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.

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."