Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor

March is Women’s History Month, so I’d like to focus on some books celebrating achievements by fabulous dames, starting with Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor. I love old Hollywood, and what a delight to discover one of the knockouts from that era was quite an accomplished inventor. Beauty AND brains – some people have all the luck. As it so happens, if you’re using a smartphone or laptop to read this, it’s probably protected from hacking by Lamarr’s secret communications system (more on that later). Lamarr was a curious, creative child, taking apart her music box to check out its innards, conversing with her wonderfully supportive father about all things science and technology, and re-enacting scenes from movies with her dolls on a stage she built beneath her dad’s desk. Her love of movies as a girl would evolve into a career in film, but she spent her personal time inventing things like a glow-in-the-dark dog collar and a flavor cube that changed plain water into soda. Author Laurie Wallmark sprinkles quotes by Lamarr throughout the book, and a couple make note of her awareness that her looks were more highly valued than her intelligence. She kept this societal shortcoming in perspective, refusing to let it deter her from her intellectual pursuits. Her crowning achievement as an inventor was the creation she shared with music composer George Antheil. Together they developed a secret communications system based on frequency hopping that could prevent interference by outside parties, specifically in torpedo guidance systems. They received a patent and presented it to the U.S. Navy, but the strain of World War II was too much for the Navy to work on a new system and they mothballed the idea. They went further and classified the technology, which meant even Lamarr and Antheil couldn’t touch it. Decades later, though, their frequency hopping idea was declassified, and it would come to be used in electronics to prevent hacking. Pretty cool, huh? While a few pages are devoted to her film career, the bulk of the text focuses on Lamarr and Antheil’s inventive process and an explanation of how frequency hopping works, making it a smashing good book for girl scientists. Katy Wu’s illustrations, like Lamarr, are bold and bright. Put this picture book biography in the hands of a girl wonder and say, “Go forth! Invent!”

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