As Rhodes explains it: “With a signal hopping all over the radio spectrum, and doing so not regularly but arbitrarily, more or less at random, the transmission would be impossible to jam because an enemy would be unable to follow it. He might accidentally jam one frequency if the signal happened to hop there, but with a potential for hundreds of hops per minute, the transmission would lose very little information from such minor interference. Anyone listening on a single frequency would not even realize a signal was being transmitted, since he would hear, at most, only an occasional brief blip.”
For a variety of reasons, the Lamarr-Antheil invention was not adopted during World War II and, indeed, remained secret for many years. (Neither celebrity made any money from the patent, although late in life Lamarr was honored for her achievement as an inventor.
If, as originally conceived, it never triggered a single torpedo, the idea of “spread spectrum radio” helped point the way toward remote controls, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cordless phones. “The Global Positioning System (GPS) uses spread spectrum,” Rhodes observes. “So does the U.S. military’s $41 billion MILSATCOM satellite communication network. Wireless local area networks (wLANs) use spread spectrum, as do wireless cash registers, bar-code readers, restaurant menu pads, and home control systems.”
I’ve said very little about Lamarr and Antheil, in part because their invention takes some explaining and in part because, their invention aside, they do not seem terribly important to the author. The only Lamarr film discussed in detail is the once-scandalous “Ekstase” (1933), in which the actress became perhaps the first famous woman to display bare breasts to a movie camera in anything other than a stag film. Nor is there much analysis of Antheil’s music (he was a prolific composer who was more often interesting than good). This is not meant as heavy criticism — only as notice that those who want full-fledged biographies of Lamarr and Antheil may be disappointed by the specificity of focus Rhodes has brought to his study.
But there are any number of engaging vignettes in “Hedy’s Folly.” Rhodes is particularly good when describing intellectual milieus, whether Vienna in the first years of the 20th century, the Paris of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Beach and — for that matter — the permanent bureaucracy of the Pentagon. Many will have forgotten the brutal Soviet attack on Finland in 1940, but Rhodes sums it up poignantly and succinctly in three pages about the death of Antheil’s brother Henry. Finally, Rhodes is one of those few writers capable of explaining complicated scientific ideas to the general public, invariably with clarity and precision and sometimes wit and poetry as well.
This is a smart, strange and fascinating book, which deserves to find an audience. Just don’t expect to learn what Hedy ate for breakfast.
Tim Page is professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California.