Bel Geddes and the War Dioramas

Yesterday’s post reminded me that I should also link to Enrique Gualberto Ramirez’s blog post about the many dioramas that Norman Bel Geddes designed during World War Two. The post has lots of photos of the models of various battles that Bel Geddes produced for LIFE magazine, as well as his plans for for “Synthetic Training Device #1,” an automated physical representation of a training wargame. Ramirez makes the point that Bel Geddes’s models were didactic, “highly-detailed terrain dioramas that brought a antiseptic, highly-stylized and design-conscious version of the war to American readers.” These were designs that shared the war-as-intellectual-challenge ethos with his pre-war War Game, but with a potent, patriotic sense of educational mission added.

The Bel Geddes dioramas also reflected a judgment on the nature of war. The LIFE dioramas and the planned Device #1 lovingly modeled atmospheric effects and the physical terrain to be viewed from a god’s eye perspective that combined exceptional visibility with a precision greater than that available from a real commander’s map. They offered a position from which war became a matter of the application of proper rules (to be executed via electronic calculators in the Device #1) to a known situation: something to manage with knowledge, not intuition. (Is it a surprise that the War Game used three dice, required no umpire, and attracted at least two international chess champions?) Despite the cotton puff smoke and clouds, Norman Bel Geddes’s dioramas never had any fog of war.

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