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.• more>>>

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 altogether, 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.