Friday, July 17, 2015

Edison Shmedicine | Ship Camouflage Wizardry

Thomas A. Edison's camouflage for the SS Ockenfels
Above Two views (before and after) of an American merchant ship, the SS Ockenfels (later called the USS Pequot), a ship assigned to Thomas A. Edison for testing experimental camouflage (it is apparently not the SS Valeria, described below). He was also loaned the services of Naval Reserve Officer Everett L. Warner, who later made the comment below about Edison's fiasco.•

Everett L. Warner in a letter (no date) quoted in Nelson C. White, Abbott H. Thayer: Painter and Naturalist. Hartford CT: Connecticut Printers, 1951, p. 138—

[A ship camouflage proposal by Thayer] was no more visionary than Thomas Edison's scheme involving a big spread of canvas. But Edison was an inventor, so they let him try out his idea, and a very wild idea it turned out to be. I know because I had the job of doing the painting work on the vessel (SS Ockenfels). Part of the added camouflage structural work was so unseaworthy that it got carried away before the vessel got out of New York harbor.


EDISON'S SHIP CAMOUFLAGE (reprinted from The Outlook) in Arizona Republican (Phoenix AZ), March 15, 1918, p. 4—

A scheme of camouflage for ships, attributed to Mr. [Thomas A.] Edison is described as consisting in cutting down the masts and funnels and covering the ship fore and aft with canvas strips painted in various colors. Lofty masts, it may be remarked, are a survival of the days of sails, and might be dispensed with altegther, as in the "monitor" type of vessels.


CAMOUFLAGE in Examiner (Launceston, Tasmania) May 6, 1919, p. 4—

How Edison, the famous American, invented one of the earliest and most successful systems of "camouflaging" merchant vessels has just been revealed by one who assisted in the experiments. In those days, before the convoy system had been so largely developed, and when merchant ships had to rely so much for safety upon their own unaided efforts, scientists of all countries were devoting much time to the question of the reduction of visibility at sea. Amongst them was Thomas Alva Edison, the American inventor. To aid him in his work the Cunard Company placed at his disposal for experimental purposes the Valeria, a 10,000-ton freight carrying steamer. Edison got quickly to work, and, before long, the result was seen in the Mersey, where an incoming vessel—squat, dumpy, barge-like—excited general wonder. It was the "camouflaged" Valeria. Her funnels had almost disappeared and her masts were cut right down; portions of her super-structure had been removed or concealed; and finally immense painted screens of canvas were hanged along the ship and "wrapped" around her top side like nothing else on earth—or at sea. She was almost invisible at a short distance and quite unrecognizable. It was the crew of the Valeria that had the thrill of feeling a shock in the vessel's bottom, and the subsequent pleasure of seeing a German submarine emerge with a broken periscope. The distance separating the two vessels was so small that the Valeria's guns had to be depressed to the fullest extent in order to fire on the intruder.


Benedict Crowell, "Marine Camouflage" in The Giant Hand: Our Mobilization and Control of Industry and Natural Resources, 1917-1918. Part 2. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, p. 502—

The cloth screen for breaking up the outline of a ship was popular with the inventors. No less a savant than Mr. [Thomas] Edison was intrigued by this notion. The Cunarder Valeria was turned over to Mr. Edison for experiment. Among other things that he did to the ship, he screen her upper work in canvas. The screen was blown off shortly after the ship left New York. The inventors, who were usually landsmen, appreciated neither the force of the Atlantic winds nor the psychology of the sailors, who scoffed at the screen contrivances and would not rig them up again if they below down.


Lindell T. Bates, The Science of Low Visibility and Deception as an Aid to the Defense of Vessels Against Attacks by Submarines. Submarine Defense Association, 1918, p. 31—

The new ships for the Emergency Fleet Corporation have been designed with low superstructure. A notable example of a vessel with superstructure reduced is the SS Valeria. The vessel was a Cunarder supplied to Mr. Thomas A. Edison by the Submarine Defense Association for this experimental purpose. The funnels and mast were cut short and the superstructure concealed by canvas screens. These measure appear to have rendered her less visible, but she has lately been torpedoed and sunk [while traveling in a convoy for the first time].

•  All this is somewhat confusing because on pages 498-499 of Crowell's The Giant Hand, the US Navy's official account credits Everett L. Warner with the camouflage of the SS Ockenfels (which is true in the sense that he carried it out), without any mention of Edison being the source of the camouflage plan. It reads as follows —

The dazzle system that was at length universally adopted originated in England. Yet we possessed in America an artist  who had not only advised distortion painting from the outset,  but had also applied his theory to several American vessels, which were therefore the first to carry dazzle designs to sea. This artist was Mr. Everett L. Warner of New York. On September 29, 1917, he brought to the Navy certain painted models which showed how he would break up a vessel's silhouette in order to make it hard for the enemy to get her range. This he did by using angular patches of whites and other colors in successive rows that overlapped each other and ran upwards from the water line at an angle of sixty degrees, covering hull,  structure, funnels, and masts, and bending around transverse surfaces, such as the ends of deck houses. The Navy adopted  the system and ordered Mr. Warner to paint the ex-German ship Ockenfels as an experiment. The pattern which he applied made the ship's water line elusive. He cut down the funnels and masts and stretched a screen of canvas from bow to stern,  the upper edge of the screen being on a level with the tops of  the truncated masts. He also affixed to the stern of the vessel a boom with trailing cordage, to equalize the two ends in appearance.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Camouflaged SS West Indian 1918

Portside, SS West Indian in camouflage (1918)
Above The SS West Indian painted in a dazzle-camouflage scheme in 1918. The ship's departure is noted in the news article below. Original photo courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command (NH 102523).


Anon, O.P. RANKIN COMMANDS PORTLAND BUILT SHIP in Oregon Daily Journal (Portland), June 2, 1918, p. 28—

Aboard the 8800-ton steel steamer West Indian, which left Portland recently, is Lieutenant Commander Oliver P. Rankin, USNRF, as commanding officer…With [him] on the camouflaged West Indian are a number of Portland young men who have seen and accepted the delights of service with the merchant marine. The West Indian, gay in her camouflage, is the product of the Columbia River Shipbuilding corporation, and is now upon the high seas headed into the big game of carrying stores to the allies and to our own soldiers.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Der Tater Tot | Dead Potatoes Camouflaged

Spurious butterfly species (top)
Above Two examples of the same butterfly, known as the Brimstone Butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni). However, the one at the top has been altered. It was sent by British butterfly collector William Charlton to London entomologist James Petiver in 1702. Sixty years later, it was examined by Carl Linnaeus, who (not noticing that the large dark spots had been added with paint) concluded that it was a new species, which he named Papilio ecclipsis. Today, the hoax is known as the Charlton Brimstone Butterfly.


Anon, THIEF USED CAMOUFLAGE: Job Monaghan's Potatoes Were Stolen in Boston Sunday Post, October 14, 1917, p. 10—

When Job Monaghan, a Wellesley [MA] mason, went to his vegetable garden yesterday to spade up a plentiful harvest of potatoes, which he confidently anticipated to find beneath a luxuriant growth of potato vines, he was confronted instead with a camouflage in his potato patch.

Having prepared a storage for the tubers, Job took his trusty spade and proceeded to dig in the potato patch for the long-waited-for spud. The first vine dug out unearthed not a single "tater." Thinking they had grown to an enormous size and had by their sheer weight sunk deeply into the soil he excavated as far as the handle of his spade would permit. He failed to uncover a single potato. The second vine was excavated the same as the first and a similar result followed.

Excavating-and-discovering-nothing was kept up until 85 vines had been accounted for. At this stage he claims to have lost count, because of his perplexity in failing to explain the vegetable phenomena.

He leaned on his hoe and gave himself up to meditation. After a little reflection he concluded that somebody had deftly extracted the tubers and had spruced the vines that they might stand life-like and be a deception. Some expert in the art of potato camouflage had done the work after first poaching the highly-prized spud.

"It surely was a work of art," contemplated Job Monaghan. "That man has missed his vocation. He worked with high skill in the potato trenches and deceived me with the alluring idea that a wealth of tubers lay awaiting my spade under the stout vines. His place is in France and his line is placing camouflage as a delusion to the German riflemen."


Anon, CAMOUFLAGE REPLACES STRONG ARM IN UNDERWORLD in Logansport Pharus Reporter, November 24, 1919, p. 12—

NEW YORK, Nov. 24—Strong arm methods are considered antiquated in New York's thuggery circles. Camouflage and the double-cross have supplanted the "rough stuff."

This is the information gained by Assistant District Attorney John F. Joyce in an interview with Charles Gless and Joe Hylan, ex-prize fighters, held as material witnesses in the killing of Harry Issacs, a laundryman. The prisoners told Joyce:

"Nowadays when a guy's hired to do up another guy he goes to that guy, they makes a deal, the guy to be done up camouflages with court plaster and maybe an arm in a sling, and then the strong arm guy brings round the guy what hired him, points out the 'damage' to the camouflaged guy, collects the coin, and splits with the lad what's camouflaged. See?"

Muirhead Bone, Decoy Ships and Camouflage

Muirhead Bone, dazzle-painted ship (c1919)
Above Muirhead Bone, drawing of a WWI dazzle-painted ship, in David W. Bone, Merchantmen-at-Arms: The British Merchants' Service in the War London: Chatto & Windus, 1919.


Albert Tomlin (WWI soldier from Waltham MA), quoted in 90 HUNS KILLED BY BAYONET: Waltham Boy Back With Grim Tales of "Over There" in Boston Sunday Post, May 5, 1918, p. 24—

The transatlantic steamers are each convoyed by one cruiser and eight destroyers, and each convoy is accompanied by a decoy ship [aka Q-ships]. This decoy ship is camouflaged to look like a slow-going freighter. 

The eight destroyers accompany the liner half way across the Atlantic, circling around the vessel, while the decoy ship trails along behind. The cruiser is required in case an enemy raider should appear. The idea of the decoy ship is to lure the submarine up to destroy the slow-going craft. It has every appearance of a freighter that can only make a speed of four to six knots an hour. But simply by touching a button the false sides fall away. Then you have a 32-knot destroyer. If a submarine comes up, this destroyer throws off its disguise, turns about and rams the U-boat.

HMS Mauretania (1918), New York Harbor


Many ships resort to camouflage, but the most effective thus far employed is the camouflage adopted by the Standard Oil vessels. These are daubed with green and white painting, somewhat like a checkerboard. It makes the ship invisible except on a very clear day. You cannot see it until you are right on to it.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Baseball Players Camouflaged as Camoufleurs

Fred J. Hoertz, two dazzle-painted ships (1918)
Above Fred J. Hoertz, "One of Our Largest Colliers Coaling a Warship," published as the cover of Scientific American Vol CXIX No 14, October 5, 1918.


At first, it may seem that camouflage has little if anything to do with baseball. In earlier posts, we've shared a couple of the moments when the two have overlapped.

But here's another one: In 1918, during World War I, the US War Department established a military service policy that became known as the "work or fight rule." It required that able-bodied, "draft-eligible" men must either be employed in work that was "essential" or risk being drafted. It was also decided that working as a baseball player was "non-essential."

So what does this have to do with camouflage? It seems that a scheme was developed by which certain baseball players (who played in a baseball league that was sponsored by various shipyards) would show up for work at harbors as ship camouflage painters, which was of course indisputably "essential." This was reported in an article with the headline BILL LAI IS CALLED TO WORK OR FIGHT in the Chester Times (Chester PA), July 9, 1918, p. 10. Here's an excerpt—

…State Senator Calvin Page, of Portsmouth NH [reported] that the ball nines [apparently, an alternate term at the time for baseball players] at the Portsmouth Navy Yard and the Shattuck ship-building plant in Maine were composed of college men who were down on the payroll as "painters." According to Senator Page these "painters" carried two pails of paint a day to workmen, and spent the rest of the time at baseball.

"I shall look into the ball nines situation at Hog Island and other plants in Delaware County," said [Emergency Fleet Corporation Vice-President Howard] Coonley, "and if I discover that there are any 'camouflage ship workers' on the ball nines such as Senator Page describes, they will have to go."

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. on God and Camouflage

Book Cover | dazzle camouflage
Above Book cover (including dazzle-camouflaged ship) for Robert Hudson, The Dazzle (UK: Jonathan Cape, 2013).


Anon, EPIGRAMS BY ROCKEFELLER: Tells His Bible Class Camouflage Never Works With God, in New York Times, November 12, 1917, p. 15—

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., told the members of his Bible class at the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church yesterday that "you can paint a railroad station and make it look like a farmhouse; you can put up a program that fools the public for a time, but camouflage never works with God."

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

DAZZLE | The Hidden Story of Camouflage

Dazzle: The Hidden Story of Camouflage
Above Coming soon is a wonderful Australian documentary called DAZZLE: The Hidden Story of Camouflage, produced by Jonnie & Kate Films.The updated trailer is online here.


 Anon, WILL BE A CAMOUFLEUR: Harry D. Mapes May See Service in France Before Long, in the Ottawa Herald (Ottawa KS), March 13, 1918. p. 1—

Ottawa may soon have a representative in the ranks of the camoufleurs in France. Harry D. Mapes, now piano player at the Star theater, recently applied to the war department for enlistment in that service and has received word that, although there is not an opening now, he may be called in the near future.

Camoufleurs are the men who belong to the camouflage companies. It is their duty to conceal batteries of artillery and the like. Batteries sometimes are painted so that the colors will blend with the landscape. To deceive the enemy by making objects less conspicuous is the camoufleur's work. Mr. Mapes has been a painter.

Everett Warner WWI ship model (two views of same)

additional sources

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ship Camouflage Artist | More on Henry C. Grover

WWI dazzle-painted US ship [color added]
A couple of years ago, we posted information about World War I American ship camoufleur Henry C. Grover, but wished we knew more. Today, we are slightly better informed, having just found a newspaper article with the headline: HENRY C. GROVER CHOSEN CAMOUFLAGE SECRETARY. Boston Sunday Globe (February 3, 1918), p. 10—

A Boston commercial artist was yesterday appointed camouflage secretary of the Emergency Fleet Corporation. He is Henry C. Grover of 79 Mount Vernon Street, Melrose, who has a studio at 44 Bromfield Street. The first announcement of the appointment came yesterday afternoon, when Mr. Grover, as one of the guests at the Canadian Club luncheon at the City Club, was introduced by his new title. He leaves for Washington today to assume his new duties, which will take him to many American ports.

Mr. Grover was in the recruiting subcommittee of the Boston Committee on Public Safety, and through his work there he came to the attention of officials of the Emergency Fleet Corporation. The Globe of December 23, 1898 , printed a story of Yankee enterprise at Santiago [during the Spanish-American War], about a Boston boy who displayed a sign well known to Bostonians. It was about Mr. Grover, then a private in Company A, Second Massachusetts Regiment, USV, orderly for Brigadier General William Ludlow.

Mr. Grover says there's nothing new in camouflage. "The Indians used it," he says. "The French are doing the greatest tricks with it now. The Yankees ought to be able to show them all something about it."

"Camouflage is a new name for an old idea. Some folks camouflage with words, others with money, others with clothes. We'll try it with the brush and paint pot—and other things." Mrs. Grover and their three-year-old son will remain in Melrose for the present.

more info

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Ship Camouflage and Alzheimer's

Burnell Poole, two views of HMS Mauretania (c1920)
Above For a long time we have known about a wonderful painting by American artist Burnell Poole of the starboard side of the dazzle-camouflaged HMS Mauretania (top). But only recently did we learn that he also created a companion painting (bottom), which shows the port side of the same ship. It clearly shows its camouflage. When dazzle ship camouflage was initiated during World War I, it was decided that no ship should have the same camouflage pattern on both sides. The original paintings are housed in the collections of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, and the US Navy Art Collection, respectively.


The following is a brief excerpt from Roy R. Behrens' "Khaki to khaki (dust to dust): the ubiquity of camouflage in human experience" just published in Ann Elias, Ross Harley and Nicholas Tsoutas, eds, Camouflage Cultures: Beyond the Art of Disappearance (Sydney University Press, 2015). Among its other contributors are Donna West Brett, Paul Brock, Ann Elias, Ross Gibson, Amy Hamilton, Pamela Hansford, Jack Hasenpusch, Ian Howard, Husuan L. Hsu, Bernd Hüppauf, Ian McLean, Jacqueline Millner, Jonnie Morris, Brigitta Olubas, Nikos Papastergiadis, Tanya Peterson, Nicholas Tsoutas, Linda Tyler and Ben Wadham

How is it that we experience "things" in contrast to surrounding "stuff"?… Like you, I even see my "self" this way. "I am I" and, to follow, I am not "not-I." We typically regard our “selves” as permeable identities in a bouillabaisse of ubiquitous “stuff,” a surrounding that seems to a newborn, in the famous words of William James, like “a blooming, buzzing confusion.”  One wonders if this might also explain, as Ernst Schachtel suggested, why we are all afflicted by “childhood amnesia,” leaving us with little or no memory of the first years of our lives, because we lacked the “handles” then—the linguistic categories—that enable us to “grasp” events. In recent years, increased attention has been paid to the various forms of “amnesia” at the opposite end of life, including gradual memory loss, senility, dementia, and the horrifying ordeal of Alzheimer’s. If the boundaries of our figural “self” are blurred when we are newborns, perhaps we should not be surprised that the limits of our “self” grow thin—once again—as we march to the end of existence.

As adults, we use hackneyed phrases like “dust to dust” to imply that at birth we somehow spring from naught; that we metamorphically evolve through infancy and childhood; live out our ritualistic lives as corporeal upright adults; then slowly—or, just as often, catastrophically—“deconstruct”; and (at last) are literally “disembodied” in the process that we dread as death. Instead of saying “dust to dust,” it may be more in tune to say “khaki to khaki,” since it seems as if our lives consist of time-based re-enactments of a spectrum of nuanced relations between figure and ground, some or all of which pertain to varieties of camouflage. 

additional sources

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Irvin Cobb and Camouflage: The SS Tuscania Sinks

Camouflaged SS Tuscania (c1918)
The following are excerpts pertaining to World War I ship camouflage from the wartime writings of American author Irvin S. Cobb. The text appeared initially in the Saturday Evening Post (August 1918), and was then reprinted in his book, The Glory of the Coming: What Mine Eyes Have Seen of Americans in Action in This Year of Grace and Allied Endeavor (George H. Doran, 1918). Cobb left for Europe with a convoy of twelve ships (the SS Tuscania among them), four of which were later sunk by German U-boats.

As described in Anita Lawson's biography, Irvin S. Cobb (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984), his daughter was there to wave good-bye as he sailed off on the RMS Baltic. She wrote: "I remember the shock of seeing that his ship was camouflaged and realizing that it was thus strangely striped and stippled because it was going into the most perilous places and with my father aboard it."

As described in the article, near the end of the voyage on February 5, 1918, the SS Tuscania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of England, with the result that 250 passengers died. Cobb's own ship was close enough to witness the sinking.

Shown above is a contemporaneous illustration of the SS Tuscania, which was painted in a dazzle camouflage scheme. Other ship camouflage illustrations from 1918 (all of which were published in the Saturday Evening Post) are interspersed throughout the text.

Because she was camouflaged with streaky marks and mottlings into the likeness of a painted Jezebel of the seas, because she rode high out of the water, and wallowed as she rode, because during all those days of our crossing she hugged up close to our ship, splashing through the foam of our wake as though craving the comfort of our company, we called her things no self-respecting ship should have to bear. But when that night, we stood on the after-deck of our ship, we running away as fast as our kicking screw would take us, and saw her going down, taking American soldier boys to death with her in alien waters, we drank toasts standing up to the poor old Tuscania.…

We had known in advance that there were guns in great number disposed about the surrounding terrain. Walking about under military guidance in the afternoon we had seen sundry batteries ensconced under banks, in thickets and behind low natural parapets where the earth ridged up; and had noted how cunningly they had been concealed from airplanes scouting above and from the range of field glasses in the German workings on beyond.

But we had no notion until then that there were so many guns near by or that some of them were so close to the village where we had stopped to eat. We must almost have stepped on some of them without once suspecting their presence. The ability of the French so well to hide a group of five big pieces, each with a carriage as large as a two-ton truck and each with a snout projecting two or three yards beyond it, and with a limber projecting out behind it, shows what advances the gentle arts of ambuscade and camouflage have made since this war began. Seen upon the open road a big cannon painted as it is from muzzle to breach with splotchings of yellows and browns and ochres seems, for its size, the most conspicuous thing in the world. But once bedded down in its nest, with its gullet resting upon the ring back of earth that has been thrown up for it, and a miracle of protective coloration instantaneously is achieved. Its whole fabric seems to melt into and become a part of the soil and the withered herbage and the dirt-colored sandbags which encompass it abaft, alongside and before. It is the difference between a mottled snake crawling across a brick sidewalk and the same snake coiled and motionless amid dried leaves and boulders in the woods. Nature always has protected her wild creatures thus; it took the greatest of wars for mankind to learn a lesson that is as old as creation is.… 

But the quarters of the flying machines, through their vastness and isolation, acquire a certain quality of catching the eye that is entirely lacking for the rest of the picture—the big hangars in the background, suggesting by their shape and number the pitched encampment of a three-ring circus; the flappy canvas shields at the open side of the dromes, which being streaked and daubed with paint camouflage, enhance the carnival suggestion by looking, at a distance, like side-show banners; the caravans of trucks drawn up in lines; and in fine weather the flying craft resting in the landing field, all slick and groomed and polished, like a landed proprietor's blooded stock, giving off flashes from aluminum and varnish and steel and deft cabinetwork in answer to the caresses of the sunshine.…

Master of theatrical trick and device that he is, none the less David Belasco could learn lessons at our camouflaging plant. He probably would feel quite at home there, too, seeing that the place has a most distinctive behind-the-scenes atmosphere of its own; it is a sort of overgrown combination of scenery loft, property room, paint shop and fancy-dress costumer's establishment, where men who gave up sizable incomes to serve their country in this new calling work long hours seeking to improve upon the artifices already developed—and succeeding—and to create brand-new ones of their own.

As a branch of military modernism camouflaging is even newer than the trade of scientific salvaging is and offers far larger opportunities for future exploitation. After all there are just so many things and no more that may be done with and to a pair of worn-out rubber boots, but in the other field the only limits are the limits of the designer's individual ingenuity and his individual skill.

We came, under guidance, to a big open-fronted barracks where hundreds of French women and French girls made screenage for road protection and gun emplacements. The materials they worked with were simple enough: rolls of ordinary chicken wire, strips of burlap sacking dyed in four colors—bright green, yellowish green, tawny and brown—and wisps of raffia with which to bind the cloth scraps into the meshes of the wire. For summer use the bright green is used, for early spring and fall the lighter green and the tawny; and for winter the brown and the tawny mingled. For, you see, camouflage has its seasons, too, marching in step with the swing of the year. Viewed close up the completed article looks to be exactly what it is—chicken wire festooned thickly with gaudy rags. But stretch a breadth of it across a dip in the earth and then fling against it a few boughs cut from trees, and at a distance of seventy-five yards no man, however keen-eyed, can say just where the authentic foliage leaves off and the artificial joins on.

For roadsides in special cases there is still another variety of camouflage, done in zebra-like strips of light and dark rags alternating, and this stuff being erected alongside the open highway is very apt indeed to deceive your hostile observer into thinking that what he beholds is merely a play of sunlight and shade upon a sloped flank of earth; and he must venture very perilously near indeed to discern that the seeming pattern of shadows really masks the movements of troops. This deceit has been described often enough, but the sheer art of it takes on added interest when one witnesses its processes and sees how marvellously its effects are brought about.

In an open field used for experimenting and testing was a dump pile dotted thickly with all the nondescript débris that accumulates upon the outer slope of a dug-in defense where soldiers have been—loose clods of earth, bits of chalky stone, shattered stumps, empty beef tins, broken mess gear, discarded boots, smashed helmets, and such like. It was crowned with a frieze of stakes projecting above the top of the trench behind it, and on its crest stood one of those shattered trees, limbless and ragged, that often are to be found upon terrains where the shelling has been brisk.

Here for our benefit a sort of game was staged. First we stationed ourselves sixty feet away from the mound. Immediately five heads appeared above the parapet—heads with shrapnel helmets upon them, and beneath the helmet rims sunburned faces peering out. The eyes looked this way and that as the heads turned from side to side.

"Please watch closely," said the camouflage officer accompanying us. "And as you watch, remember this: Two of those heads are the heads of men. The three others are dummies mounted on sticks and manipulated from below. Since you have been at the Front you know the use of the dummy—the enemy sniper shoots a hole in it and the men in the pit, by tracing the direction of the bullet through the pierced composition, are able to locate the spot where Mister Sniper is hidden. Now then, try to pick out the real heads from the fake ones."

There were three of us, and we all three of us tried. No two agreed in our guesses and not one of us scored a perfect record; and yet we stood very much nearer than any enemy marksman could ever hope to get. The lifelikeness of the thing was uncanny.

"Next take in the general layout of that spot," said the camouflage expert, with a wave of his hand toward the dump pile. "Looks natural and orthodox, doesn't it? Seems to be just the outer side of a bit of trench work, doesn't it? Well, it isn't. Two of those stakes are what they appear to be—ordinary common stakes. The other two are hollow metal tubes, inside of which trench periscopes are placed. And the tree trunk is faked, too. It is all hollow within—a shell of light tough steel with a ladder inside, and behind that twisted crotch where the limbs are broken off the observer is stationed at this moment watching us through a manufactured knothole. The only genuine thing about that tree trunk is the bark on it—we stripped that off of a beech over in the woods.

"The dump heap isn't on the level either, as you possibly know, since you may have seen such dump piles concealing the sites of observation pits up at the Front. Inside it is all dug out into galleries and on the side facing us it is full of peepholes—seventeen peepholes in all, I think there are. Let's go within fifteen feet of it and see how many of them you can detect."

At a fifteen-foot range it was hard enough for us to make out five of the seventeen peep places. Yet beforehand we understood that each tin can, each curled-up boot, each sizable tuft of withered grass, each swirl of the tree stump—masked a craftily hidden opening shielded with fine netting, through which a man crouching in safety beneath the surface of the earth might study the land in front of him. That innocent-appearing, made-to-order dump pile had the eyes of a spider; but even so, the uniformed invader might have climbed up and across it without once suspecting the truth.

For a final touch the camouflage crew put on their best stunt of all. Five men encased themselves in camouflage suits of greenish-brown canvas which covered them head, feet, body and limbs, and which being decorated with quantities of dried, grass-like stuff sewed on in patches, made them look very much as Fred Stone used to look when he played the Scarecrow Man in The Wizard of Oz years ago. Each man carried a rifle, likewise camouflaged. Then we turned our backs while they took position upon a half-bare, half-greened hillock less than a hundred feet from us.

This being done we faced about, and each knowing that five armed men were snuggled there against the bank tried to pick them out from their background. It was hard sledding, so completely had the motionless figures melted into the herbage and the chalky soil. Finally we united in the opinion that we had located three of the five. But we were wrong again. We really had picked out only one of the five. The two other suspected clumps were not men but what they seemed to be—small protrusions in the ragged and irregular turf. Yes, I am sure Mr. Belasco could have spent a fruitful half hour or so there with us.

Thanks to yet another crafty and deceitful artifice of the camouflage outfit it is possible to make the enemy think he is being attacked by raiders advancing in force when as a matter of fact what he beholds approaching him are not files of men but harmless dummies operated by a mechanism that is as simple as simplicity itself. The attack will come from elsewhere while his attention is focused upon the make-believe feint, but just at present there are military reasons why he should not know any of the particulars. It would take the edge of his surprise, even though he is not likely to live to appreciate the surprise once the trick has been pulled.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

USS Sturgeon Bay in Camouflage at Green Bay WI

USS Sturgeon Bay in dazzle camouflage
What colors were used on World War I American camouflaged ships, and in what combination? It seems we can never be certain, since apparently no color photographs were made of them. Some hand-painted models exist. There are also several hundred color lithographic plans (including one full set at the Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design), but they state that the colors shown on the plans are merely placeholders and may not be the actual colors applied. There are also dozens (probably more) of artists' on-site portrayals of dazzle-painted ships, c1918-1919.

Never before have we seen a hand-tinted photographic postcard of a dazzle-painted ship, of which there are two versions (above and below on this blogpost: NH 105922-A-KN and NH 105922-KN) on the website of the Naval History and Heritage Command. These are cropped and uncropped photographs of the USS Sturgeon Bay at Green Bay WI, two postcard versions of the same view, c. 1919 .


Associated Press, SCHOOL FOR CAMOUFLAGE ARTISTS AT GREAT LAKES, Janesville Daily Gazette (Janesville WI), August 26, 1918, p. 1—

Great Lakes, Ill., Aug. 26—A school of camouflage artists is the newest feature of the art officer school of the Great Lakes naval training station. The instructor is Karl O. Amend,• formerly a theatrical scenic artist in New York. Courses in the school will take 12 weeks to complete and graduates are to be given opportunities for advance rating in the service.

USS Sturgeon Bay in dazzle camouflage

From CAMOUPEDIA: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage (2009) and other sources: Karl (Otto) Amend (1885–January 2, 1944). Originally from Ohio, Amend was trained as a set designer. He designed stage sets for various Broadway plays, including Smile at Me, I Must Love Someone, and Vanities, and was founder and proprietor of Amend Scenic Studios. In 1982, an exhibition of his work, titled Behind the Scenes: The Theater Art of Karl Amend, was held at the New York Public Library.

more info

Reed College Dazzle Camouflage

Dazzle-painted USS Lake Charlotte (c1918)
Above There is an unrestored version of this public domain postcard on the website of the Naval History and Heritage Command, where it is identified as the USS Lake Charlotte or the USS Lake Silver (NH 105954). In other sources, the same ship is referred to as the War Cymbal.


Anon, STUDENT ON HIGH SEAS in Morning Oregonian (Portland OR), November 30, 1917, p. 8—

In the soldiers' mail to Reed College this week is a letter from Hugh Broomfield, the last Reed man leaving for France. The letter was written from New York and says: "When this letter reaches you I will probably be out on the high seas. I am on board the steamer now and our quarters are quite comfortable. Our ship has been undergoing the 'camouflage' treatment and has been painted with blotches of blue, pink and green. It is a funny sight. I wish the scheme success and hope it deceives the 'subs'…"

The steamer on which Hugh (Dent Garvin) Broomfield crossed the Atlantic did survive that voyage. He became a member of the US Army Air Service, and was shot down in France on October 21, 1918.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ghost Army Now in Book Form

Two years ago, Rick Beyer came out with a documentary film, titled The Ghost Army, which premiered on PBS. It provided a vivid account of a once top secret World War II American Army unit (the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, aka The Ghost Army), the mission of which was battlefield deception, using sonic and radio confusion, visual camouflage, inflatable decoys, and all sorts of persuasive phony events. The film has been a great success, and it is now being followed by the release of a richly illustrated book about the same unit. Co-authored by Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles (whose father  belonged to the unit), the book is titled The Ghost Army of World War II (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2015).

Below is one of the images from the book. It's a Christmas card that was made by one of the artists (unidentified). It makes inventive use of a cut-out silhouette technique that was first introduced by American artist Abbott H. Thayer, in advance of and during World War I. In this case, a silhouette of a soldier has been cut out of the cover, so that the background changes as the card is opened, as underscored by the punchline: "I can't conceal my wish for a Merry Christmas."

In Thayer's case, he recommended (in a 1918 article) that anyone, even a novice, could produce a functional camouflage pattern, for whatever setting, simply by superimposing a cut-out stencil silhouette on a photograph of the customary background of the subject to be camouflaged. One of his own demonstrations of that is shown below.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Painting White Horses for Camouflage During WWI

German horse-painting (c1915)
A couple of years ago, we posted a photograph of French soldiers applying dark coloring to a white horse, to make it less conspicuous. Later, we discovered other references to the same practice, as well as a wonderfully funny cartoon from Life magazine. It was also used by the American Army  (during the same time period) in its military activities on the US-Mexican border. In our earlier posts, we expressed concern about the harm that might result to the horse, since the pigment that was used was potassium permanganate (aka permanganate of potash or Condy's crystals). As we noted, "Among US soldiers during WWI, it was used twice daily as an irrigation in treating gonorrhea. Today, it is used in connection with eczema, blisters and athlete's foot—and in rocket propellent." It turns out that this horse-painting was practiced by not only the Allies but also by the Germans. There is a photograph (above) from a wartime issue of Scientific American (February 6, 1915) that shows a horse being painted by German soldiers.

Near the end of the war, it was still being practiced, as evidenced by this excerpt from an eyewitness article in the Saturday Evening Post (September 21, 1918, p. 52)—

At five a.m. we rose and went to the railway, where we saw the beloved regiment, in the midst of which we had lived so many years, entrain. Perfect order prevailed, though the embarkation took several hours. Each squadron occupied a train. Freight cars fitted up for soldiers and horses; platform cars for baggage and provisions; and at the end a car or two, second class and far from clean, for the officers, doctors, and so on. A most curious sight were the horses belonging to the regimental band. It was a tradition of the regiment that though the other soldiers were all mounted on bay horses the band should ride pure white steeds. With the new ideas of warfare these animals became a danger to their unit, and had been dyed for safety in olive brown. This was their first appearance in their disguise; and their comrades in the four squadrons did not recognize them and made a dreadful fuss, showing such desire to avoid the poor painted creatures that the latter felt insulted, and regarding themselves as victims of a ridiculous mistake they lost no opportunity of protesting. Their humiliation turned them timid and fractious, and it took time and persuasion to get them into their cars. Everyone rushed to help; and officers as well as soldiers were amused at the result of this first essay at camouflage, which came as a diversion to our strained feelings.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ship Camoufleur Alon Bement—Again

Alon Bement, artist, teacher and camoufleur
We've featured American artist and teacher Alon Bement (shown above) at least three times in earlier blog posts. As happens with all of us, he would be all but forgotten today were it not for the fact of his influence on the painter Georgia O'Keeffe. During World War I, he also served as a civilian ship camoufleur, an experience he wrote about in newspapers and magazines. From 1920 to 1925, he was the director of the Maryland Institute College of Art (known then as the Maryland Institute School of Fine and Practical Arts). According to that school’s website, as its director—

[Alon Bement] brought a modernist sensibility to the school, introduced extension courses for high school students, and sent art education instructors to remote parts of Maryland. He made the public exhibitions hosted on campus an institutional priority including one of the first public shows of work by Henri Matisse in the United States.

In the 1930s, he became associated with the William E. Harmon Foundation and served as Director of the National Alliance of Art and Industry, during which he played a role in the production of two educational films, The Negro and Art (1933) and We Are All Artists (1936), both of which are now online.


SS Aurora in a dazzle camouflage pattern (1918)

Anon, “Navy Camoufleur at Manual” in Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn NY), May 6, 1919, p. 14—

Alon Bement, a camoufleur, first class, of the United States Shipping Board, and formerly a teacher at the Teachers’ College, Columbia University, was the speaker at the Senior Assembly of the Manual Training High School yesterday. At the beginning of the war Mr. Bement, who had considerable reputation as an artist, was called to act as a naval camoufleur. He was sent to Washington DC where he worked out designs for camouflaging ships, using small models for the purpose. If the designs were found to be feasible, they were reproduced on a linen sheet, taken to a shipyard and painted on a ship.

Mr. Bement went into detail to show how portions of the ship were marked out for certain colors by means of a hand mirror when the sun was shining. The camoufleur would stand on the edge of the dry dock and reflect the light along the lines which were intended to mark the borders of the various colors. In this way the apportioning off of the ship was readily accomplished.

Mr. Bement told of other schemes which were attempted to combat the submarine menace such as the construction of an outer hull to prematurely explode the torpedo. This means was hastily abandoned because such a hull would slow down the ship to such an extent that it would fall an easy prey to the U-boats.

He also explained why only the transports, freighters and destroyers were camouflaged and not the battleships. The big fighters were not daily subject to submarine attack so that it was unnecessary to give them their “make-up” and since it costs $3,000 to paint a battleship attention was confined to the first mentioned ships.

Mr. Bement told of how in a captured German U-boat, the British found fifty-eight pages of a leaflet in the commander’s cabin, telling what methods the Prussians were taking to combat the camouflage of Allied ships. With this find, the Allied camoufleurs were able to take new steps to offset the year’s calculations of the Germans.

One of the most interesting parts of this news article is the description of the use of a hand mirror to convey to the painter—whose task it was to mark out on the actual ship the camouflage color divisions with chalk—the location of "dots" from a distance (a process that's all but identical to the use of a pouncing wheel in transferring a pattern from one surface to another). About a year ago, we posted another news account of the same technique.

Ann Elias on Flowers and Australian Art

Cover of Ann Elias, Useless Beauty (2015)
Art historian Ann Elias, Associate Professor of Theoretical Enquiry at the Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney AU, is well-known for her writings on art and camouflage. Now she has produced a book (see cover above) about aspects of the significance of the representation of flowers in art, and especially Australian art. Titled Useless Beauty: Flowers and Australian Art (UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), go online here to find out more. Below are two recent statements about this thoughtful, interesting book.

Professor Ted Snell, AM CitWA, Director, Cultural Precinct, University of Western Australia—

Ann Elias convincingly argues for the "useless beauty" of flowers and their significance in constructing a comprehensive and inclusive record of the art of Australia. Dancing elegantly through history to elucidate the role of flowers in imparting complex narratives of social life, celebrations, remembrance, attitudes to death, notions of gender, sexuality and cultural difference, she covers a wide territory with elegance and precision. Underlying her thesis is a deeper question about beauty and whether there is value in attending to its undoubted allure when making art, about flowers or anything else. The many illustrations prove her point.

Professor Su Baker, Director, Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), University of Melbourne—

Who would think the flower painting genre could tell such a dynamic history of western art and elucidate the contradictions, social and political conditions of Australian culture. Through this clear and very readable account of the flower painting traditions in Australia, Ann Elias reveals the way these forms of "useless beauty" give us insights into the moral and aesthetic polemics, the anxieties, desire, ambitions and aspirations of Australasian art and culture. This book takes us on a journey through the 20th century, recalling the roots of European traditions, the measures of taste and beauty that were dominant allegories for good living. Elias outlines the gendered political separation of art (useless beauty) and science, the true nature of things.  All the more surprising is that artists such as Tom Roberts, George Lambert, Hans Heysen and Arthur Streeton gave such serious attention to the motif of the flower. We hear from Elias her rich insight and the many examples of the work of these heroic Australian painters, and see the care with which they attended to these gentle subjects. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Steganography, Camouflage and Eviatar Zerubavel

Cover of Hidden in Plain Sight (2015)
Above Cover of the latest camouflage-related book, titled Hidden in Plain Sight: The Social Structure of Irrelevance, just out from Oxford University Press. It's the latest achievement by Rutgers sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel, who is well-known for his earlier books, such as The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life (2006) and (our favorite) The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life (1993).


In Zerubavel's insightful and wide-ranging book, among the subjects introduced is a current encryption technique known as steganography. Now practiced in its digital form, the term was originated in 1499 (so says Wikipedia) by Johannes Trithemius in Steganographia, "a treatise on cryptography and steganography, disguised as a book on magic." We ourselves first learned about it in 2006 at an international conference at the University of Northern Iowa on Camouflage: Art, Science and Popular Culture, at which digital media scholar Eugene Wallingford (UNI Computer Science Professor) offered a wonderful overview of current uses of digital steganography.

Here is an excerpt from Zerubavel's text about steganography (pp. 35-36)—

There is a particular form of background-matching camouflage known as steganography, in which actual "signals" are purposely designed to be mistaken for mere "noise" and thereby effectively ignored. One can thus send a covert message in such a way that no one apart from oneself and one's intended audience (who are in fact usually alerted to expect it) even suspects its existence. Whereas in cryptography  only the content of the hidden is concealed, in steganography, its very existence is concealed as well.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dazzle Ship Camouflage | Stephen Hobbs

Disruptive Ship Camouflage © Stephen Hobbs (2015)
Above We've featured the camouflage-related work of South African artist Stephen Hobbs in earlier blog posts, including his experiments with building camouflage and a dazzle-patterned pop-up book. His latest artwork (as shown above) will soon premiere in a series of installation / performances called Stephen Hobbs: SAS Somerset & Other War Stories, on Thursday, April 2, 2015, from 5 to 9 pm, at Twenty Fifty, First Floor, 8 Spin Street, in Cape Town.

The SAS Somerset is an actual historical South African ship, and the world's last remaining boom defense vessel. Hobb's installation will feature "a unique and dynamic use of dazzle patterning and lighting onto a mock assemblage of the SAS Somerset; a spectacle conceived to enliven and transform the perception of the vessel's significance in location and history." Produced by Stephen Hobbs, in collaboration with David Krut Projects.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Abbott Thayer and Background-Picturing

Background-picturing experiment with G.H. Thayer painting
Above Roy R. Behrens (©2015), an experiment using Adobe Photoshop software in an attempt to replicate a camouflage effect that artist/naturalists Abbott Handerson Thayer and Gerald Handerson Thayer (father and son) referred to as background picturing. The initial illustration (top left) is a watercolor painting by Gerald Thayer that was originally reproduced in Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (1909). The actual painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The following is an excerpt (in reference to the image above) from an as-yet unpublished essay by Roy R. Behrens, titled "Seeing Through Camouflage: Abbott Thayer, Background-Picturing and the Use of Cut-Out Silhouettes" (©2015)—

Years ago, I published an article in which I suggested that Abbott Thayer had anticipated a computer-based method of working on multiple solutions to the same art or design composition, by which we use the SaveAs command on computers.• In drafting this article, it occurred to me that he may also have anticipated another digital practice, as suggested by background-picturing. This can best be understood by looking at a series of illustrations.

The first of these illustrations is an unaltered reproduction of a watercolor painting by Gerald Thayer, titled Male Ruffed Grouse in Forest [top left]. First published in full-color in in 1909 in Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, it is a masterful demonstration of the intricacies of background-picturing, or (figuratively speaking) of “seeing through” an animal as if it were transparent. In the next two illustrations, the woodland setting [top right] and the bird [bottom left] have been selected and removed, using Adobe Photoshop. In the final stage [bottom right], I have instructed the software to fill the empty silhouette of the bird, using a setting of ContentAware, based on information in the shapes and colors in the background. The result is surely successful, albeit less than equivalent to what the Thayers intended, since the source of this solution is a single particular background and not, as they hypothesized, an average of “innumerable landscapes.”

• See R.R. Behrens, “Abbott H. Thayer’s anticipation of a computer-based method of working” in Leonardo. Vol 34 No 1 (2001), pp. 19-20. Available online here. See also and "Abbott H. Thayer's Vanishing Ducks."

Thursday, March 12, 2015

New Book on Camouflage Cultures | 2015

Cover of Camouflage Cultures (2015), available now
The latest book on art and camouflage is an anthology of the papers that were featured at an International Camouflage Conference at the Sydney College of the Arts, the University of Sydney AU in August 2013. Titled Camouflage Cultures: Beyond the Art of Disappearance, its editors are Ann Elias, Ross Harley and Nicholas Tsoutas. Included are writings that touch on such diverse fields as art history and theory, studio art, biology, cultural theory, literature, and philosophy.

The book will be available in late April 2015 from the Sydney University Press (ISBN 9781743324257) . Among its contributors are Roy R. Behrens, Donna West Brett, Paul Brock, Ann Elias, Ross Gibson, Amy Hamilton, Pamela Hansford, Jack Hasenpusch, Ian Howard, Husuan L. Hsu, Bernd Hüppauf, Ian McLean, Jacqueline Millner, Jonnie Morris, Brigitta Olubas, Nikos Papastergiadis, Tanya Peterson, Nicholas Tsoutas, Linda Tyler and Ben Wadham.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Futurist Togs For Sniper Camouflage (1917)

US proposal for disruptively-patterned sniper suit (1917)
Above This photograph of an American soldier dressed in a disruptively patterned sniper outfit (this is a detail of a larger scene) was one of a series of official government photos that were provided to US news agencies in 1917-18. It was subsequently published in various newspapers and magazines throughout the country, including, for example, in a feature titled CAMOUFLAGE DEVICES FOR DECEIVING ENEMY in the Washington Times, January 5, 1918, p. 4.

Later, as shown below in this post, the same figure was one of several components in a photomontage that appeared on the cover of a French magazine, Lectures Pour Tout, on May 1, 1918.


Anon, FUTURIST TOGS FOR SNIPERS in Chicago Daily Tribune, July 24, 1918, p. 6—

Artists of the [Blackhawk] division [at Camp Grant IL] camouflage department today gave free rein to their imagination and color fancies when Lieutenant Roy Shinew, whose studio at 3714 West Grand Avenue was closed when he entered the service, began experimenting on a series of sniper uniforms.

Types of uniforms so far turned out by the class resemble nothing more than futurist paintings of a nude falling down stairs. They are streaked with paint in broken lines and seem a joke until fitted to the body of a man and seen from a short distance in the open.

Cover of Lectures Pour Tous (1918)