Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Living Two Lives: Hedy Lamarr's Double Life by Laurie Wallmark

Cameras flashed. The glamorous movie star stepped out of her limousine and onto the red carpet. Everyone who was anyone in Hollywood was there.

Journalists and photographers crowded around her. If they only knew the story, the true story, behind the world's most beautiful woman.

In a slightly better world, some teacher might have seen that little Hedwig Kiesler was a gifted student and she might at least have grown up to be the loyal and brilliant assistant to some noted male physicist. But even though her father encouraged her interest in science, in Austria at that time most girls didn't do physics. Instead, what people noticed was that bright little Hedy loved to be on stage and that she was undeniably, incredibly beautiful.

So Hedy grew up to be a movie star.

After a few films made in Europe, young Hedwig Kiesler was discovered by Louis B. Mayer, American movie mogul, and invited to come to Hollywood. The brainy young actress learned English in six months, changed her name to Hedy Lamarr, and starred with Charles Boyer in a hit movie, Algiers. Hedy was suddenly a star, but with her charming accent and striking looks, she was soon stuck in stereotyped roles as the exotic foreign beauty, which she gamely played in film after film.
"People seem to think because I have a pretty face I'm stupid....I have to work twice as hard to convince people that I have something resembling a brain."

Hedy was bored with being beautiful.

For a diversion, she returned to her childhood interest in science and inventions. There was a war on by this time--World War II--and she became especially interested in the challenge of designing electronic control systems for torpedoes that the Nazis would not be able to intercept and disable before they hit their target.

And then Hedy had an idea that has literally changed electronic communications to this day. What if the torpedoes' radio guidance system sent a series of synchronized coded signals, switching radio frequencies with lightning-fast speed too rapidly to be intercepted by the enemy? Working with another amateur scientist, George Antheil, Lamarr conceived a completely new system called frequency-hopping spread spectrum. Not fully implemented in naval warfare at the time, frequency hopping was a technology whose time was soon to come with the beginning of the Soviet-American space race:

Frequency-hopping spread spectrum is the technology that helps keep phone calls and texts private. It's the trick that allows secure wireless communications between computers, spacecraft, and the Internet.

So if you are a military missileer, an astronaut, a drone pilot, or just someone sending texts from your cell phone or logging in on your laptop, you can thank Hedy Lamarr, the beautiful movie star who loved science. Things have changed a bit for women in science today. But Hedy's inventive idea is with us still--in our pockets or purses and all over our houses, our cars, and our world. In 2014 Hedy Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

"All creative people want to do the unexpected," she said.

Just in time for March's Women's Month, Laurie Wallmark's Hedy Lamarr's Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor (People Who Shaped Our World) (Sterling Children's Books, 2019) tells the fascinating story of the movie star who indeed re-invented herself in a second life and earned a place as one of the most important inventors of her time. With Katy Wu's lively illustrations of glamour girl Hedy and engaging book design, Wallmark's just published picture biography portrays the surprising story of the movie star who doubled as a singularly significant scientist of her century. In this highly readable biography for both leisure and research reading, author Wallmark appends serious backmatter--with a Timeline, "Secrets of the Secret Communication System," Selective Bibliography, and Additional Reading about Other Women in STEM, and even a complete videography of Lamarr's films.

Laurie Wallmark's other exemplary books about women in science include Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (People Who Shaped Our World) (see review here) and Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine.

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