Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Wargaming on an epic scale - Harry Pearson on Norman Bel Geddes

I am indebted to Harry Pearson for this article on Norman Bel Geddes and his War Game.

If you think you spend too much money on toy soldiers remember the name Norman Bel Geddes. It is estimated that the vast naval and land battles the architect and designer hosted in the basement of his Manhattan townhouse cost him over $13,000. And that was back in the early 1930s when the world’s highest paid sportsman, Babe Ruth was pulling in $80,000 a season. Imagine spending a fifth of Wayne Rooney’s annual wage packet on figures and you’re near to seeing the mighty scale of Bel Geddes’ gaming fixation.

Born in Michigan in 1893, Norman Bel Geddes was an architect, designer; filmmaker and all-round visionary who popularised the concept of streamlining and who’s utopian Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair shaped humanity’s vision of what the 21st century would look like until well into the 1970s. He’d begun his career designing sets for the Metropolitan Opera and was married to the theatrical costume designer Edith Lutyens, a former-Belgian fencing champion who worked with Orson Welles and Jerome Robbins. The couple’s daughter Barbara would become an actress, best known for playing Miss Ellie in Dallas.

The lavish nature of Geddes’ games, the fashionable location, the a-list participants they attracted (including Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, five-star generals, Russian chess champions, admirals, newspaper editors, even Hollywood sweetheart Mary Pickford) and the fact that – in the era of Prohibition – much alcohol was served, make them perhaps the most swinging and glamorous wargames in history. Geddes; miniature manoeuvres attracted a good deal of favourable media attention – featuring in articles in Time, The New York Times and the New York Sun. Life magazine was particularly impressed, ran several features on the game and during WW2 commissioned Bel Geddes to make a series of huge dioramas depicting actions in Europe and the Pacific.

By 1930 Geddes had already designed a whole range of large-scale entertainments, including mechanical baseball and golf games and a very popular model horse-racing track, but all of these paled into insignificance compared to his wargames set-up.

Like HG Wells, Geddes had pacifist leanings and seems to have believed – like Wells – that the best way to persuade people not to fight real wars was to get them involved in fighting miniature ones. His wargame was a massive affair fought over a period of weeks on a table well over twenty-feet long, with rules of striking complexity, based loosely on World War One, but featuring technology that fell “within the realm of probability” including motorized supply carriers, submarines, tanks and armored cars, machine guns, and landing barges.

“It’s a game, of course… but an extraordinary one… A bird’s eye view of modern warfare for players who can see like birds and reason like mathematicians,” noted a writer from the New York Sun, “Navies, complete from battleships to minesweepers… A flight of airplanes is a tiny symbol on a two-inch-long pin stem. Submerged submarines are invisible, but there…”

You can read more about the extraordinary Norman Bel Geddes and his amazing games here


tradgardmastare said...

Awesome !

Chris Kemp said...

Thank you for sharing this interesting post.

Kind regards, Chris.

Colorado Gamer said...

It appears that what ever remained documentation remains of his wargame now resides in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas Austin. See


Vintage Wargaming said...

Yes thanks, I'd seen that earlier today - the catalogue listing was interesting - it would be interesting to see the rules in Box 5. I was even more intrigued by the Believer article which says he put first the Nutshell Jockey Club and then the War Game (in the mid 30s) into storage. Wouldn't it be wonderful to think it was still in a warehouse somewhere,forgotten,and waiting to be discovered? There are several pages on the game, along with a picture of Bel Geddes at his War Game board, in Jon Peterson's "Playing at the World".

Tim Gow said...

Fascinating stuff!

Henri Longuelade said...

Thanks for the follow up information on the Harry Ransom Center. A pity it is so far away! The Life magazine diorama issues are fairly easy to come by, but it would be interesting to see the wargame articles either from Life, Time or the New York newspapers.

legatus hedlius said...


And of course he was the father of Barbara Bel Geddes who played Ellis Ewing in Dallas.