Printer Friendly

Viktor Schrekengost: sculptor, patriot.

The US industrial designer was a key player in developing radar-recognition techniques

In a career that has spanned over 80 years, Viktor Schrekengost has been recognized for being one of the most important figures in US industrial design. It is estimated that every living American has used, ridden on, driven, eaten from, collected, or seen in a museum something created by Viktor Schreckengost or one of his students. At the same time, Viktor was a major figure in the development of radar recognition on behalf of the US Navy during World War II.

Schreckengost, who will be celebrating his 100th birthday next year, is considered one of the fathers of American Modernist Art. He established the Design Department at The Cleveland Institute of Art, created ceramics for the Roosevelt White House that now command prices as high as $250,000, and was the subject of a recent one-man exhibition at The Cleveland Museum of Art.

As Admiral Luis de Florez, an American pioneer in the use of "virtual reality" to simulate flight and combat situations in WWII, told Viktor Schreckengost: "When I saw 'sculptor' on your specifications, I wanted you to come work with us."

Molding Radar Interpretation

When Admiral de Florez recruited Viktor, radar had just been developed and was largely still a secret. The challenge of interpreting the strange blips and beeps that showed up on the radar screen had not yet been mastered. No method had been developed for interpreting the strange scatter patterns that showed up on the scope, or for establishing whether they portrayed a squadron of enemy bombs or a gaggle of geese. Admiral de Florez had come up with the notion that the scattering had to do with shape and that no one would be more sensitive to that than a sculptor.

Radar shows up on a screen in a scatter pattern. To figure out how such images were formed, Viktor first produced models of various kinds of aircraft. He then moved little lights around these models to see how the light would reflect off the shapes. He found that, if you know the angles of the beams of light, you could work back from the scatter pattern to a precise definition of the original shape.


Radar works in essentially the same fashion, so after working with beams of light, Viktor was able to come up with a system of radar recognition that would predict the image radar will produce if it hit a plane of a particular type. Viktor also carried out practical experiments to determine the range of radar.

In October 1944, he went out on the North Atlantic onboard the minesweeper USS Kestrellto test the distance at which one could detect the periscope of a submarine. He discovered that a mast 32-feet high with radar on it would read up to 150 miles. After that point, the reading disappeared because of the curvature of the earth.

Viktor and his team also worked on helping aircraft pilots use radar to stay on course. If there was a specific area of coastline being targeted for a bombing mission, for example, he and his team could use topographical maps to develop a precise picture of what the radar return would look like. Thus, a bombing crew could match the image coming in with the prediction. When the two precisely corresponded, that meant the flight was on target, and the crew could start dropping bombs.

The most unusual application of Schreckengost's sculptural skills came when he used his understanding of sculptural form to develop the US Navy's first program of radar recognition and to invent techniques for producing highly accurate topographical maps and terrain models based on stereometric aerial photography. To create such models, extensions were placed on the wings of some of the Navy planes, with cameras mounted four feet out on the ends of the wings so that, when they photographed together, they produced a stereometric pair.

Once the film was developed, they then projected the two images, superimposing one upon the other until they matched. After this match was made, a technician could build up the shapes of the landscape with white modeling clay, simply piling up the clay until it met the edge of the image. Compared to conventional methods, the technique was both quick and accurate, because it created a perfect replica of a shape from the photographic image, without requiring exact measurements.

Viktor and his assistants then went one step further. Using the clay as a mold, they vacuum-formed plastic shapes, put emulsion on them, and printed all tactically useful information back onto them, such as roads, buildings, and the location of military targets. In planning an approach, they could rephotograph the model from any direction, giving pilots an exact picture of what to expect. While they used the new technologies of radar and aerial photography, all these techniques were fundamentally an extension of sculpture. In a New Yorker magazine profile in 1944, Viktor was cited as helping to make safe amphibious landings with invasion craft.

Viktor's work on mapmaking was interrupted by even more pressing matters during the Battle of the Bulge. The US radar was not functioning properly, so Viktor was hurriedly flown to France, bringing his radar recognition system with him. His help was needed to get the troops to read the radar returns properly and resite malfunctioning radar installations so that they would work. After a harrowing flight to Europe through blinding snow, he was sent out to the front. He quickly discovered that US forces were half-blind because of the way they had placed their radar. The problem, of course, was that an exposed position was often vulnerable to enemy fire, and a thoroughly camouflaged one, hidden behind a screen of trees, was completely useless. The trick was to clear away the trees and other obstacles just enough to get a full image but still leave the site relatively protected.

Viktor stayed in France only four or five weeks, since he was needed back in the US to help plan the invasion of Japan, which was scheduled to begin in late 1945. Viktor and his team had everything ready, but early that month, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the invasion was cancelled. Within two days of the Japanese surrender, Viktor recalls, all his highly sensitive projects were cancelled and then started up again with new code numbers. Thus, they could be hidden from America's so-called allies, such as Russia.


After the fighting ended, Viktor was assigned to Cleveland and became the commanding officer of the Naval Research Center on 9th Street, where he had everyone from doctors to scientists from NASA in his unit. Consequently, he got to see the latest technology that was being developed and to explore how to use it most effectively. One of the more amusing projects entailed determining the best way to transmit orders through static. After recording voices with all kinds of accents and intonations, Viktor's team found that the dialect that could be most readily understood through any kind of sound interference was that of West Virginia. Once they discovered that a particular pitch carried clearly through almost anything, they found ways to tune the equipment to that pitch so you did not need to come from West Virginia to be understood.

The aftermath of war entails clean-up: collecting bodies and putting the wounded back together as well as possible. Viktor got involved in both these tasks. He designed steel body containers that were stackable and easily labeled. He also became involved in fitting amputees with artificial limbs, since the Navy discovered that slight differences of measurement made a great difference in how people could walk. Viktor and his team put lights on the joints of normal people to see how they moved and then tried to duplicate the effect with people of the same size who had lost a limb. They carefully measured and charted the movements of people of every weight and size.

One of Viktor's last projects was to install a major exhibition on naval training and naval science at the New York Hall of Science that included extraordinary action photographs and films of the Navy at war taken by Edward Steichen. Viktor used various tricks to make the material seem lifelike. One of the displays, for example, was a mock-up of the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. A dummy of a full-sized man stood in the foreground, and scaled-down figures created the effect of perspective. At the end of the line of men was a tiny model airplane. Thus, in a small space, the display created a convincing illusion that you were standing on an actual flight deck with all of those men. Another display featured a model of an atom 22-feet across, constructed out of stainless steel rings. Visitors could walk under it and get a sense of how the layers of spinning electrons went together.

But the most exciting and popular spectacle of the show was not in the script. They had arranged to bring in a fighter plane from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a plane so large that to get it in the building they had to take its wings off and lift it by crane through a large window on the second floor. Unfortunately, when it was halfway through the window, the labor union handling the move went on strike. They had to stop work from Friday afternoon until Monday morning, until they got the difficulties settled. The plane looked quite startling--half-in, half-out of the building--and some of the Navy's top brass, including Admiral Nimitz and Admiral Halsey, came by to goggle.

Viktor entered the US Navy as a lieutenant and left as a four-striper, with the Secretary of the Navy's commendation and a blue ribbon. Viktor was cited for outstanding performance of duty as head of the design laboratory of the Special Devices Division of the Bureau of Aeronautics from November 1943 to May 1945. According to de Florez, "Lieutenant Schreckengost developed new and improved techniques to construct and utilize three-dimensional terrain models for use in briefing pilots and air crewmen and, in addition, rendered invaluable assistance in the operation of radar planning devices for the location and evasion of enemy radar installations in bombing and invasion tactics. His superb professional ability and conscientious devotion to an important task were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

Excerpted from the Viktor Schreckengost exhibition book by Henry Adams.

Viktor Schreckengost (1906-) had a career that spanned three quarters of a century and includes highly celebrated achievements in fine art, industrial design, technology, and the defense of the US during WWII. Inspiring designs from the classic 1965 Mustang to the current 2005 Corvette, Viktor has influenced generations of designers at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he established the first Industrial Design Department in the US. He designed the first cab-over-engine truck, which added dramatically to hauling capacity and has been called "the greatest development in truck transportation." In 1943 the Navy needed the talents of a sculptor to help with the interpretation of radar signals. He accepted a commission and quickly advanced this emerging technology. His creative work produced terrain models to guide bombing missions and improvements in fitting artificial limbs for veterans.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Horizon House Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Open Sources
Publication:Journal of Electronic Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
Previous Article:Wheeled tactical vehicle.
Next Article:The mighty Mi-24: the world's most widely used combat helicopter soldiers on.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |