Another fun Hearing International post this year was May 16, the story of a lost super hero of audiology. It was a post about a rather forgotten radio engineer from Bell Telephone Labs and Sonotone, Orin E. Marvel, who was typical of the engineers and scientists that began the field of Audiology. This post capitalizes on the super hero craze and his name to bring attention to his interesting research and inventions. And Yes he was at one time an Army Captain. While Dr. George Shambaugh could not demonstrate benefit from his Oratone technique, who knows what great inventions, new audiological concepts and treatments that could have been invented if this super hero would have lived longer life!….RMT
Butler and Kratz (2008) remind us that, by definition, superheroes are larger than life, courageous, powerful, and seemingly able to overcome any obstacle with great physical prowess while doing great deeds at the same time. Young children, facing the challenges of learning many new skills, may often feel small, helpless, fearful, unable to accomplish what they desire, or troubled—in other words, just the opposite of superheroes.
It’s no wonder that many preschoolers are drawn to superhero play. Through play they can feel brave, fearless, in control of their world, outside of ordinary, and just plain good. These stories fed our pediatric super hero images and aspirations as children and still do so for children today…only the names have changed to Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, The Hulk, or even Captain America and others. In 2017, even parents dress as super heroes for Halloween along with their children as this was their dream as young children.
Superhero Captain Marvel
The 1940s fictional character Captain Marvel offered stories like this:
“During an archaeological expedition to Siam‘s volcanic Valley of the Tombs to find the lost secret of the Scorpion Kingdom, a device of great power, the Golden Scorpion, is discovered hidden inside a sealed crypt. While examining it, the device’s quartz lenses are aligned and powerful energy beam erupts, causing an explosion, resealing the crypt. This allows young radio broadcaster and expedition member Billy Batson, who obeyed the warning on the crypt’s seal not to enter, to be chosen by the ancient wizard Shazam. The wizard grants Billy the powers of Captain Marvel whenever he repeats the wizard’s name. Captain Marvel’s powers can only be used to protect those in danger from the curse of the Golden Scorpion. The crypt’s entrance is quickly cleared, then Captain Marvel utters “Shazam”! and quickly resumes his Billy Batson alter ego.” (Click on the Picture of “adventures of Captain Marvel” for a trailer of the movies).
Some would say the REAL Captain Marvel is the comic book super hero character that became popular in the movies in the 1940s and 50s, but Audiology, too, has a super hero named Captain Marvel!
Captain Orin E. Marvel
Born in 1885, the post-Civil War Baby Boomers changed the nation. Imagine growing up in the 1890s, with all the new things that had just been invented, the telephone, radios, shortly thereafter, airplanes…all things that would excite a young aspiring person of the times! Young Orin from Bronson, Kansas, grew up to study engineering at the University of Kansas and graduated in 1912.
His first job at Bell Telephone Laboratories was akin to working in the Space program of the time: brilliant people congregated to create concepts and products previously unheard of. But war intervened, and by age 30, young Orin found himself serving as a member of Missouri National Guard guarding against the 1915-1916 Poncho Villa raids on the Mexican border.
As the US entered World War I in 1917, the United States Army Signal Corps was established at Camp Vail, New Jersey, and devoted to research in radio and electronics. The main mission of the Radio Laboratories centered on the standardization of vacuum tubes and the testing of equipment manufactured for the Army by commercial firms, especially the design and testing of radios.
The fields of radio and aviation were in their infancies. Camp Vail was the place where innovative research was conducted with radio communications, especially between aircraft and ground control. Other issues studied there were the detection of aircraft using sound and electromagnetic waves, the design and testing of radio sets, field telephones, and telegraph equipment, as well as meteorology. It was quite an interesting place for a young engineer. During his time at Camp Vail, there is evidence of Young Orin’s inventive radio expertise. While flying a Curtiss H airplane above Ft. Hancock in 1919, he was able to establish radio communications between the plane and the control station from an altitude of 2,000 ft. and later at sea communicating with a dirigible, demonstrating high level radio use at a time when air communication was experimental.
After the Army, the REAL Captain Marvel went back to Bell Telephone Labs. By 1938 he’d left to take charge of the Audiometer Department at Sonotone a US company that distributed Siemens hearing aid technology. He was awarded patent number 1,761,530 “System for Amplifying Radiant Energy Oscillations” on June 3, 1930 and a second patent, number 1,929752 on October 10, 1933 titled “Variable Frequency Oscillator” which were both in generating audio and radio frequency oscillations.
At the left is the Marvel All-Frequency Audiometer which included headphones and a bone conduction unit. One dial is for pitch and the other dial is for loudness. According to Russell (2009), as early as 1931, Marvel had begun to use a variable frequency tone oscillator that he called the “Oratone” to treat persons who were hard of hearing.
To test the hearing for the right and left ears, headphones were used but if patients could not hear frequencies at the maximum volume of the device, a bone conduction oscillator was placed on the forehead or on the mastoid. The level of technology at the time meant that if the patient still could not distinguish between different frequencies, they were advised that nothing could be done to improve their hearing.
After determining the frequency areas of the patient’s hearing loss on an “Oragraph”, the headphones were put on again and those particular frequencies to which the ear had become less responsive were stimulated with high intensity sound treatments. Repeated treatments were said to be required to obtain hearing improvement at a cost of $2.00 per treatment and new Oragraphs were $5.00. Out of 80 patients, the claim was that average number of treatments required per patient was 37.9 to see hearing improvement. The amount of hearing improvement per patient was said to be 50.3% and the average improvement per treatment was 1.32%. It appears that this was a technique that was designed to stimulate the auditory system and was touted to offer continued hearing improvement as long as the treatments were continued. When the treatments were not continued the person’s hearing would return to its original hearing sensitivity. Of course, the treatments were painless and no surgery of any kind was needed to make these claimed improvements. For those who stopped the treatments and lost their hearing again, a hearing aid was said to be the solution.
Shambaugh (1932) discredited this procedure in a study conducted in 1931 where he proved that the Oratone and its predecessor, the Eletrophone [circa 1925] were sham treatment procedures. In his discussion of the Oratone, Dr. Shambaugh states,
“In order to reach some conclusion as to the value or lack of value to the Oratone I selected ten members of the League [The Chicago League for the Hard of Hearing] and undertook to demonstrate any improvement that might be brought by treatments from the Oratone. I made a complete functional test of the hearing including and audiogram with a Western Electric Model 1A audiometer before and after the treatments. It was suggested by the agent representing the Oratone Company that it would take at least ten treatments in order to demonstrate improvements in hearing. Each of these individuals were subjected to more than ten treatments before reporting back for retesting. In not a single instance was I able to discover any alteration in hearing that did not fall within the limits of the normal variation encountered when charting the audiometer findings. It is significant, moreover, that four of these ten patients when they came back complained of an increase in the subjective ear noises since the treatments.”
Dr. Shambaugh went on to indicate that he felt that these treatments were probably damaging due to the excess noise exposure and probably caused more hearing loss the longer treatments were continued.
Scientists often look into various instruments and procedures to understand possible treatments that might be generated by their use. It is quite possible that The Real Captain Marvel was simply experimenting with this procedure and would have dropped it and concentrated on something else. We will never know that answer as the REAL Captain Marvel passed away March 1, 1941 at the age of 55, with probably lots of research left to conduct and, who knows…… maybe an invention, another patent, or design that could have greatly assisted the hearing impaired.
Captain Orin E. Marvel, an audiology superhero!
Butler, S. & Kratz, D. (2008). Professional resources for teachers and parents: Why super heros? Retrieved May 15, 2017.
University of Kansas (1916). The Graduate Magazine, Alumi, Volume XIV, No 4. pp.152., Retrieved May 16, 2017.
Russell, R. (2009). Sonotone Corporation History. Retrieved May 15, 2017
Unknown (2007). A history of Army Communications and Electronics: Ft. Monmouth, NJ. Retrieved May 15, 2017.
Shambaugh, G. (1932). The Oratone. JAMA, 99 (13). Retrieved May 17, 2017.
Wikitree (2017). Orin E. Marvel. Retrieved May 16, 2016.
Marvel Comics (2013). The adventures of Captain Marvel trailer. Retrieved May 15, 2017.
Marvel Comics (1967). Captain Marvel. Retrieved May 15, 2017.
Marvel Comics (1941). Captain Marvel : Chapter 10 Doomed Ship. Retrieved May 15, 2017