Awesome People In History: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr in Let's Live a Little (1948) image from Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, when learning about history, you find things that surprise you.

Those of you who have heard of Hedy Lamarr almost certainly know her as one of the most glamorous and popular Hollywood actresses of the Golden Age, appearing in 32 movies between 1930 and 1958. Yet acting was far from her true passion; she once said of it, “Any girl can be glamorous, all you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” No, her real passion was science. She was an inventor, and one of her most important inventions is probably in the very device you are using to read this blog right now.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, her parents both came from Jewish families, though her mother had converted to Roman Catholicism. Growing up, she was always fascinated by science. Yet she was undeniably beautiful, and that was almost certainly why film producer Max Reinhardt, upon discovering her, decided to hire and train her. Her first runaway hit was the 1933 film Ecstasy, a film that was highly controversial for its explicit (for the time) sexual content. Her first husband, businessman Friedrich Mandl, was so upset he prevented her from leaving his private castle for four years. She would later say that she only escaped by disguising herself as a maid.

She arrived in Paris in 1937, where she met Louis B. Mayer (who we’ve met on this blog before). Mayer brought her to Hollywood, advertising her in his pictures as “The most beautiful woman in the world!” She soon was appearing in movie after movie, appearing alongside other Hollywood greats of the time such as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Soon, she was able to use her famous status to help her parents escape the Nazis.

Lamarr was almost always cast in roles that played up her physical appearance. She was a part of the Hollywood social scene, of course, but she didn’t like it. She wasn’t a drinker, and she didn’t like large parties. Deeply unsatisfied with the celebrity lifestyle, she turned to science as her escape in her spare time.

She developed a stoplight that was far more efficient than the ones that hung over America’s streets at the time, and then tried to use chemistry to develop a tablet that would turn ordinary drinking water into soda. The latter invention wasn’t nearly as successful, largely because it tasted terrible, by her own admission. Her most important invention, however, was a response to the outbreak of World War II.

Lamarr was fascinated by remote-control technology, and believed remote-controlled torpedoes could help the U.S. Navy in its fight against the German U-boats, making it easier for the torpedoes to hit their targets. The problem was that it would be fairly easy for the Germans to jam the radio signals. She wanted to figure out a way to overcome this problem, and so she talked about her ideas with pianist and composer George Antheil, one of the people in her social circle. In their conversations, Lamarr was inspired by piano rolls, the devices that allow novelty player pianos to play themselves. She and Antheil worked together on developing a similar device that would quickly switch between random radio frequencies, making it impossible for the Germans to jam. By the time they had figured out which frequency the Americans were using, the thought was, the American device would already have switched frequencies.

She patented her invention in 1942, and presented her idea to the U.S. Navy. The Navy said “Thanks, but no thanks.” They put the idea in their files and forgot about it. However, as World War II ended and the Cold War began, the need for a way to send radio signals securely became urgent, and the Navy pulled the designs out of storage and gave it another look. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the technology was being used on U.S. Navy ships to send messages that would be incredibly difficult for enemies to intercept.

Lamarr called her invention “The Secret Communication System”, but today it is known as spread-spectrum technology, and it is the basis for both WiFi and Bluetooth systems. Still, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that Lamarr would finally be publicly recognized for inventing the thing. She received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997. She died just three years later in Casselberry, Florida. Today, she is the only person who is memorialized both on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. It just goes to show that looks aren’t everything.

Awesome Villain in History: William Walker

William Walker image from Wikipedia

Well, Cat Flaggers, it’s high time I talked about another Awesome Villain in History. Our man today was an imperialist conqueror, much as Caesar or Hernan Cortez or Cecil Rhodes. Except each of those conquerors were acting in the name and with the armies and resources of some great empire. No, our man today is William Walker, an American who conquered and ruled Nicaragua by himself, for himself.

I suppose you might need a little context. In the early 19th century, the United States had caught Manifest Destiny fever. After the Louisiana Purchase, Americans began to believe that destiny had given them the mission to spread across the continent, possibly even the world. While this idea was far from universally accepted, many Americans truly bought into the idea and acted upon it. American settlers in Texas helped that region break away from Mexico and then got it annexed to the United States, and then the United States conquered the northern half of Mexico and made it into the American Southwest. Millions of Americans pushed west into the heart of North America, pushing out the Indian tribes who lived there.

Even still, some Americans felt America wasn’t expanding fast enough. In particular, there were white southerners who wanted to annex as much land as possible south of the Mason-Dixon line and bring as many new slave states into the Union as possible, to outnumber the northern free states. Naturally, this idea was flatly rejected by northerners, and the official United States policy shifted to one of consolidating existing gains and not antagonizing our nation’s southern nations.

This didn’t stop some people from organizing, funding, supplying, and launching their own military expeditions into Latin America all by themselves. These “filibusters”, as they were called, were declared to be criminals by the U.S. government, yet they were popular in the press and celebrated as heroes by many Americans. As you might imagine, the people in these Latin American countries that found themselves under attack from these renegades weren’t nearly so supportive.

Who doesn't love violent people bursting into their hometown without warning?

Who doesn’t love violent people bursting into their hometown without warning?

The most successful of these filibusters was Nashville-born William Walker, a highly intelligent young man who got a doctorate before his 20th birthday, and who became a journalist in New Orleans. In 1853, he asked for Mexico’s permission to start an American colony in Guaymas, a city on the Sea of Cortez known for its pearls. Having just lost most of its territory to Americans just five years earlier, Mexico gave Walker an emphatic “NO!” Undeterred, Walker began recruiting people for a military expedition to take over northwestern Mexico and create an independent “Republic of Sonora”, with the eventual goal of getting annexed to the United States, Texas-style. Walker got 45 takers.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think 45 people is enough to successfully conquer much of anything. Nevertheless, Walker tried, and managed to gain control of the city of La Paz, capital of Baja California. After boldly declaring Baja California’s independence (with himself as president, of course), he wound up moving his base of operations twice to stay ahead of the Mexican forces that were quickly dispatched to stop him. After three months, he lay claim to the entire region around the Sea of Cortez, but this was nothing but a hollow boast as by then he had retreated almost to the U.S. border. Eventually thrown out of Mexico, he was arrested upon his return to the United States for conducting an illegal war.

In spite of the fact that Walker was clearly guilty, he was regarded as a hero by many Americans, and the jury that tried his case found him not guilty after a mere eight minutes. Now a free man, Walker began dreaming of even bigger exploits, certain that with better planning his next campaign would be more successful.

In 1854, Walker got his chance. Nicaragua was in the middle of a civil war between the Conservatives and the Liberals, and the Liberals invited Walker to lead an army of mercenaries to help them out.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

In 1855, Walker arrived with 60 Americans, ans was soon joined by 270 more men who were willing to join this, um, “adventure”. After a few battles, Walker’s forces successfully captured the Conservative capital. Nominally, the Nicaraguan Liberal leader Patricio Rivas was president of the country, but Walker quickly made sure that he was the actual man in charge.

Now in control of his own country, Walker surely did the responsible thing and worked hard to help the Nicaraguan people with his policies, right? Of course not. Instead, he made backroom deals with some American businessmen to seize control of the company that transported people and goods across Nicaragua to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific and turn it over to them. He also boasted to anyone who would listen that he planned to conquer all of Central America.

These decisions made him some powerful enemies. One of those enemies was Cornelius Vanderbilt, the famous cutthroat businessman and robber baron who happened to be the owner of that transportation company Walker had seized. Vanderbilt allied with Costa Rica, a country that quite reasonably feared it would be next on Walker’s list; from 1856 to 1857 Costa Rica and Nicaragua fought a war against each other, with Vanderbilt supplying the Costa Rican forces while also preventing Nicaragua from getting any supplies for its army. Before long, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador also decided to join in the fight against Walker, invading from the north.

The fact that all of the countries around him and one of America’s most powerful businessmen had all ganged up against him didn’t deter Walker in the slightest. Shoving Rivas aside, Walker rigged an election to have himself proclaimed Nicaragua’s president. He legalized slavery, declared English an official language of the country, and launched a policy of trying to encourage Americans to settle there.

Soon, though, Walker woke up to the fact that his forces were losing badly (in large part because of a cholera outbreak among his ranks). With Granada, his capital city, surrounded by 4,000 enemy troops, Walker and his men decided to flee for their lives. After burning the city to the ground first.

Was that really necessary, guys?

Was that really necessary, guys?

Eventually, Walker surrendered to the U.S. Navy, who took him back to the United States. Once again, Walker was greeted as a hero by many Americans, so after writing his memoirs of his conquest and loss of Nicaragua, he decided to try again. This time, his goal was Honduras, but this time, he was captured before he got there by the British Royal Navy, who happily turned him over to the Honduran authorities. Walker was executed by firing squad on September 12, 1860.

Today, Central American countries celebrate the war to stop Walker as one of their greatest triumphs of history, and celebrate heroes of that struggle in the same way Americans celebrate heroes of our Revolutionary War. Here in the United States, though, he is largely forgotten, as shortly after his death the Civil War broke out and quickly overshadowed all of the exploits of the filibusters. Plus, the whole “trying to expand slavery” thing was far less popular after the war was over.

Cat Flag would like to take a moment to thank the veterans who served in the United States military and honor their countless contributions and sacrifices for our nation.

Awesome People in History: King Kamehameha the Great

Kamehameha I image from Wikipedia

It sure has been a long time since I’ve done one of these, hasn’t it?

Catflaggers who have followed my blog for a while will remember that my mother took a trip to Hawaii a few years ago. I admit to being rather envious, having never left the Lower 48 myself. I am fascinated by the culture and history of Hawaii, arguably the most unique state of the Union. Texans may brag about how they were totally a legitimate country for nine years before joining the Union, but Hawaiians can smugly say, “That’s cute. We were a thousand year old civilization.”

Also, Hawaii had kings.

The Hawaiian Islands are located smack-dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2,000 miles southwest of the mainland United States. They were settled by Polynesians in a series of migrations from about 300-800 AD. For centuries, Hawaiians survived by growing taro, bananas, coconuts, and breadfruit and raising pigs and chickens. They lived in a rigid caste system, with chiefs on top, followed by priests, commoners, and slaves, and social order was enforced with an extremely strict code called kapu, where you could be killed on the spot for even an accidental violation. The Hawaiians worshiped a pantheon of gods and goddesses in temples called Heiau, and chiefs were said to have a special power called mana that gave them the right to rule.

Then, as these stories always go, somebody new appeared on the scene and changed everything. In 1778, that somebody was British Captain James Cook, who was on a mission to map the entire Pacific. His first encounter with Hawaii passed without incident, but when he returned to the islands on his way back from visiting North America’s Pacific coast the following year, his ship was damaged and he ended up having to stay a bit longer than originally anticipated. Soon, tensions arose between his men and the locals, and these escalated when one of his smaller boats was stolen. Cook tried to force the issue by kidnapping one of the local chiefs, an action that resulted in his being beaten and stabbed to death by an angry mob of Hawaiians.

In spite of Cook’s fate, his voyages opened the door for more European and American visitors to sail out to Hawaii looking for trade and good whaling ports. These visitors unwittingly enabled a very ambitious chief to rise to power and unite the entire island chain into one kingdom for the first time.

Today, many legends are told about King Kamehameha the Great. According to Hawaiian lore, an ancient prophecy told that “a light in the sky with feathers like a bird” would appear when the greatest chief who would ever live was born – Kamehameha was born in 1758, one of the years that Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky. Another legend claims that a prophecy predicted that the man who could lift the Naha Stone, a 7,000-lb. slab of rock, would unite Hawaii. Supposedly, when the future King Kamehameha was 14 years old, he not only lifted the stone, but completely flipped it over onto its side. Today, the stone is still there, in front of the Hilo Public Library on the Big Island of Hawaii:

How to give yourself a hernia 101

It’s also across the street from an ice cream parlor called “Kozmic Cones”. Seriously.

Lore aside, the future king spent much of his childhood in hiding, as civil war raged over the land where he grew up. Kamehameha means “The Lonely One” in Hawaiian. Eventually, though, he was able to enter the court of his uncle, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, and gain royal favor. Upon the old chief’s death in 1782, Kamehameha was made a high priest while his cousin became chief. However, Kamehameha and his cousin did not get along at all, and after a brief war Kamehameha seized power for himself.

It was in these first years of his reign that Kamehameha came to recruit some British soldiers and sailors into his court, giving him access to European weapons and allowing him to learn European military tactics. This, combined with diseases introduced by Europeans, gave Kamehameha the advantage as he sailed from island to island and defeated army after army. During a battle at the Pali cliffs on the island of Oahu, Kamehameha’s forces were able to pin their opponents down at the edge with the cliffs at their backs, and then won the battle by just pushing them off.

While this might make Kamehameha look like a ruthless conqueror, he was actually quite merciful to the civilians he encountered. During a battle in 1782, Kamehameha’s foot was caught in a reef while he was chasing some fishermen. One of the fishermen hit Kamehameha upside the head with a paddle, breaking the paddle in two in the process. Yet when Kamehameha survived the blow, the fisherman couldn’t bring himself to kill the man. Inspired by this act of mercy, Kamehameha declared the “Law of the Splintered Paddle”, one of the first ever laws regarding the treatment of non-combatants in wartime, 80 years before the first of the Geneva Conventions. The law declared that if any of his warriors harmed any women, children, or elderly people who were trying to escape the battlefield, that warrior was to be killed. In this way, Kamehameha earned the trust of the people he conquered.

By 1795, most of Hawaii had been conquered, but Kamehameha still wanted to conquer Kauai, the last independent island. As he prepared his fleet in 1796, a great storm prevented him from sailing for the island. The following year, he had to put down a rebellion against him. Still, Kamehameha had not given up, and with the help of his British advisers, he built a modern, European-style navy. In 1803, he was ready to take on Kauai, but then disease spread through his ranks and devastated his army. Finally, in 1810, Kauai agreed to a peacefully negotiated settlement, accepting Kamehameha’s rule in return for some local autonomy.

As king, Kamehameha gradually laid the foundations of a modern state. At first, he gave the top positions of power in his court to the warriors and chiefs who had helped him during his conquests, but as they grew old and died, he did not replace them with their sons, as was the custom. Instead, he appointed new officials based on merit and ability, rewarding competence rather than caste. He also worked to bring prosperity to his people by increasing agricultural production and foreign trade. He even banned the once-common practice of human sacrifice.

While Kamehameha had a fondness for the foreign visitors he received, he worked hard to maintain Hawaiian independence, refusing to let it be conquered and colonized by European powers as many other Polynesian islands had been. He even refused to allow Christian missionaries into his kingdom. Partially through these efforts, his kingdom would manage to remain independent until 1898.

Kamehameha died in 1819, and a priest hid his body in accordance with Hawaiian tradition. To this day, nobody knows where the king was buried, though you can find monuments to him all over the Hawaiian islands. Four of Kamehameha’s successors took the name “Kamehameha” upon assuming the throne in his honor. If it had not been for Kamehameha’s unification of the islands and protection of his kingdom’s independence, it is probable that Hawaii would have been conquered and colonized by the British or French, and would never have become a U.S. state. It just goes to show what an impact on history the right person at the right time can do.

Awesome Forgotten Women of the Middle Ages

St. Joan of Arc image from Wikipedia

To most of us, the Middle Ages were a time when history was shaped by a few powerful kings and nobles, knights in shining armor jousted and fought in battles, peasants lived in the mud working their lord’s land, and women were passed around through arranged marriages to broker treaties and create alliances, with virtually no say in the matter.

Be honest, how many women from this time period can you actually name? Saint Joan of Arc and… Saint Joan of Arc?

To be clear, medieval society was not great for women, but it wasn’t as bad as you might think. There were plenty of women who made great accomplishments during this time. Women like…

Anna Comnena

Anna Comnena image from cover of Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett

Anna Comnena was the eldest child of Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. She was taught many subjects as a child, including astronomy, geography, mathematics, science, history, and medicine. In an age where education was rare, this was a luxury that shaped the princess’s life. She became a medical doctor, and with her father’s help she built and ran a hospital in Constantinople that could treat 10,000 patients. She even became her father’s personal physician in his last years, trying to save him with the treatments she had learned and practiced.

When her father died, the throne was passed to her younger brother, John II Comnenus. This didn’t sit well with either Anna Comnena or her mother, who conspired to try to overthrow him and replace him with Comnena’s husband. However, her husband refused to participate, the plan fell apart, John II discovered what his sister was up to, and Comnena wound up spending the rest of her days in a convent.

Even in exile, however, she continued to make history. Literally – she became the first female historian, writing a chronicle of her father’s reign called the Alexiad. This text is invaluable for modern historians, as Alexius I’s reign happened to coincide with the First Crusade. Not only did Comnena recount the broad, sweeping events of that time, but also many specific anecdotes of events she witnessed first-hand. Such detailed accounts written so soon after the events are very, very rare in the Middle Ages.

Hojo Masako

Hojo Masako image from Professor Brian Hoffert

Let’s talk a little bit about a woman’s life in Medieval Japan. Though Japanese society was very much a male-dominated space, there were many female samurai (known as onna-bugeishas), female ninjas (kunoichi), as well as female novelists and poets. There was even a female shogun! Sort of.

Hojo Masako was the wife of Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, a proud and ambitious warrior who defeated his enemies in the Genpei War, secured complete control over Japan, and became its first shogun. Unlike many of the politically arranged marriages that were common among noble clans of the time, Hojo’s was a love-based marriage. She was so dedicated to her husband that she would ride side-by-side with him in battle. Then, in 1199, Minamoto died, passing the title of shogun to his son, Minamoto-no-Yoriie.

This is where things get a bit… complicated. Theoretically, the supreme ruler of Japan is and always has been the Emperor, who is said to be a descendant of the goddess Amaterasu. For almost all of Japanese history, however, the Emperor has been just a symbolic, ceremonial figurehead with no real power. This is the case today, with Japan’s modern democratic government, and it was the case in the days of the shoguns. Thus, the idea of somebody actually running things behind-the-scenes while the official ruler was a puppet is very common, and even expected, in Japanese political thinking.

So when her husband died, Hojo shaved her head and took the vows of a Buddhist nun, but didn’t go to a nunnery to live out her days in isolation. No, she continued being actively involved in the political affairs of what was theoretically her son’s reign. At first, she shared power with her father, Hojo Tokimasa, but that changed after a familial power struggle. After her father had her own son and six-year-old grandson killed, she sided with her surviving son, Monamoto-no-Sanetomo, in a rebellion that forced him from power.

For the next 14 years, she ruled Japan through her son, and when he died she arranged for Kujo Yoritsune to succeed him as the new shogun. She put down rebellions against her family’s rule in 1221 and 1224. She died in 1225, but the regime she helped create remained in power for more than a century afterwards.

Matilda of Tuscany

Matilda of Tuscany image from Wikipedia

While Hojo Masako controlled Japan indirectly, Countess Matilda of Tuscany openly shaped Italian politics in the 11th century. She inherited various domains in present-day Italy and France in 1076, after all of her male relatives died out. She took power just when a crisis was brewing between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, officially over who had the power to appoint bishops, but in practice over who should be more powerful in general. In 1080, Emperor Henry IV marched into Italy to settle the dispute by force. Matilda rushed to the Pope’s aid with her own army.

Things went badly at first. The Emperor’s forces captured Rome, forcing the Pope to flee to Matilda’s castle for safety. However, Henry got cocky, leaving Italy once he had appointed his own “pope”. He figured his Italian allies could sweep Matilda aside, but instead Matilda’s forces were victorious at the Battle of Sorbara in 1084. For eight years afterward, a stalemate emerged, with Matilda’s forces unable to secure Rome for the Pope but the Emperor unable to drive Matilda from her mountain strongholds. By 1092, however, fortune started turning in Matilda’s favor with a string of victories. By 1097, Henry IV simply quit Italy altogether, leaving Matilda in control there.

Eventually, Henry IV died and his son, Henry V, took over as Emperor. Much more conciliatory than his father, Henry V formally recognized Matilda’s power by naming her “Imperial Vicar Vice-Queen of Italy”. This was the beginning of a peace process that led to the Concordat of Worms, which separated religious and secular power as two separate institutions. Every year, a historical re-enactment of the meeting of Matilda with Henry V is held in Quattro Castella, Italy.

The Anglian Princess

Valkyrie on horseback image from Wikimedia Commons

This tale comes from the writings of the historian Procopius. Unfortunately, he neglected to actually record the name of this woman, which is a real shame, as you will soon see.

Fans of medieval history will tell you that our English language, and the English people themselves, originally came from the Anglo-Saxons, who came from Denmark and northern Germany and conquered much of modern England from the Celtic and Roman people who originally lived there. A key detail about this period in history is that the Anglo-Saxons were not originally one people. Before they moved to Britain, the Angles and Saxons were separate tribes, and there was nothing to guarantee that they would end up getting along, let alone merge into a single people.

So it was something of a big deal when the Varni, a tribe who were vassals of the Saxons, arranged to have a young Varni prince named Radigis marry an Anglian princess. The two were betrothed, but before they could be married, Radigis’s father fell ill. As he lay dying, he told his son not to go through with the wedding with the Anglian princess, on the logic that the Franks were a rising power and securing an alliance with them was much more important than diplomacy with the Angles. Radigis followed his father’s advice, calling off the wedding when his father died.

It turns out that Radigis had just messed with the wrong princess. She raised an army of 100,000 warriors, sailed to Saxony, and defeated the Varni so completely that Radigis tried to flee. Soon, the Angles found him hiding in the woods, tied him up, and brought him before their princess. She demanded to know why he had broken off their engagement, and Radigis apologized to her and explained that he was only following his father’s wishes. Apparently, his answer satisfied her, and she released him on the condition that their betrothal was back on and they would be married. Sure enough, shortly thereafter, the wedding took place, and Procopius’s account ends.

Now, obviously one wedding didn’t create the Anglo-Saxons overnight; the merger of the Angles and Saxons would have taken many generations and been an incredibly gradual process. Having said that, the marriage of Radigis and the Anglian princess was a step in that direction, and might not have happened if our princess hadn’t decided to take matters into her own hands. If only we knew her name so she could get the credit she deserves.

Awesome People in History: Franz Boas

Franz Boas image from NNDB

You may recall in a recent editorial here on Cat Flag, I briefly mentioned Franz Boas as an Awesome Person in History. This man is virtually unknown outside a few academic circles, which is a real shame, because he helped to create the modern world and reshape our values and beliefs. How? By scientifically disproving racism.

When we talk about racism, we are really talking about a fundamental assumption about human beings: that biological factors of our physical appearance, such as skin color or eye shape, are linked to our intelligence and our behavior patterns. Racists categorize people and then make stereotypes about those people in order to prejudge them without actually getting to know them. Often, they also assume their own “race” is superior to all the others, and interpret the world through this lens. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe and North America, racism was so widely accepted that most people, even in the scientific community, treated it as simple, plain fact. In the Cal Poly library, I once read a copy of an edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica from the 1890s, and it was so strange to read how outright obsessed the encyclopedia was with categorizing each ethnic group and ranking them on some arbitrary racial gradient of “civilization” vs “savagery”.

It was into this world that Boas was born in Germany in 1858. As a Jew, he would have been considered “white”, but would also certainly have been no stranger to the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination. In spite of this, he grew up in a fairly privileged position, and was able to go to college. Studying at two universities over the course of his college career, he had a knack for two things: changing his mind on what major he wanted to study, and getting into sword-fighting duels with his peers over perceived insults to himself, his fraternity, or his religion. Eventually graduating from Kiel University with a doctorate in physics, he spent a mandatory year in the German army as all young men were required to do. It was here where he met a young woman named Marie Krackowizer, whom he would eventually marry. Once he got out of the service, he signed up for an Arctic expedition to explore Baffin Island.

Arctic exploration is nothing to sneeze at today, let alone in the 1880s, with no motor vehicles, no electric generators, and no modern medicine. During his year on Baffin Island, Boas and his team frequently faced freezing to death, starving to death, dying of disease, or being killed by the local wildlife.

Yeah, this face looks totally friendly.

Yeah, this face looks totally friendly.

These hardships led Boas to a realization that would shape his future career, and the world with it. Writing in his diary, he mused that if the supposedly “superior” and “civilized” Europeans were struggling to survive, yet the supposedly “primitive” and “savage” Inuit people they encountered were not only able to survive here but make their living here, then perhaps in the particular circumstances of the Arctic it was the Inuit who were the superior ones. Boas began studying and recording the lifestyles, tools, behaviors, and other adaptations of the Inuit people they met, publishing his findings in his book The Central Eskimo when he made his return.

Boas’s study of the Inuit led him to take up anthropology, the study of human cultures, as his new career. Soon, he was signing up for even more expeditions, this time to visit Native American groups that lived along the coast of British Columbia. It was his study of these Pacific Northwest tribes that would come to be his defining achievement.

The peoples of the Pacific Northwest all lived a broadly similar lifestyle, with fairly similar cultures that were based around salmon fishing and whaling. Their material culture, such as their tools, buildings, and famous totem poles, were pretty consistent, with some variation from tribe to tribe, all along the Pacific Northwest coast. Their societies all had a very similar, hierarchical structure. According to the prevailing views of the time, all of this could only mean that the Pacific Northwest peoples all belonged to the same sub-race of Native Americans, and this particular sub-race had a level of intelligence that predisposed them to achieving this particular level of civilization.

But that’s not what Boas found. After careful study of the Pacific Northwest peoples’ skull shape, eye shape, skin color, hair color and texture, languages, and so on, he found that the Pacific Northwest Indians were actually extremely diverse. Far from being all part of some racial category, Boas could only conclude that each tribe had a very different origin and arrived in the area at a different time from a different place. So why such cultural similarities between them? Boas could only conclude that the culture of the Pacific Northwest Indians had nothing at all to do with their race or ancestry, and everything to do with the spread of ideas from person to person and tribe to tribe that were well-adapted to the specific environmental circumstances of the British Columbian coastline.

The way he demonstrated his findings to the public, though, were a bit... eccentric.

The way he demonstrated his findings to the public, though, were a bit… eccentric.

Boas published his theories in such classic works as The Instability of Human Types and The Mind of Primitive Man. He argued that all humans, regardless of race, were fundamentally equal in our physical and cognitive abilities. No one race was inherently superior to any other. Instead, he proposed that the vast cultural differences between, say, Western Europeans, Chinese people, and some African hunter-gatherer tribe were the result of cultural diffusion – the spread of ideas from person to person, and those ideas that were best suited for survival in a given environment “sticking”.

He backed up his theories with mountains of data, not only from his work with Pacific Northwest Indians, but later experiments that found that even “white” people respond differently to different environmental pressures. Boas had immigrated to the United States in 1887, and in the early 1900s he began an experiment on immigrants such as himself. He studied the skull size and shape of thousands of immigrants and native-born Americans of many different races. He found that, regardless of race, the skull shapes of native-born Americans were different, on average, than those of immigrants. This, he argued, was a result of environmental differences between America and Europe, such as diet, pollution, and so forth. Thus, Boas concluded, the human body is shaped not only by ancestry, but environment, and differences that his peers would have categorized as “racial” were often, in fact, environmental.

To say that Boas’s theories were controversial would be an understatement. His ideas were often dismissed because he was Jewish, and his works were among those burned by the Nazis when they took power in the 1930s. Still, he began to gather a following among young anthropology students, many of whom would come to be important and successful scientists in their own right, such as Alfred Kroeber, Margaret Mead, and Claude Levi-Strauss. He was also an influence on the still-quite-young civil rights movement in America, which saw in his theories a justification for abolishing racial segregation. Figures like W. E. B. Du Bois were influenced by Boas’s arguments for tolerance and acceptance of cultural differences.

Although few people today have even heard about Franz Boas, we live in a world shaped by his pioneering scientific work. By refusing to let the prejudices of society blind him and focus only on the hard facts, Boas demonstrated that race really doesn’t matter, and that people are, well, people. He showed that we are shaped more by the environment we live in, both physiologically and culturally, than by some arbitrary genetic ranking system. He pushed for a more inclusive, less judgmental world, where people focus on humanity’s similarities instead of our differences. While he may not have lived to see the fruits of his labor, these ideas proved powerful enough to grow, spread, and take on a life of their own. They created the world we live in today, and I believe all of us are living better lives because of it.

Information from a Native American History class I took in college, supplemented by the sources linked to above.