Thursday, May 31, 2012

Recommended read : Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes

A famous Hollywood actress and an American composer, predominately active in the first half of the 20th century, are basically responsible for the fact that you can make a cell phone call today. It's so refreshing when you read about the unexpected.

In 1940, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil invented a secret communication system which was (and is) the basis for many communication technology advances in the last half century, including but not limited to, the cell phone. Lamarr and Antheil created a system that would allow frequency hopping (or spread spectrum). 

Rhodes quotes quite a bit directly from Lamarr and Antheil themselves, as well as Antheil's wife Boski. This is fascinating in that the reader is able to hear it directly from the source. The portions about the patent process were informative as well. Hedy's Folly is not an in depth biography of either subject, rather a biography of what led each to be informed, meet, and develop their invention together. Hedy was influenced early on by her father, who encouraged her to think about how things were made (Hedy, in fact, invented other things). She was also influenced heavily by her first husband, Fritz Mandl, who was a very wealthy munitions manufacturer in Austria. Hedy was naturally exposed to his colleagues and work-life, paid attention, and as a result, most likely learned a lot about weapons-- which would help in her developments with Antheil.

Antheil had other endeavors besides his avant-garde composing: he briefly wrote articles and a column for Esquire magazine, and wrote two books (one about the coming involvement of the US in WWII and the second an autobiography entitled Bad Boy of Music). But, most importantly, George's early musical compositions were mechanically inclined. In one of his most famous symphonies, Ballet Mecanique, he used an airplane propeller, among other things, and tried to synchronize multiple player pianos (pianos that automatically played using pre-programmed music). His experiments with synchronicity would become a fundamental pillar of their invention.

While Hedy found fame during her lifetime, which inevitably waned with age, Antheil found modest fame, often barely scraping by financially. At the time, they did not gain much attention for this influential invention. It's such an inherently interesting story-- it's not to be missed.

Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes
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