Marvel Studios released its first female superhero film, Captain Marvel, in early 2019. The character was based on Marvel Comics’ own Captain Marvel developed by Stan Lee and Gene Colan in 1967. But Marvel Comics did not create the name, “Captain Marvel.” They paid-off M. F. Enterprises to cease publication of its Captain Marvel comic books series in 1966, due in part to trademark concerns related to the similarity between the character’s name and Marvel Comics’ company name.
But interestingly, the name “Captain Marvel” predates even the name of Marvel Comics, which assumed the name in 1961, after many years doing business as Timely Comics or Magazine Management. The original, “real” Captain Marvel was created by Fawcett Comics in 1940. Although it was the best-selling super-hero comic book of the 1940s (outselling Superman and Batman), spawning a successful theatrical “chapter play” serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Fawcett Comics abandoned the character in the early-1950s, due in part to decreasing sales, but also in an effort to settle a copyright infringement suit brought by the owners of Superman.
Pittsburgh Press, April 4, 1941, page 59.
“Captain Marvel,” fabulous cartoon hero and superman, is shown here in his first action-photo, diving from the top of a 10-story building . . . .
Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida), November 1, 1941, page 13.
DC Comics revived Fawcett’s old Captain Marvel as Shazam in the 1970s, “Shazam” being the magical phrase the original Captain Marvel recited to assume his superpowers. The new, revised Shazam was a live-action Saturday morning children’s TV series in the 1970s and Warner Brothers’ Shazam, the movie, is set for release in April 2019.
But unlike all of the fictional Captain Marvels based on earlier Captain Marvels or Superman, the real Captain Marvel (like the real Captain America) was an actual hero who helped save the world from German expansionism in World War I.
His super-powers? – flight and wireless telecommunication.
Captain Orin E. Marvel
The real “Capt. O. E. Marvel, head of Audiometer service,” seen here (standing) in Life Magazine (September 3, 1940, page 15) a few months after Fawcett Comics’ original Captain Marvel first hit the newsstands.
Orin E. Marvel was born in Bronson, Kansas in 1885. At the age of 21, he was installing telephones in Bronson for the Mutual Company,[i] a job that foreshadowed the rest of his career. Shortly afterward, he attended the University of Kansas in Lawrence, graduating in 1912.
By 1914, he was working at Bell Labs[ii] and had reportedly already earned his first patent for “measuring and filling transmitter buttons.”[iii] In February 1916, he was sent to El Paso, Texas for border service in response to border-raids by Pancho Villa, as a member of the Missouri National Guard Signal Corps; first as a Private, and then in quick succession a Corporal (June 24), Seargent (July 1) and a 1st Lieutenant, skipping right past 2d Lieutenant; he was back in Kansas City on recruiting duty before the end of the year.[iv] Within two years he would be a Captain –Captain Marvel, a title he held for the rest of his life.
Captain Marvel was in France as a member of the Army Air Service by February 1918. He saw combat in France, even going “over the top” in Baccarat, France carrying (appropriately enough) a radio.
Then we moved to Baccarat and took over a sector. It is here we had our first real experience of going over the top. It is a great experience to stand in a trench with about a million shells going over and waiting until it is light enough to see and then up and over. I went over with ground radio sets for communications back to regimental headquarters.
A letter home, published in the Bronson Pilot, December 25, 1918, page 1.
Captain Marvel was near Chalons, France in July 1918 when his unit came under heavy fire. He kept the radios up and running for three days under difficult conditions before moving to Chateau Thierry where they met the enemy again.
I lived for three days in a 50-foot dugout. I had 8 radio stations working all in dugouts. The antennae were shot down several times but we did not have a casual and maintained good communication all the time. After the attack we were hurried to the Chateau Thierry front where we made contact with the enemy on the 29th of July and drove him back about 15 kilometers. [v]
During the war, Captain Marvel was on the cutting edge of research into outfitting airplanes with wireless communications equipment.
I have been experimenting with wireless telephones on the ships (aeroplanes) and will soon have a flight (7 ships) equipped. We have tried out many kinds of wireless sets on the ships, some very good and some not so good. We were just starting to equip the planes with wireless telephones as the end came.[vi]
Due to the end of the War, Captain Marvel narrowly avoided a promotion that would likely have changed obviated the writing of this piece one hundred years later – Major Marvel wouldn’t have had the same cachet. The letter recommending his promotion recounted some of his accomplishments.
From: Chief Air Service, Army Group.
To: General George S. Gibbs, Signal Corps.
Subject: Promotion of Captain Orin E. Marvel, to the rank of Major.
1. . . . This officer has handled liaison, consisting of telephone, telegraph and radio for the air force which acted with the first Army during the St. Michel and Argonne operations.
2. Captain Marvel proved to be one of our greatest assets by his steady and uninterrupted supervision of our liaison system, without which we would have been unable to function efficiently.[vii]
With the war over, the Army put Captain Marvel’s super-powers to work on the Air Service Artillery Radio Board, continuing the experiments in aviation communications he had begun during the war.[viii] In June 1919, Captain Marvel took part in an early demonstration of airborne radio communication.
Lieutenant Bernard J. Tooher, pilot, and Captain Orin E. Marvel, radio officer at Camp Vail, using a Curtiss H. plane, made a flight over Fort Hancock and from an altitude of 2,000 feet communicated with their control station by wireless. Continuing 10 miles out to sea they picked up wireless communication with a dirigible. The duration of their flight was 50 minutes.[ix]
Captain Marvel’s work improving aviation telecommunications earned him at least two more patents. One for those throat-mounted microphones everyone has seen strapped around the necks of pilots in the old war movies.
An object of this invention is to provide a transmitter for electrical reception which is uninfluenced by the passage of strong wind and inert toward noises extraneous of the sounds or speech transmitted.
. . . In the preferred form of my invention the transmitter is adapted to be positioned at the throat of the operator and is constructed and arranged to permit proper body movement of the operator incident to driving or operating airplanes, automobiles or the like, and to be sealed automatically against the high wind current and against the reception of influence of extraneous noises. . . .
Another one was for one of the earliest altimeters, and also included an audible low-altitude warning signal for landing in low-visibility conditions.
With the war over, and his work with the military complete, Orin Marvel turned his super-powers to civilian radio reception. But despite his new status as a civilian, he retained “Captain” as an honorific title throughout the rest of his life.
During the 1920s, Captain Marvel teamed up with Charles F. Kettering in the DAY-FAN radio company. Marvel was in good company at DAY-FAN; Charles Kettering had made significant contributions to the early days of NCR, founded DELCO and would later head up the General Motor’s Research Corporation for nearly thirty years. His name is perhaps best-known today from the Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center. One of Marvel’s successes at DAY-FAN was to create an alternating-current power supply for home radio receivers, so that they could be plugged into an outlet without the need for what was at the time, more cumbersome, expensive and less powerful batteries.
Captain Marvel may have had super-powers, but he was only human. His first wife died in 1926 after nearly twenty years of marriage. When he remarried in 1934, an ex-girlfriend sued him for $75,000 for breach of promise, a high price-tag that put the otherwise personal difficulty into the national news.
In the 1930s, Captain Marvel pioneered another field of technology, audiometry, developing audiometers, audiograms and hearing aids for the Sonotone Corporation.
Capt. O. E. Marvel, who played a part in establishing the first unit of sound measurement while affiliated with the United States Bureau of Standards, has developed what he calls an “ear gymnasium” for the correction of deafness.
Its purpose is to exercise the ear drum and train it to register sound. The contrivance combines the principles of radio, phonograph and telephone.
The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware), March 11, 1933, page 13.
Capt. O. E. Marvel of the audiometer division of the Sonotone Corp. will be at the Eau Claire Hotel on Tuesday, Oct. 25th . . . for the purpose of making audiometric tests and audiograms of hearing losses.
Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wisconsin), October 25, 1938, page 6.
Life Magazine, September 3, 1940, page 15.
But sadly, with his personal life apparently back on track and a new career attracting national attention, Captain Marvel passed away a few short months after his picture appeared in Life Magazine.
White Plains, N. Y., March 3 (AP) – Capt. O. E. Marvel, U. S. A. (retired), who organized the radio and telephone system of the United States Army Air Corps in France during the World War, died at a hospital here Saturday.
Captain Marvel, 55, took part in the battles of St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne and was cited for distinguished service. After the war, working at McCook Air Field, Dayton, Ohio, he developed one of the earliest airplane altimeters. Recently he had been engaged in the manufacture of electrical hearing equipment.
The Baltimore Sun, March 4, 1941, page 11.
It’s not quite as glamorous as the fictional “Captain Marvel” saving the Skrulls from the Krees, or something like that (was I supposed to say “spoiler alert!”), but the real Captain Marvel’s contributions to aviation and audiometrics may have helped save the world twice and may have saved your hearing.
More Captains Marvel
While Captain Orin E. Marvel may be the best-known of the real Captains Marvel, he was not the only one. In 1972, a young Air Force Academy grad named celebrated his promotion to Captain by donning a non-regulation uniform, and posing with the blonde and brunette stewardess friends who made the uniform in a scene seemingly taken straight out of Three’s Company (did Mr. Roper take the picture?).
The Daily News (Lebanon, Pennsylvania), June 7, 1972, page 28.
Three years later, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times tracked him down to see how it felt being the real Captain Marvel. Apart from than the occasional “Shazam!” reflexively screeched at him over the phone after announcing his name, he said it wasn’t such a big deal. A comic book company had asked him to do some promotional work after seeing his picture in the paper, but the military said no. And in any case, he wasn’t the only Captain Marvel in the Air force. Shortly after his promotion, he received a letter from a Captain Marvel in Germany informing him that there were at least five Captains Marvel in the Air Force at the time.[x]
He may not have been the only one, but he had the coolest uniform.
[i] The Bronson Pilot (Bronson, Kansas), August 8, 1907, page 8 (“Orin Marvel has been putting in new phones and doing other work for the Mutual company . . . .”
[ii] “Who Was the Real Captain Marvel,” hearinghealthmatters.org, December 26, 2017 (In my defense at the inevitable copyright infringement case, I wrote my post on the “Real Captain America” and had already begun researching my post on the “Real Captain Marvel” before running across this excellent piece – sometimes great minds do think alike).
[iii] The Bronson Pilot, February 6, 1914, page 8 (“Orin was recently granted a patent on a device for measuring and filling transmitter buttons, which has been accepted by the Western Electric Company”). I have been unable to track down this patent.
[iv] The Service of the Missouri National Guard on the Mexican Border, Jefferson City, The Hugh Stephens Co., 1919, page 459; Bronson Pilot, October 20, 1916, page 4 (“. . . he had been promoted to first lieutenant, skipping second lieutenant, and that he is in Kansas City as a recruiting officer.).
[v] A letter home, published in the Bronson Pilot, December 25, 1918, page 1.
[viii] Army and Navy Journal, December 13, 1919, page 455.
[ix] Army and Navy Register, June 14, 1919, page 766.
[x] Los Angeles Times, December 22, 1975, page 33.