Reading an old WITI, I came across a beautiful idea: dazzle camouflage. Typically, when we think of camouflage, we think of designs that enable people or machines to blend into an environment, so as to avoid being seen. Dazzle camouflage was developed when being seen was inevitable. Its intended effect was not to hide the object but to confuse the observer of that object.
Here’s an explanation of the origin of the practice.
How to camouflage ships at sea was one of the big questions of World War I. From the early stages of the war, artists, naturalists and inventors showered the offices of the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy with largely impractical suggestions on making ships invisible: Cover them in mirrors, disguise them as giant whales, drape them in canvas to make them look like clouds. Eminent inventor Thomas Edison’s scheme of making a ship appear like an island – with trees, even – was actually put into practice. The S.S. Ockenfels, however, only made it as far as New York Harbor before everyone realized what a bad and impractical idea it was when part of the disguise, a canvas covering, blew away. Though protective coloring and covers worked on land, the sea was a vastly different environment. Ships moved through changing light and visibility, they were subject to extreme weather, they belched black smoke and bled rust. Any sort of camouflage would have to work in variable and challenging conditions.
[Norman] Wilkinson’s innovation, what would be called “dazzle,” was that rather than using camouflage to hide the vessel, he used it to hide the vessel’s intention. Later he’d say that he’d realized that, “Since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer – in other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as the course on which she was heading.”
Later in the article, Professor Roy Behrens explains the concept’s efficacy. Apparently, when aiming a torpedo at a submarine, even a small miscalculation could ruin the attempt and save the submarine. Dazzling or confusing the torpedo launcher would be just the cover that a submarine needed. So the idea of dazzle camo was not only beautiful, but also practical.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine