Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes has written often on government secrets, nuclear arms and the psyche of killers, but his latest venture dealt with the hidden tragedy in the success of a particular actress.
He expounded his latest book, “Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” on Wednesday night in Camp Concert Hall. The event was part of the Jepson Leadership Forum, a series of lectures from speakers who “discuss the people, ideas and innovations that changed the world,” according to the university’s website.
According to Rhodes’ book, Hedy Lamarr had everything many young women dream of: fame, fortune, a successful Hollywood acting career and men who lauded her as the most beautiful woman in the world in the 1930s and 1940s.
Yet this prevented her from showing her talent as an inventor.
Her birth name was Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, and she and composer George Antheil had invented and patented techniques for frequency hopping, Rhodes said.
“She was an amateur, like most inventors,” Rhodes said, “but because of frequency hopping, we can talk with each other on radios and phones without interfering with each other’s calls, whereas we could not make more than about 100 calls at a time if we were working with only the available frequencies. And of all people to come up with this fundamental invention with thousands of applications, a movie star!”
Rhodes wrote his book on Lamarr with backing from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has supported researchers communicating advances in science and technology to the general public and had Lamarr on its list of 20th-century inventors, Rhodes said.
Rhodes wanted to tell Lamarr’s story primarily for its interest value, but he also wanted to address the difficulties women had faced and still faced in the fields of science and technology in this country, he said.
“Hedy once said that all it took to be glamorous was to stand still and look stupid,” Rhodes said. “And because she was considered glamorous and famous, she didn’t receive credit in her time for this invention and her intelligence.”
The audience at Rhodes’ lecture mostly comprised people who had remembered seeing Lamarr in movies and had been interested in her accomplishments other than her acting career. Yet most of Rhodes’ most esteemed writing had been in a different journalistic style, said Robert Hodierne, a journalism professor at University of Richmond, who introduced Rhodes.
“Rhodes is most famous for his books on classified and declassified government secrets – especially his books on atomic weapons – as a nuclear historian,” Hodierne said.
Rhodes’ book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. The book contained information still applicable today, Rhodes said.
There are still 15,000 to 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world, even more powerful than those dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Rhodes said. If only a few exploded over cities, then there would be enough soot and smog from fires in those cities to reduce worldwide sunlight to the point that 2 billion would starve from crop depletion, he said.
Nuclear arms remain the largest issue facing this generation, especially if terrorists gained or made them, which would make 9/11 look like a firecracker, Rhodes said. Though detection of nuclear weapons had improved, there must be a mass disarmament to ensure safety from these weapons in the future, he said. It would not be a matter of forgetting how to make them but using that knowledge as a deterrent, and it must happen soon, before a regional conflict were to incite the use of such arms, he said.
Contact reporter Zach Kerr at firstname.lastname@example.org