The Secret History of Invisible Ink, Part 1

May 12, 2011

When I was a kid, I could write in invisible ink – really! Take some lemon juice, apply to paper with a brush or stick, and then heat over the light bulb in one of our living room lamps. Voila! Brown lettering would appear on a blank white sheet of paper. A bit unsophisticated perhaps, but it worked. I didn’t really have any secrets to smuggle past the authorities – it was the mere fact of writing invisibly that made it so cool.

Now here I am, all of these years later, still fascinated. A recent news item from the Central Intelligence Agency caught my eye – “CIA Declassifies Oldest Documents in U.S. Government Collection.” The subject of these mysterious papers, which date back to 1917 and 1918: invisible inks! I had to check it out.

The CIA describes these timeworn items succinctly and well: “One document outlines the chemicals and techniques necessary for developing certain types of secret writing ink and a method for opening sealed letters without detection. Another memorandum dated June 14, 1918 – written in French – reveals the formula used for German secret ink.” My favorite is document number 6: Invisible Photography and Writing, Sympathetic Ink, Etc., a four-page pamphlet compiled by Theodore Kytka, identified as “Handwriting Expert, San Francisco, Cal.” and “printed by the San Francisco Division [of what, I wonder? It doesn’t say] for the information of Post Office Inspectors.”

According to the CIA, only recently have advances in technology made these various formulae obsolete, spy-wise. Among the secrets: “A German Formula. Take one ounce of alum and one ounce of white garlic juice. Write with a quill and on heating the paper the letters become very legible and cannot  be removed by salt water application.” Then there’s “Disappearing Ink. Take a weak solution of starch, tinged with a little tincture of iodine. The bluish writing will soon fade away.” Boy, is my mother lucky I didn’t latch onto this information – our kitchen would have been a disaster area!

Not only is this a really great story, it also ties into GPO’s 150th anniversary in a very interesting way. During World War II, our scientists helped to thwart the use of invisible inks, like those described above, by Axis prisoners of war. In my next post, I’ll tell that story. Stay tuned!


“Uncivilized Warfare”: Defeating the Kaiser’s U-Boats

April 8, 2011

I’ve been on a bit of a World War I binge lately. In addition to my own at-home reading (most recently a book on naval battles of the First World War and a biography of Colonel Edward M. House, Woodrow Wilson’s closest foreign policy advisor during and immediately after the war), in recent weeks I’ve blogged about World War I aerial reconnaissance, Army nurses, and Stars and Stripes, the doughboys’ newspaper. Maybe it’s because of the recent death of Frank Buckles, the last American veteran of the Great War, or because in another three years we’ll be hearing about the centennial of the war’s outbreak. Given that “the war to end all wars” kicked off what many historians view as one war that lasted from 1914 to 1945 with a 20-year intermission, that its repercussions still echo today, and that it was fought on or near every continent, I find the subject to be one of endless, multifaceted interest.

Because Americans tend to focus on such incidents as the sinking of the Lusitania, it’s easy to forget how deadly a weapon the German U-Boat was on an ongoing basis and how close it came to success. According to Defeating the U-boat: Inventing Antisubmarine Warfare, a new book from the U.S. Naval War College, after a meeting between U. S. Rear Admiral William Sims and the Royal navy’s Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Jellicoe in which the struggle against the U-boats was discussed, Sims cabled Washington to say “briefly stated, I consider that at the present moment we are losing the war.” A major part of the problem was England’s utter unpreparedness to fight an anti-submarine war. This was partly due to the belief that no “civilized” nation would engage in unrestricted submarine warfare, i.e. firing torpedoes at non-military vessels without warning and making no effort to aid or pick up survivors. After trying anti-submarine patrols,  “barrages” or barriers in the Strait of Dover, mines, and the employment of Q-ships (freighters and other civilian craft with concealed/camouflaged guns that could snag U-boats playing by the old “fair warning” rules), it was the development of the convoy system that proved most decisive. Yet such was the ambivalence of many officers (and even Winston Churchill) about the “defensive-mindedness” of convoys that even in World War II it took far too long for Allied navies, including the American navy, to use the convoy against Nazi U-boats.

In its concluding chapter, the author, Jan S. Breemer, reflects on the general tendency of large bureaucracies in general avoid decisions that involve risk.  It also makes the specific point that the Royal Navy in World War I viewed the protection of shipping and the sinking of U-boats as separate issues instead of the two parts of a strategic whole. In other words, combine sluggish bureaucracy and blinkered strategy and you come up with an almost lethal combination. As the great naval historian Arthur Marder put it, “sinking submarines is a bonus, not a necessity.” It took a long while for this lesson to sink in (excuse the pun!)

Defeating the U-boat is a neat little book that’s readable and furnishes a lot of useful information very concisely. It would be a great asset to any World War I buff’s collection. You can read it here, get that copy for your collection here, or seek it out at a library.


GPO and the Stars and Stripes

March 28, 2011

Because this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Government Printing Office, I’ve been trying to highlight some of its history by featuring some unusual Government publications with a GPO connection. How’s this for unusual: a newspaper that was not printed through GPO, not printed in the United States, and staffed by a number of distinguished authors and critics as well as a future Public Printer.  It took advertising, had 526,000 readers at its peak, yet only stayed in business for about a year and a half. It was, gentle readers, the original Stars and Stripes, the paper of choice for the American doughboys of World War I. (Stars and Stripes currently is published as a non-Government, DoD-authorized newspaper: http://www.stripes.com/customer-service/about-us).

Thanks to the estimable American Memory project of the Library of Congress, the entire run of the U.S. Army’s Stars and Stripes, published in France from February 8, 1918 to June 13, 1919, is available online for browsing. A special American Memory presentation, “A Closer Look at The Stars and Stripes,” highlights the contributions of such luminaries as New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross, drama critic (“Old Vitriol and Violets”) Alexander Woollcott, literary critic John Winterich, sportswriter Grantland Rice, and columnist and “Information Please” radio show panelist Franklin P. Adams (greatly admired in his day and now sunk without trace – who now remembers “The Diary of our own Samuel Pepys”)?  The “Closer Look” also examines soldier-authored material, censorship, and other issues affecting Stars and Stripes. Some of the doughboys’ poetry even transcends doggerel, although not always by much.

Finally, a roster of Stars and Stripes staff reveals the name of Augustus E. Giegengack – a euphonious cognomen, to be sure (hmm – I must be channeling Alexander Woollcott) –   the future Public Printer to whom I referred above. Sergeant Giegengack is listed as working in Circulation, but he started out in charge of printing the paper and expanded his reach to various circulation, delivery, and other tasks. As a poem in Stars and Stripes put it:

“Mail, wrapping, typing, couriers – his duties are a score,

Whenever we can think of it we’ll give him twenty more;

I often wonder how one man can handle such a batch –

When does this great executive get time to stop and scratch?

Nothing neglected, nothing slack

In the department Giegengack.”

After his discharge from the Army, the sergeant returned to the printing industry until his nomination as Public Printer by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, following which he ran GPO from 1934 until 1948 – the longest serving Public Printer in GPO history. He’s also the only GPO chief ever to be profiled in the New Yorker – a three-parter in 1943. He seems to have been both a colorful character and a very efficient GPO chief executive, and the profile is well worth seeking out (New Yorker subscribers can access it online). Many libraries also have extensive runs.

The Stars and Stripes was not only a fine newspaper, but perusing its pages takes one back nearly 100 years to see how the soldiers of the day viewed the war, their situation, and their country. (I wonder if many of today’s soldiers write doggerel?). Even the ads are fun to read! A product of the well-managed “department Giegengack,” it’s a paper that’s still readable and thought-provoking today, when the last American World War I veteran has just left us for “Over There.”


Army Nurses in Wartime

March 16, 2011

Although GPO’s 150th anniversary has been on my mind lately, March is also Women’s History Month. A couple of years ago, Answering the Call: The U.S. Army Nurse Corps, 1917-1919, an excellent photographic history published by the Office of the Surgeon General’s Office of Medical History was one of the American Library Association’s Notable Government Documents. Established in 1901, the Corps had sent nurses to Vera Cruz, Mexico during General Pershing’s Punitive Expedition, but World War I saw Corps nurses mobilized on a much larger scale.

 At first, Army nurses served in six British general hospital units while American troops were trained and mobilized for service in France. As American troops arrived, some nurses assigned to special teams wound up in the front lines, dealing with shock, surgical, gas, and orthopedic cases. Answering the Call is profusely illustrated by Signal Corps photographs of the grim reality of modern warfare, including truckloads of wounded soldiers and grim-faced stretcher bearers carrying casualties to the closest dressing stations. Nurses also served in field hospitals and mobile units that ferried the injured back from the front lines. Owing to accidents and the great influenza epidemic of 1918, some Army nurses  died while serving their country, as depicted in moving photos of military funerals and grave sites.

It wasn’t all, grim, though. Answering the Call also shows nurses relaxing as best they could, participating in patriotic plays, and enjoying whatever opportunities for distraction they could find. I’m not a historian of photography, but it does seem that this decade marks a departure from the predominance of unsmiling group photos – smiles make those photographed appear more contemporary and individual, despite the period uniforms and poses.

This book opens a window to an organization and a period seldom mentioned in histories of American involvement in World War I. Both the images and text work to conjure up yet another aspect of women’s history that should be better known. Answering the Call is available here or in a library.

Quite a few Notable Government Documents came our way in 2008. I’ve blogged about a few of them, but looking over the list reminded me that there are some really good ones I haven’t gotten to yet – so stay tuned!


Shooting with a Camera above the Western Front

February 25, 2011

It’s been almost a century since the outbreak of World War I. Although it’s rightfully remembered for its frightful battlefield slaughter, the Great War also marked a huge leap forward in the use of modern technology in war. One of those technological developments was the use of aerial reconnaissance photography to map enemy terrain and extract intelligence information on troop movements, defenses, and strategy.

Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance and Photographic Interpretation on the Western front – World War I, published by the National Defense Intelligence College, is not the kind of product normally associated with that estimable agency, which usually deals with more contemporary issues. That’s one of the things that intrigued me about this hefty, profusely illustrated volume. It’s got lots of photographs, of course – the image of Fort Douaumont after Verdun gives new meaning to the term “leveled to the ground” – but also lots of information about how aerial photography evolved in the course of the war. It’s analogous to the progression of aircraft armament from a pistol in the hand of a co-pilot in 1914 to synchronized machine guns in1918. Interestingly, it was the French who led the way in developing aerial recon photography into a real science, and their partnership with American personnel was much more significant than is usually assumed.

I also enjoyed the brief biographies of the pioneers of Allied aerial photography: Eugene Marie Edmond Pepin, the brilliant Sorbonne graduate; John Theodore Cuthbert (known as “J.T.C.” – my initials!) Moore-Brabzon, the quintessential English gentleman (“‘You will obey your superior officers,’ the No. 9 Squadron commander once remarked early on. Moore-Brabzon replied, ‘Superior officer? – senior, if you please, sir.’”); and Edward Jan Steichen, the great American photographic master, who once joked that anyone producing a fuzzy photograph would be court-martialed! Retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in the reserves in 1924, Steichen received a commission as a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy reserves in 1941 at the age of 62, was on the carrier Lexington and in the Battle of Iwo Jima, and retired again as a Navy Captain in charge of all naval combat photography – talk about the engaged artist!

Shooting the Front is an excellent study of a neglected aspect of World War I and aviation history. At first I thought it might be too technical, but instead I found it absorbing to shift between the text and the photos, in a sense becoming a combat photograph interpreter myself. You can view the Table of Contents and Chapter I here, get a copy here, or find it in a library. For other Government publications touching on “the war to end all wars,” you can browse here.


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