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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

History Overlooked: Actress Hedy Lamarr Helped Invent Valuable Radio Technology

Posted By on Tue, Jan 31, 2012 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge LR_HedysFollyCover.jpg

Hedy Lamarr may be best remembered as the glamorous, scandal-plagued star of such hits as White Cargo and Samson and Delilah.

But there's a largely forgotten aspect to Lamarr's life that's much more compelling: The Austrian-born actress, alongside avant-garde composer George Antheil, invented what would become spread-spectrum radio. In 1942 the duo patented their invention, intending the technology to be used by the Allies during World War II to jam Axis torpedo signals.

As historian Richard Rhodes details in his new book Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, things didn't go as planned.

Rhodes appears Wednesday (Feb. 1) at the Mechanics' Institute Library.

click to enlarge Richard Rhodes - NANCY WARNER
  • Nancy Warner
  • Richard Rhodes

Lamarr was haunted by her pre-Hollywood marriage to the Nazi-supplying arms dealer Fritz Mandl, and the U.S. Navy was dubious of the technology, which was inspired by Antheil's player-piano compositions. Other inventors scoffed at Lamarr, and in the following years her career faded. After the patent expired, the technology was adopted by the U.S. military and used during the Cuban missile crisis, and it played a crucial role in the development of Wi-Fi Internet and cellular phone networks.

As Rhodes evocatively demonstrates in Hedy's Folly, that would come as cold comfort for Lamarr, whose significant contribution to the history of wireless communication has been tragically obscured by circumstance, sexism, and, ironically, her own fame.

Richard Rhodes appears at 6 p.m. Wednesday (Feb. 1) at the Mechanics' Institute Library, 57 Post (at Market), S.F. admission is $12.

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Paul M. Davis

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