Saturday, February 1, 2014

Abbott Thayer, Zebras and Ship Camouflage

Source Wikimedia Commons
Above Photograph of zebras on the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania in 2005.

Rudolf Arnheim (Parables of Sun Light, 1989)—

Nothing is more humbling than to look with a strong magnifying glass at an insect so tiny that the naked eye sees only the barest speck and to discover that nevertheless it is sculpted and articulated and striped with the same care and imagination as a zebra. Apparently it does not matter to nature whether or not a creature is within our range of vision, and the suspicion arises that even the zebra was not designed for our benefit.

Zebra Swallowtail | Megan McCarty Wikimedia Commons


Anon, from WIRTH BROTHERS' CIRCUS in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 5, 1922—

Wirth Brothers expect to have their finest menagerie to date for their forthcoming reopening at the Hippodrome, and several new arrivals were exhibited yesterday to pressmen. The new arrivals include three lion cubs born at Melbourne six weeks ago. A young lion directly from Zululand, where it was captured in the jungle, and a beautifully marked leopard, 9 months old. There are several African baboons, some velvet monkeys, and two young zebras, whose regular stripes are strikingly reminiscent of naval camouflage. But the most interesting newcomer is a wart hog, the first, it is claimed, to be shown in Australia. This peculiar animal has a hippopotamus-like head, quite out of proportion with the size of its body, and a long mane which stands upright when the wart hog is enraged. The menagerie will include four elephants, four lionesses, one lion, two pumas, one leopard, three bears, and one tiger.


USS Patterson (n.d.) in dazzle camouflage during WW1

Below is a news article found recently that claims that Abbott Handerson Thayer had received permission in 1915 to design a camouflage scheme for the USS Patterson. Really? Even if he had permission, did he himself actually carry it out? Not to our knowledge. On the other hand, as evidenced by the photograph above, someone applied a camouflage scheme to the Patterson perhaps at some point later (since the US did not declare war until 1917). Besides, it doesn't look much like a zebra to me.

This brief article (a news filler) is puzzling in another way. It implies that Thayer preferred plain gray ships, instead of painting them totally white. But in 1916, he published a lengthy article in the New York Tribune, passionately recommending white as the best color for ship camouflage. After all, he argued, the Titanic collided with an iceberg precisely because white is hard to see at night.

Anyway, here's the article from THE ZEBRA IS EXPLAINED in the Milwaukee Journal on December 19, 1915 (reprinted from Popular Science)—

Abbott Thayer, a prominent American artist, has devoted many years to a study of the colors of animals. He claims that each animal is colored by nature to protect itself against its own particular enemy. The zebra's coat is designed to confuse the enemy most dangerous to the zebra.

Working on these same lines, Mr. Thayer says that it is a great mistake to paint our battleships a plain gray. Although the war paint is much more suitable than the white paint used before the Spanish-American war, even the gray color is visible at a great distance. To prove his point the artist obtained permission to paint the torpedo boat destroyer Patterson according to his ideas. Long, wavy lines on the gray war paint attract much attention when the slim ship is close at hand, but when she steams away from the observer she suddenly seems to disappear, as the wavy lines blend perfectly with the ripples and waves on the surface of the ocean.


Correction (10Aug2016)—

We have since determined that, while the dazzle-camouflaged ship shown in the photograph above may be the USS Patterson, most likely it is not the scheme designed by Abbott H. Thayer. More recently, as shown below, we have found an earlier (if poor quality) photograph of the SS Patterson (prior to WWI) in a camouflage pattern of wavy lines—most likely the plan that Thayer proposed.

Thayer's camouflage scheme for SS Patterson (c1915)