Psychology has seen some of its most significant growth and advancement during times of war. During World War I, psychologists administered tests to measure recruits’ intellect and to help determine which positions were best suited for particular soldiers — efforts that gave legitimacy to the burgeoning field of applied psychology. In the wake of World War II, Veterans Administration psychologists began their important work of helping soldiers readjust to peacetime life. Today, psychologists are assisting returning veterans of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq with mental health issues, most notably post-traumatic stress disorder.
While these services by psychologists are well-known, some of psychology’s wartime contributions have received little fanfare. This is the case of work by Samuel Renshaw (1892–1981), an Ohio State University experimental psychologist whose research on improving human perception, memory and learning made a dramatic impact during WWII.
Initially, Renshaw studied ways to improve reading speed. In his lab, subjects would be exposed to a series of numbers flashed on a screen for increasingly shorter durations of time. After the subjects were trained, Renshaw claimed that they could read faster with the same level of comprehension. He also trained students to improve their sense of taste. His students developed such distinguished palates that some were hired by the local inspection board to perform taste checks at local bars to ensure that liquor supplies had not been watered down.
In 1942, a naval officer and former Ohio State University employee, Howard Hamilton, believed that Renshaw’s research could be applied within the Navy to save lives. The Allied forces were losing hundreds of soldiers and equipment because Navy personnel were either too slow or inaccurate in identifying planes and ships as friend or foe. If Renshaw’s techniques could help subjects more quickly recognize reading stimuli, then perhaps the same could be done for naval personnel in recognizing incoming planes or ships. To find out, Renshaw trained college students on aircraft and ship recognition and found that they could indeed identify such targets more quickly and with greater accuracy than the Navy’s own personnel.
In June 1942 after a review of Renshaw’s work, the Navy established a “recognition school” at The Ohio State University, eventually known as the Renshaw Training System for Aircraft and Ship Recognition. Based on his earlier research, Renshaw replaced numbers with pictures of airplanes and ships. The Allies had previously used the WEFT (wing, engine, fuselage and tail) system to identify planes, a timeconsuming, piecemeal and rather ineffective process. Renshaw taught officers to identify planes and vessels as a gestalt with a “perception of total form” in a fraction of a second. Data revealed that officers going through this training had dramatically improved recognition abilities. Upon completion of the program, officers could identify more types of planes and ships, with greater accuracy and with faster recognition times. The identification school’s graduates took the techniques to their commands and spread them. Over a million combined Navy and Army personnel learned Renshaw’s techniques.
His work is credited with saving an untold amount of lives during the war. It also garnered him the Navy’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award. Today, some of the Samuel Renshaw Papers are housed at the Archives of the History of American Psychology.
Nick Joyce is with the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron.
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