Sam Kean in Slate:
Imagine that, on Sept. 12, 2001, an outraged Angelina Jolie had pulled out a pad of paper and some drafting tools and, all on her own, designed a sophisticated new missile system to attack al-Qaida. Now imagine that the design proved so innovative that it transcended weapons technology, and sparked a revolution in communications technology over the next half-century.
Believe it or not, this essentially happened to Hedy Lamarr. Often proclaimed “the most beautiful woman in the world,” the 26-year-old Lamarr was thriving in Hollywood when, in mid-September 1940, Nazi U-boats hunted down and sank a cruise ship trying to evacuate 90 British schoolchildren to Canada. Seventy-seven drowned in the bleak north Atlantic. Lamarr, a Jewish immigrant from Nazi-occupied Austria, was horrified. She decided to fight back, but instead of the usual celebrity posturing, she sat down at a drafting table at home and sketched out a revolutionary radio guidance system for anti-submarine torpedoes.
This unlikely tale is the subject of Richard Rhodes’ new book, Hedy’s Folly. Compared to his other works, like the magisterial (and quite hefty) The Making of the Atomic Bomb, this book breezes by in 272 chatty pages. Rhodes succeeds in the most vital thing—capturing the spirit of a willful woman who wanted recognition for more than her pretty face—but he skims over the deeper questions that Lamarr’s life story raises about the nature of creative genius.