about Hedy Lamarrs life is thin on the ground.

Rhodes apparently has found so little to write about her that he pads the book with an in-depth account of Antheil's life (interesting guy by all means, but not the one I paid to read about). He seems to have left behind a lot more material for a biographer to work with, so perhaps Rhodes should have written a book about him instead.

There's actually more important information about Lamarr's life in the TV documentary (repeated in the Wikipedia article) than in Rhodes' book. See the documentary or do your own web research, and save your money for a better book.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
A Nice Double Biography 24 Dec 2011
By Trent P. McDonald - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Several years ago I read about Hedy Lamar and her invention but I did not know that George Antheil was involved until I read about this book in a science magazine. I compose in my spare time and try to read anything about follow composers.

This book worked as a double biography. I was impressed that, despite the title, almost as much time was spent with the lesser known composer as with the "most beautiful woman in the world". The book followed these two separate threads until they intersected and became one - the time of invention. Towards the end there was a third thread - the technology itself and the history of frequency hopping/spread spectrum.

Despite the obvious large amount of research I felt I didn't really know the players well as I'd liked - the characterization was relatively two dimensional. There were a lot of interesting facts and eye witness accounts to fill them in, I just didn't get the full effect I have with some biographies. I may be overstating this a bit - the characters weren't totally flat, they just didn't live and breathe in my mind the way I have occasionally seen in biography.

Despite my minor gripe, the story was very interesting and I really enjoyed reading it.

Edit - I just read some other reviews - if you are looking for a celebrity bio, go someplace else. This is a book about the invention, not about Hedy the celebrity. My opinion is the title is misleading. I had read a review before I read the book and knew what I was getting into.
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