I remember being shocked to find out Hedy Lamarr was more than the glamorous actress I remembered from the movie “Samson and Delilah.” It was Hedy Lamarr who invented the radio guidance system used for torpedos and the frequency hopping technology that we call upon today to keep cell phone messages private and defend computers from hacking.
Hedy was born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Austria. Her personal life was quite interesting (albeit not detailed in this book).
Her parents were Jewish, but Hedy’s mother converted to Catholicism hoping to avoid the anti-Semitism of Europe. As a child, Hedy was fascinated by acting and had the most important qualification for it: at the age of 12, she won a beauty contest in Vienna.
When Hedy was 18, she married a 33-year-old Austrian military arms merchant and munitions manufacturer who was reputedly the third-richest man in Austria. Unfortunately, her new husband Friedrich Mandl had ties to the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and later to Adolf Hitler. She later described Mandl as an extremely controlling husband who prevented her from pursuing her acting career. She claimed she was kept a virtual prisoner in their castle home, where Mussolini and Hitler both attended parties thrown by her husband.
In 1933 she left her husband and moved to Paris. While traveling to London, she met MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who offered her a seven-year movie contract in Hollywood. Mayer also encouraged her to change her name to Hedy Lamarr. She starred in a number of films to great acclaim, but as the author writes:
“The Hollywood legend had no interest in a glitzy lifestyle. Her passion was science and engineering.”
Nevertheless, as Hedy later lamented, “People seem to think because I have a pretty face I’m stupid . . . I have to work twice as hard as anyone else to convince people I have something resembling a brain.”
At a Hollywood party, Hedy met George Antheil, then a composer of music but previously a weapons inspector. The two decided to combine their talents and address the vulnerability of torpedo guidance systems to enemy interference. Hedy came up with the basics of a fix, and George figured out how to implement it. They received a patent for the idea on August 11, 1942. When they took it to the U.S. Navy, however, the Navy not only refused to develop it but classified it as secret, so no one else could use it either. It was not until 1962, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, that an updated version of their design at last appeared on Navy ships.
Hedy retired from acting after twenty movies. Meanwhile, it took forty years before the military finally declassified her frequency-hopping technology. The patent had expired, so anyone could use it and no one had to credit Hedy or George. The author writes:
“Companies raced to include frequency hopping in their own devices. This technology can be found inside many of today’s most popular electronics.”
Finally, in 1997, the two inventors received recognition for their significant contribution to computers; the principles of their work are incorporated into Bluetooth technology. Hedy remarked, “It’s about time.” She died three years later. In 2014, Lamarr and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
The book concludes with a timeline, selected bibliography, and a guide to additional reading about other women in STEM. The back endpaper also lists Hedy Lamarr’s films.
The author is well-qualified to bring this STEM story to children. Laurie Wallmark has degrees in Biochemistry from Princeton University, Information Systems from Goddard College, and Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has received a number of awards for her other books on women in science.
Katy Wu’s bright illustrations employ an appealing cartoon style, and incorporate some of Hedy’s own quotes in large font. She also features easy-to-understand diagrams showing what Hedy’s inventions were all about.
Evaluation: It’s wonderful to see so many new picture books highlighting the achievements of outstanding women. This one includes a message quite similar to that stressed by Jennifer Donnelly in her young adult fairytale retelling of Cinderella called Stepsister : i.e., “pretty” can be a noose: it takes courage and perseverance to escape the tyranny of society’s fixation on looks and seek other ways to define yourself.
Published by Sterling Children’s Books, 2019