Hedy & Her Amazing Invention
Hedy & Her Amazing Invention
There is a technology we use every day in our cell phones, microwaves, alarm systems, laptop computers, and many other things. How did it get invented? A fascinating question.
Well, once there was a glamorous movie star named Hedy - her face was known everywhere. She was whip smart, someone who demanded to know how everything worked. This is her story.
Inventions are often created by people whose minds see beyond the ordinary. It’s fascinating and delightful to realize how differently they perceive the mundane, how their ideas can change life for millions of people.
Hedy Lamarr had one such curious mind. Mostly known as a 1940s and 50s bombshell Hollywood movie actress, she lived a double life unknown to the movie studios or the public. She was a scientist, someone who sought an understanding of science, someone who experimented, and, in the 1940s, she invented a “spread spectrum” and “frequency hopping” electronic system that still forms an important component of our technology today. From tinkering with a concept on her living room carpet, Hedy Lamarr has affected the lives of nearly everyone on the planet.
In Hedy & Her Amazing Invention, the first book in a series by Penny Candy Books about women in history, children’s writer Jan Wahl (Humphrey’s Bear and more than 100 other titles) has written about Lamarr’s interesting journey from Austrian actress and socialite to a major Hollywood star and secret inventor.
Wahl touches on the positive highlights of Lamarr’s life, describing her single-mindedness and her conscience, characteristics that made her a unique individual. He writes about how, as a child, she wanted to take objects apart to see how they worked. He describes the brave decision she made and the method she used to escape a suffocating marriage:
… she realized she was a prisoner. There was a whole world beyond those walls with much to discover … It was necessary to escape. So one night Hedy crept away, taking a few clothes and a paper bag of jewels.
and how she used her reputation as an actress and her looks to propel her life forward, as women had to do:
… Hedy bought a ticket for America on the Normandie, the largest ship afloat…Every evening, on deck, she wore her most elegant gown. Louis B. Mayer couldn’t help paying attention. At dinner he offered a better contract …
Wahl wants to emphasize that, while Lamarr made her living as an actress, her mind was focused on her science. Lamarr’s pioneering work was driven by her social consciousness in the fight against the Nazis, and, although the “frequency hopping” technology she invented was not used until 1962, its application since makes its worth incalculable. The list of technological tools that employ frequency changing to operate successfully includes so many items we use every day, like GPS, cell phones, laptops and barcode scanners. For that reason, Lamarr’s birthday, November 9, is designated Inventor’s Day.
Lamarr continued to invent as she aged, developing better traffic lights and improvements for the Concorde, the British-French supersonic passenger jet.
Wahl wants children to appreciate Lamarr’s scientific genius as a way to inspire them, especially girls, to pursue their dreams. Although he understandably wants to omit information that would divert attention from Lamarr’s contributions to society (her five subsequent marriages after she arrived in the U.S., or her reclusive later years), he should tell the readers that she was also a mother so that young girls especially will realize they can have important careers and a family, too. He should also let the reader know when she died (2000).
Morgana Wallace’s paper collages have a timeless quality to them. She shows Lamarr’s personality in response to the situation in which she found herself. When Lamarr is dolled up in a peacock outfit in the movie Samson and Delilah, Wallace cuts the paper at sharp angles, showing Lamarr’s indifferent attitude to acting work. But her collage shows a much more relaxed and realistic Lamarr, engaged in scientific experiments and seated on her living room floor with her scientific collaborator, George Antheil.
Books intended to inform and inspire children to study and engage in science are welcome. Books that detail the relatively unknown and little appreciated contributions of women to science are doubly welcome as parents and educators strive to encourage equality of dreams.
Harriet Zaidman is a freelance and children’s writer in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her middle grade novel, City on Strike, will be released in 2019, in time for the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Winnipeg General Strike.