Infographics at War: The OSS Presentation Branch, Part One

Like a lot of the blog posts here, this started with a some throwaway references. A few weeks ago, I was reading Jennet Conant’s A Cover Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS. The story Conant tells circles mostly around the Paul–Julia relationship, their friends Elizabeth MacDonald and Jane Foster (whose involvement in a complicated spy scandal after the war almost swallows up the book), and their experiences as relative innocents abroad, but it talks from time to time about their war work. The references to Paul’s role as an artist and designer working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in its Presentation Branch prodded me to start looking a little further. What was Paul Child doing creating war rooms in the South East Asia Command (SEAC), and what else was OSS’s Presentation Branch doing?

Creating Q-2
A quick Google search turned up plenty of scattered references to the branch, but most traced back to one source: Barry Katz’s article on the Presentation Branch in Design Issues (available through JSTOR; if you do not have access through your local library, you can still read it through MyJSTOR), which offers a brief but illuminating history of the organization.

Like large swaths of the rest of the OSS, the Presentation Branch was recruited from a varied bunch of locations. Created in OSS’s pre-existence as the office of the Coordination of Information, the original Presentation Branch was something of a shotgun marriage between Field Photographic Division created by filmmaker John Ford and a varied group of leading industrial designers. The latter were tasked with creating a sophisticated war room in the White House that would use film projectors, illuminated displays, and a vast globe to depict “a flexible, comprehensive, and continually updated picture of the war” (Katz’s words).

Identified with the codename Q-2, the project was put in the hands of three consulting designers: Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, and Henry Dreyfuss. The three lead designers represented a dream team of pre-war industrial designers, and the rest of the staff and consultants were almost equally notable. They included Norman Bel Geddes, Buckminster Fuller (later of geodesic dome fame), architect Louis Kahn, Lewis Mumford (now thought of mostly as an urbanist), and even Walt Disney. Other future stars who joined the Presentation Branch included Eero Saarinen, Dan Kiley, and Benjamin Thompson.

Though Geddes was apparently brought in relatively late, to avoid him taking over the project, there was a intriguing similarity between his pre-war games (including both a mechanized horse race and a vast miniature battlefield) and the project to represent a global war with intuitive clarity. The same was true of Geddes later wartime work, creating dioramas of battles for LIFE magazine and a prototype electronic training wargame (known as Synthetic Training Device #1).

Q-2’s designers had a vast, technocratic vision for their proposed situation room. They expected to equip it with a wide range of brand-new devices, including “epidiascopes” (for projecting opaque images onto a screen), “stereomotographs” (automated slide projectors), and a “Variable-Speed Statistical Visualizer” (which would use electric lights to represent relative quantities). The US Joint Chiefs of Staff were impressed enough to commission a preliminary version for their own headquarters, which featured fewer of the bells and whistles, but then cancelled the presidential project. Roosevelt would have to make do with his famous, but less gadget-ridden, Map Room.

War Room Myth and Reality
If there’s been an unfortunate side-effect of Katz’s article, it’s that writers in cultural studies seem to have taken its images of the futuristic White House war room as representative of the actual wartime milieu, at least for its forward-thinking echelons. In fact, as Katz’s article explains, it was a mostly paper project. When set designer Ken Adam put a cavernous, high-tech War Room in the White House in the film Doctor Strangelove, he was creating something far in advance of reality (on Adam, see this interview in The New Statesman).

The White House Situation Room was only created by Kennedy in 1961, and it was decidedly low-tech. If you look at the pictures on the White House Museum website (scroll down for the earliest), you see that the early Situation Room was less advanced in terms of presentation tools than even what OSS built for the Joint Chiefs in 1942. As the picture of the File Room (third from the bottom) shows, the Situation Room was also primitive in terms of how it stored and manipulated data. Computerized data processing only arrived in the White House in 1969 (something John Laprise has written about in his article “Kissinger’s Computer” in Annals of the History of Computing). Both data processing and presentation and strategic command and control were issues that the entire US military found a serious challenge. (David E. Pearson’s book on the World Wide Military Command and Control System gives a sense of just how big.)

From this point of view, the Q-2 war room is more or less a dead end in the history of data visualization and command and control. Though it is possible that some of the designers involved spoke to their colleagues about the project, the detailed design work almost certainly remained classified. The proliferation of postwar command rooms and systems for bringing together and presenting disparate sources of information, both military and civilian, were only peripherally related to the work on Q-2.

That said, the cancellation of the White House war room was not the end of the Presentation Branch. Instead, OSS’s designers would end up shifting their efforts into new projects of a different sort.

Consider this a prequel of sorts to the semi-series on design in the Cold War. Part One looked at the corporate identity Erik Nitsche created for General Dynamics, Part Two at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists‘s doomsday clock, Part Three at NATO’s posters (and NATO’s Information Service here), and Part Four the CND’s peace symbol.


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