The author of The Twilight of the Bomb (2010) returns with the surprising story of a pivotal invention produced during World War II by a pair of most unlikely inventors—an avant-garde composer and the world’s most glamorous movie star.
Pulitzer and NBA winner Rhodes offers the stories of his two principals in alternating segments, sometimes chapter-length. The diminutive pianist/composer George Antheil—who worked with Stravinsky, Ezra Pound, Balanchine, DeMille and other notables—was also a prolific writer and inventor. And Lamarr (born Hedwig Kiesler), smitten by the theater in her native Austria, married a wealthy man charmed by Nazis; she later fled for Hollywood, where she quickly established herself as a major star in such films as Algiers and Ziegfeld Girl. She crossed trails with Antheil, who’d also moved west. Rhodes shows us that Lamarr (a new surname name suggested by the wife of Louis B. Mayer) was extremely bright (though poorly educated), a woman who had an area in her house devoted to inventing. And Antheil—who’d once composed a piece requiring 16 synchronized player pianos—had inventing interests that dovetailed with Lamarr’s. They worked together to invent a way to radio-guide torpedoes and to use a technique called frequency-hopping to insure that the enemy could not jam their signals. Lamarr and Antheil secured a patent, but the U.S. Navy did not adopt the device, which, as Rhodes shows, would form the foundations of today’s Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies. Antheil died before earning any recognition for this achievement, but Lamarr, late in her life, did receive awards. The author quotes liberally—perhaps overly so—from the memoirs of his principals.
A faded blossom of a story, artfully restored to bright bloom.