Friday, October 14, 2011

Who Invented Dazzle Camouflage?

Rear Admiral Bradley A. Fiske (1854-1942)

So who was the first to make use of disruptive patterns in ship camouflage, a practice that was widely known in World War I as dazzle camouflage? The easiest answer—and the one that's most often repeated—is British artist Norman Wilkinson, who proposed the use of dazzle painting in 1917, and who presumably gave it its name. Yet, from the very beginning, others have claimed to have thought of it first, notably the Scottish zoologist and Member of Parliament John Graham Kerr (1869-1957). A well-documented discussion, concluding on the side of Kerr, was published two years ago, in Hugh Murphy and Martin Bellamy's "The Dazzling Zoologist: John Graham Kerr and the Early Development of Ship Camouflage" in The Northern Mariner XIX No 2 (April 2009), pp. 171-192. Kerr called for the adoption of which he called "parti-coloring" as early as 1914.

Kerr was the teacher of zoologist and camoufleur Hugh B. Cott, who would later write Adaptive Coloration in Animals (1940). But he was also acquainted with (and largely approved of his theories) American artist and naturalist Abbott H. Thayer. In 1923, in "Camouflage in Nature and War" in the Brooklyn Museum Quarterly (Vol 10, p. 161), Thayer's son and collaborator Gerald suggested that his father and he could also have been credited with early accounts of dazzle camouflage. He writes, "The moving object [such as a ship] cannot, as a rule, be hidden, but it can be made less definite, more puzzling, a more 'tricky' and difficult target, by certain arrangements of color and pattern. This my father and I pointed out in 1909 in our book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom; and we there used the terms 'dazzle' and 'dazzling' very much as they have since been used in connection with the camouflage ships."

There are other complications too. The photo above is a portrait of American Rear Admiral Bradley A. Fiske who states in his autobiography (From Midshipman to Rear-Admiral. NY: Century Company 1919) that, as early as 1902, he had employed a dazzle-like method, to interfere with range-finding. He writes: "This scheme of preventing range-finding by an enemy was a scheme that I had devised when I was executive officer of the battleship Massachusetts in 1902. I had told possibly half a dozen officers about it under the pledge of secrecy, because I thought it would be a very valuable thing to use in case we ever got into war, but I wanted the idea kept secret. The scheme was simply to break up the smooth lines on a ship, such as the sides of masts, funnels, etc., by putting irregular strips of wood on them, or pieces of canvas that would flutter. To use the ordinary one-observer range-finder, a smooth vertical line is necessary; and I found by some experiments which I carried on on board the Massachusetts that accurate range-finding could be prevented by that simple means. One day I sent out a whale boat to a distance of about half a mile from the ship, with her two masts stepped. One mast had the irregular pieces of wood nailed on it, and the other was in its ordinary condition. I tried using the range-finder myself, and I found I could measure the ranges of the smooth mast very accurately, but of the other one only inaccurately. I did not tell anybody what I was trying to do, and I fancied from some of the fragments of comment that I heard that some people thought I had gone crazy" (pp. 620-621).