Have you ever seen the British TV series Connections? It was a show that first aired in Brittain in 1978. It had it’s second season in 1994 and it’s final season in 1997. Seeing how it is a bit old, I won’t hold it against you if you hadn’t seen it. I highly recommend combing through the interwebs and finding episodes to watch as they are both entertaining and edifying. The conceit of the show is that the host, James Burke, would take something from our modern world and show how it can be traced back to some particular historical instance. My favorite episode is one of the older ones called The Long Chain that linked plastics to the development of the Dutch Fluyt in the 16th century.
You are most probably wondering why I am talking about an old British TV series when the title of this post is Hedy’s Folly. The reason is simple as the style of the book has the very same feel as the TV show. Richard Rhodes approach to this book was to give you something that is ubiquitous in the modern world and provide the historical point of origin in the past and work the reader forward. In the case of Hedy’s folly, Rhodes starts with wifi and cellphones and connects them back to the invention of signal hopping that was created by Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil.
Yes, you read that correctly. The technology that allows my iPhone and other internet connected items to work can be directly traced back to “The most beautiful woman in the world” and “The bad boy of music” of their time. It was this idea that sold me on the book in first place. I was very surprised in just reading the initial blurb that I wanted to know more of how these two individuals ended up getting together at all, much less inventing something that has such a large impact on modern life. Rhodes move back and forth between these two people lives throughout the book. Each section of their life that he shines a light on provides a bit of insight into how they get to the point of inventing signal hopping technology. In addition to these windows into their lives, he places them within the zeitgeist so that you can see the greater driving factors that also shape their progress. Each vignette is an interesting tidbit from each person’s life. One of my favorite pieces of knowledge was finding out that Hedy Lamarr had done a film early in her career wherein she appeared naked. It had caused such an uproar that it was said she would never have any sort of career in acting and her first husband went to great lengths to acquire almost every copy of the film and destroy it. This piece of information is titillating and scandalous but also provides another layer to how Hedy arrived in Hollywood and ended up creating this amazing invention.
I know that this is not a normal recommendation from me. Richard Rhodes writing style is light and airy which makes for an easy read. The subject matter is both interesting from the perspective anyone that loves cinema, music, or history. If you are a tech geek, the way the story is developed gives you a greater understanding of how technology gets developed and where things can go wrong in that process. I highly recommend picking it up and giving it a read.