Reported in Scientific American, this Week in World War I: December 18, 1915

The word “camouflage” entered the English language, from the French, in 1917. Before then, some terms used were “concealment,” “deception” or “artifice.” Here are three examples of concealment, on the sea, in the sky and on land, from 100 years ago.

The “the transparent battleplane” devised by the Frensh air force was a service airplane with wings covered by a newly-devised transparent material called “cellon.” It was a great idea, but the material quickly lost its transparency and strength, and was soon abandoned. In 2015 we “see” with radar, far beyond the limits of human sight, so aircraft such as the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk are designed to be virtually invisible to radar.

The cloaked ship: the U.S.S. Erickson lays a smokescreen during naval exercises , 1915.
Image: Scientific American Supplement, December 18, 1915

During naval exercises, the destroyer U.S.S. Erickson shows off its ability to produce a smokescreen. Here are some uses for such a screen:

“The large cover picture illustrates an interesting artifice sometimes resorted to in naval engagements .... Most of our torpedo boat destroyers use oil for fuel, and if the combustion of the oil in the boiler furnaces is not perfect a dense smoke results. Advantage is taken of this fact under certain circumstances by sending one or more destroyers to run to windward of the enemy’s fleet, and as near as possible, with the combustion in their furnaces so adjusted as to produce the densest smoke .... Under cover of this smoke curtain the larger fighting vessels of the fieet are able to gain positions of advantage with much less danger of being hit than if they advanced in the open. The same maneuver is also of advantage in case of a retreat.”


The shortage of horses necessitated the use of animals that would otherwise be unacceptable for use by German cavalry (“Uhlans”). The description reads:

“Uhlans dyeing a white horse, so that he may blend better with the landscape and meet the military requirements that nature fails to observe. Army horses are also painted white to blend with the snow.”

Dying a white horse to blend in with the landscape. 
Image: Scientific American, February 6, 1915


Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on innovations during the First World War. It is available for purchase at