Imagine that, on Sept. 12, 2001, an outraged Angelina Jolie had pulled out a pad of paper and some drafting tools and, all on her own, designed a sophisticated new missile system to attack al-Qaida. Now imagine that the design proved so innovative that it transcended weapons technology, and sparked a revolution in communications technology over the next half-century.
Believe it or not, this essentially happened to Hedy Lamarr. Often proclaimed “the most beautiful woman in the world,” the 26-year-old Lamarr was thriving in Hollywood when, in mid-September 1940, Nazi U-boats hunted down and sank a cruise ship trying to evacuate 90 British schoolchildren to Canada. Seventy-seven drowned in the bleak north Atlantic. Lamarr, a Jewish immigrant from Nazi-occupied Austria, was horrified. She decided to fight back, but instead of the usual celebrity posturing, she sat down at a drafting table at home and sketched out a revolutionary radio guidance system for anti-submarine torpedoes.
This unlikely tale is the subject of Richard Rhodes’ new book, Hedy’s Folly. Compared to his other works, like the magisterial (and quite hefty) The Making of the Atomic Bomb, this book breezes by in 272 chatty pages. Rhodes succeeds in the most vital thing—capturing the spirit of a willful woman who wanted recognition for more than her pretty face—but he skims over the deeper questions that Lamarr’s life story raises about the nature of creative genius.
Lamarr—born Hedwig Kiesler—came from an unremarkable, even boring bourgeois family in Vienna. As a girl, she accompanied her father, a banker, on long walks, absorbing his detailed explanations of how printing presses, streetcars, and other modern marvels worked. Rather than pursue a technical career, though, she became an actress. While still in her teens, she starred in the notorious 1933 film Ekstase, which reportedly included the first onscreen depiction of a female orgasm. A sudden star, she married the plutocrat Fritz Mandl, an arms manufacturer and Nazi lickspittle who spent much of his marriage buying copies of Ekstase and destroying them.
Lamarr soon felt trapped with Mandl because he barred her from acting. So she devised an escape plan. Like Lamarr’s father, Mandl could dilate for hours on inventions, especially munitions, and by batting her eyes at Mandl and his cronies, she gathered loads of classified intelligence. Rhodes writes that Lamarr essentially blackmailed her husband, and he, rather than face exposure for blabbing, let her flee. She landed a movie deal, changed her name, and settled in California.
Lamarr didn’t drink or socialize much, and read little, so she began inventing things to kill time between shoots. This quirk fascinates Rhodes, and leads him to a regrettably brief discussion of creative genius. He lists a few general types of creativity—artistic, inventive, scientific. At one point, he eagerly links all three, arguing that the “creative process” of coming up with new ideas is essentially the same in each arena. At another point, he emphasizes the differences, celebrating inventors as a unique breed whose gifts are elusive. Yet his own story lends support for understanding inventors as a felicitous blend of distinct artistic and scientific talents—two different perspectives contributing to a practical, yet highly imaginative, creation.
In fact, while Lamarr qualified as an inventive genius for her artistic flair, she fell somewhat short on her scientific acumen. She certainly fizzed with creative ideas throughout her life. My favorites include sugary “bouillon” cubes to plop into water for an instant Coke, and a “skin-tautening technique based on the principles of the accordion.” But she seemed to lack the skill to actually make things, and depended on others to hash out details. Indeed, only during WWII did her inventions move much beyond ideas, when she partnered with a misfit musician named George Antheil.
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.
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.