JF Ptak Science Books Post 1679 Part of a series on the History of Blank, Empty and Missing Things.
I found this photograph of the "Womens Camouflage Corps of New York City", the photo lingering away in a collection of News Photo Service WWI images. After a bit of looking, I've found nothing about the WCCNYC, though women were employed to this work in America and Britain in 1917 and 1918--it just seems as though there aren't images available online showing these workers working.
But: were their painting the entirety of large ocean-going transport ships in sharp geometric shapes and in dazzling colors to make the ship disappear, like, well, it was "camouflaged"? No. It wasn't like biological camouflage where all sorts of bits come into play to make an animal blend into its surrounding environment to protect it from predators, or conversely to make it a better predator by allowing the animal to stay completely hidden until their prey could do nothing but become their prize. Nor was it really like thermoregulation, or sexual or warning signals (again drawing from the bio world)--it was simpler than that, though are there many relational examples in the biological world as well. Nor was it similar to the camouflage schemes used by the air corps, with different and usually sky/ground-blended colors used for the top and bottom of SPADS and Nieuports and Albatrosses.
[The full image from which the detail was taken. The original is available for purchase from our blog bookstore, here.]
The effect of using the geometrical shapes on the whole of a 600'-long vessel was to make it's speed and direction more difficult for submarines to figure out and calculate so that the point-to-target launch of their torpedo would be far more complicated. When the prolific maritime painter Norman Wilkinson figured out this approach for disguising the intentions of ships (around 1917) he instantly recognized its applicability in anti-submarine warfare: not only would it be difficult to distinguish bow/stern properties of a ship, but also how long it was, and whether it was coming or going, and how big it was--all major factors in determining the launch of a torpedo. Basically, dazzle camo made it difficult to produce a trajectory for the ship.
This must have been an extraordinary experience, seeing these things for the first time by military commanders, who not but a few years earlier were sending troops into combat with white gloves and red pantaloons.
An image of work completed:
And, it must be admitted, the coloring scheme is confusing--more so if you can image looking at it from periscope depth.
[ RMS Empress of Russia]
The technology is still used, with more advanced applications, and appears on one of the world's stealthiest ships, Sweden's Visby Corvette. Apart from having an exceptionally low magnetic signature, it also has geometric low-radar reflective gray dazzle paint. (It also has applications for land warfare use in the camouflage of armored vehicles against RPGs; see INSTITUTE OF PHYSICS; Steps towards warship invisibility
Obesity, Fitness & Wellness Week, March 15, 2008 and also the Economist, 6/11/2011, Vol. 399 Issue 8737, p83-83, ".) 2/3p "The Old Razzle Dazzle".)
Edward Wadsworth, Painting of Dazzle-ships in Drydock, 1919. There are well-known stories of great artists--like Villard and the questionable Picasso--who made contributions in this effort, from making designs to doing the actual painting. But it was the estimable Wilkinson who made the major contribution and invention of dazzle-at-sea. (Intereting work was also done by the United States in utlizing electric light placement at night for confusing teh ship's silhouetet against a starry sky, but that will have to wait for another post.)