Saturday, March 16, 2019

Hedy Lamarr's Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu

When my sister and I were kids, there was nothing we liked better than to watch an old black and white movie on a rainy, snowy, and/or cold Sunday afternoon. And among the films we watched were more than a few starring Hedy Lamarr. She was a wonderful actor. We never would have guessed that she had led a double life as an inventor and that one of her inventions would impact our lives years later.

In her picture book biography for older readers, Laurie Wallmark looks at both sides of Lamarr's life - the actor and the inventor. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria, Hedy was fascinated by two things as a child - acting and science. She was especially interested in how things worked, discussing them with her father as they strolled around Vienna.

Hedy also liked to see plays, often acting them out at home. When she was older, Hedy became a script girl, and was soon getting small parts in plays. After landing the lead role in one, she was "discovered" by producer Louis B. Mayer, and moved to America with a movie contract and a new name - Hedy Lamarr.

While here, she met George Anteil, a composer and former weapons inspector. Remembering a discussion she had overheard before leaving Europe about a problem with the guidance system for torpedoes, she and George began working together to see if they could solve the problem, getting their inspiration from the behavior of piano wire while playing the piano together.
Hedy and George did solve the problem with a system based on frequency hopping like that used in walkie-talkies, but more sophisticated. They patented their invention and offered it to the United States Navy. Unfortunately, World War II had already begun and the Navy didn't have the time or money to implement the new system, but they did classify it so no one else could use it. Hedy and George must have been so disappointed, but Hedy decided to use her celebrity to sell war bonds for her adopted country, wanting to help defeat the Nazis, who had invaded her homeland Austria. Hedy also volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen, dancing and talking to soldiers on leave and where Friday night were Hedy Lamarr Nights.

And the frequency hopping invention? Forty years after classifying it, it was declassified, the patent had expired so anyone could use it and Hedy and George received no credit for their invention. But Hedy's idea is basically the technology that keeps cell phone calls and text messages private, and allows secure wireless communication between computers and the Internet.
Finally, in 1997, Hedy and George were give the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for their invention - Hedy's response to the award - "It's about time." Can you blame her?

Hedy Lamarr's Double Life is a wonderfully inspirational STEM book, ideal for reading now during Women's History Month, or anytime, really. The text describing the development of the frequency hopping system and the complex communication that would then have to occur between a ship and it's torpedo is presented in clear, easy to follow language and illustrations. But author Laurie Wallmark makes clear that this was not the only invention of Hedy Lamarr's, that she was a woman with a creative mind combined with an understanding of engineering. 

The digitally created illustrations are rich and vibrant, reflecting the art of Hedy Lamarr's times, and capturing some of the glamour befitting a Hollywood legend, but without diminishing her intelligence and creativity.

Back matter includes a Timeline of Hedy's life and invention, a short explanation of the frequency hopping communications system, a Selected Bibliography, Additional Reading About Other Women in STEM, and a list of Hedy's movies. 

Hedy Lamarr's Double Life is an entertaining biography that celebrates both the inventor and the actress equally.

An extensive Discussion Guide for this book is available courtesy of the publisher, Sterling Children's Books.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was sent to me by the publisher.

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