Friday, 29 October 2010

My life with Hedy Lamarr

I wrote my book on Hedy some five years ago. If you haven’t heard of her, she was a very beautiful Austrian actress who shockingly became the first skinny dipper on film back in 1930. Perhaps more shocking still, she took out a patent based on the technology of torpedo control during the Second World War. And, shock on shock, that technology forms the basis of the Bluetooth solution for computer comms.

She died at the turn of the millennium yet interest in her life has grown since then, and still grows. Many people are drawn to her as an iconic film star, but the real draw is her invention. I taught people about spread spectrum (the general title for stuff like Bluetooth) at the time that it was coming into its own and I shamelessly used Hedy’s image to spice up my courses. When I abandoned the technical world to become a writer and guide Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and mobile phone was one of the first books that I wrote. It is a compound biography: of her life, of the life of her piano playing co-inventor George Antheil, and of the technology itself. It also addresses the question that occurs to so many people: how come an actress and a piano player invented something as fundamental as spread spectrum. And its corollary – did they?

My book is by no means a best seller, but it does sell gradually and consistently via Amazon. And it certainly gets me about. Yesterday I had a call from a delightful young lady who is putting together a documentary series on famous women for the BBC. She is keen to cover the ‘scientific side of Hedy’s life,’ something that I am regularly consulted on. I told her that the BBC is broadcasting a series on great inventors in November, which includes Hedy. She said that was very interesting, but I sensed that I was the bearer of bad news. Wallace and Grommet introduce the inventors series and I met them during filming of the Hedy Lamarr programme. They are not real you know, but there were very large replicas of them in the vestibule of Aardman’s Bristol HQ.

A few weeks ago an extremely energetic man visited me. He writes biogs of famous film stars and is interested in putting together a joint project, a new book on Hedy with equal emphasis on her life and the invention, and hawking this to his publishers. A year or two back I was interviewed by a New York radio station about Hedy and her life as an inventor. And before that I travelled to Boston to take part in a documentary on Hedy and her technology. Yes, it certainly gets me about.

It’s all been great fun, though sometimes I feel that I am carried along on Hedy’s petticoats. After all, it is her fame that brings people to me. And her fame continues: two, yes two, new books on the star, who would now be ninety–six years old if she had survived, have been released this year.

The only thing that I bring to the scene is my book and my knowledge of the technological world into which her invention fits. She was the real star, and she still shines. I was the scribe, and I am still writing. You can see more details about her, spread spectrum, and the book at


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