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"How to Use Your Eyes at Night" from Intelligence Bulletin, February 1943

[Intelligence Bulletin Cover]  
The following article on night vision was originally published in the Intelligence Bulletin, February 1943.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department Intelligence Bulletin publication. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]



Modern war is often fought at night. This means that men must learn to see in the dark--or at least to use their eyes in new and unfamiliar ways.

This article is written to tell you how to make the best use of your eyes at night. It will help you, whether your job is in an airplane or a tank, on a ship, or driving a truck, or just getting about on your own feet.

It will not give you the uncanny eyes of an owl or a cat, but it may give you just the edge on the enemy you need to get in the first shot--and to get home.

You already know that when you go into a dark room from a bright one, it is hard to see until your eyes have become used to the gloom. At a movie it takes a minute or two to see the vacant seat. It may take another minute or two to be able to recognize a friend. During these minutes your eyes become more sensitive to the faint light.


Your eyes adjust in two ways for seeing in the dark. One way is by opening up to let in more light or to make maximum use of what little light there is. This works in the same way as a camera diaphragm, which can be opened up wide for taking pictures in dim light. Your eye pupils open wide in dim light and close to a pin-point opening when the light is very bright.

But this is not the most important change in the way your eye works in dim lighting.

You actually have two kinds of sight. Your day eyes use one kind of vision cells known as "cones." They are principally located in the very center of the eye.

Your night eyes use an entirely different kind of cells, the rod cells, which are mostly around the outside edge of the eye.

The rod cells used by your night eyes are color blind. That is why "all cats look gray at night." If you see a colored light shining at night, and it looks red or green or blue, it is only because it is bright enough so that you can see it with your daylight eyes.

But your night vision is much more sensitive to light of some colors than to others. Red is seen equally well by night and day vision. Blue light, however, affects your night eyes 1,000 times as much as it does your day eyes. For this reason it is extremely dangerous to use blue lights in a blackout because it affects the enemy's eyes just as much as it does yours.

Night eyes lack the sharp vision for detail that your day eyes have. If you want to see to read, if you want to watch the dial of an instrument, if you must look at a map, a road sign, or your watch, then you must use your day vision. For this you must have good light--the more the better. Especially if the print or other forms are small, the light must be bright.

Night eyes are extraordinarily sensitive to faint light. This is shown by calculations that an ordinary candle flame could be seen at a distance of more than 100 miles if the night were completely black and if haze, dust, and the curvature of the earth did not interfere. A lighted match is about as bright as a candle flame. Under ordinary night conditions, a match can be seen from a plane for many miles away.

Night vision is not in use as soon as you step into the dark. It takes time--a half hour or more--before your eyes are completely adapted to the dark. When you leave a sunny street to go into a darkened theater, or step from a brightly-lighted room into the dark outdoors, you are completely blind at first.

Then several things happen. First the pupil of your eye dilates, letting more light into your eyes. This is a mechanical action.

Next the cones of your day vision adapt to the darkness. This takes about 5 minutes, and after that you feel more comfortable about moving around in the pitch dark.

After a much longer time, your rod vision adapts itself to the darkness and you can begin to see shapes and outlines in the gloom that were not even vague bulking shadows when you first came in.

Just how this change-over from cone to rod cells is accomplished is not completely understood, but it is at least partly a chemical process.

The soldier who, at a command or an alert signal, leaves a lighted room to run on duty without having prepared his eyes is completely at the mercy of the enemy insofar as his vision is concerned. By the time he gains the use of his night eyes, the emergency may be all over.

And even when your eyes are adapted to the dark, flashing on a light, even for a very short time, may ruin your night vision for another half hour. You can lose in a few minutes all you gained by half an hour in the dark. The brighter the light and the longer you look at it, the more you lose.


Complete darkness is the best preparation for night fighting. It pays to protect your eyes from light before you start and while you are out. If you can't stay in darkness, keep the lights around you as low as possible and don't look straight at them. If it is necessary to look at any lighted object, be as quick as you can about it. Experiments have shown that looking at an instrument dial lighted only by radium paint will cut down the distance at which you can see a friendly or an enemy plane by 50 percent. Don't look at the dial any longer than you must or the loss will be greater.

Experienced gun pointers and spotters know that they must not watch the flash of their guns as they fire. The flash of a 6-inch gun may dull the eyes for a minute or more. Under continuous fire at dawn or dusk it is impossible to aim some rapid-fire guns accurately at a target more than 7 times a minute if the gunners watch the flash. At night the blinding effect would be even greater. Looking away from the flash gives almost complete protection. Luckily the flash of rifles and small-caliber machine guns has much less effect on the eyes.

There are several ways by which one can become dark-adapted or maintain dark-adaptation, even though working in a fairly bright light. Each method is suitable for certain types of jobs, and each has its limitations and dangers. A patch worn over one eye will keep this eye ready for night duty at any time, but vision from one eye alone is not as accurate as binocular (two-eye) vision, especially in judging distances of nearby objects. An individual may work in red light, or wear close-fitting red goggles, either of which are effective since red light has little effect on the rod cells and leaves one ready for nearly instant action in the dark. It is wisest to consult a medical officer concerning the necessity for such preparation, and the methods best suited for the task at hand.


Always remember that you must look a little to one side in order to see best on a very dark night. Learn to pay attention to things which are just a little off to the side. Learn to keep from looking directly at any object. As you feel your eyes drawn irresistibly toward what you want to see, just let them slide on over it to the other side and look again with the tail of your eye. It takes practice to learn to do this without fail, but it is worth the trouble to learn the trick.

And don't keep looking steadily to the same side of an object. This will make it disappear, too.

Try it out yourself and see how your eyes at night can play "parlor magic" tricks on you.

When in your darkened room or outdoors, hold up your finger and look steadily at it. It will disappear. Look a little to one side and it will appear again. But if you keep staring at this side it will soon be gone again. Move your eyes to the other side and back and it will reappear.

This means that in searching the sea or the sky for a dark object, you must look at first one area and then another. When you think you have spotted something, keep looking first on one side of the object and then at the other, or above and below it.

But don't try to sweep your eyes over the sky or the horizon--you can't see well while the eyes are moving. "Scan" the sky, don't sweep over it. Night eyes are slow in responding. At night a faint object may not be recognizable until after you have looked near it a number of times. If you have ever hunted quail in the morning or watched deer in the dusk, you know that you can look right at such a camouflaged object for a while before you notice it. In darkness such an object is even harder to pick out because you won't see it at all if you stare. You have to look again and again at points near it.


Another thing that affects our vision at night is the contrast between an object and its background. If the thing observed is very different from its background, it is much more easily seen. An airplane may be clear if you look up at it against the night sky; but invisible if you look down on it against the dark ground. A ship may show up clearly against a star-lit sky, but fade into the background if you are looking at it against a background of dark water.

If light from the moon is reflected onto the under side of an airplane from white clouds below, the plane may become almost invisible from any angle.

To notice small differences in contrast, it is essential to have clear vision. It is for this reason that windshields must be kept clean and free of scratches or fog. These tend to scatter light in all directions and reduce contrast. Careless night fighters have been known to tolerate enough dirt on their windshields to double the time it takes to see a plane moving along near by. And sailors on ships sometimes let the salt from spray pile up in blotches on the glass. This is courting death.

For the same reason it is important to keep down the lights on your side of a windshield. Any light on your side reduces the contrast because stray light spreads over the whole glass and reflects in your eyes. That is why you push up close to a window when you try to look out at night. By coming up close, you shade part of the glass and increase the contrast of the objects seen through this part. If it is necessary to have any light on your side, keep it as dim as you can and screen it from the glass. This also helps your adaptation to darkness.


There has been a good deal of talk about the effect of shortages of vitamins A and C on ability to see at night. These are the vitamins in fresh vegetables, cheese, and fruit. People who don't get enough of these vitamins do become poor in night vision, but regular Army and Navy rations supply plenty of these vitamins. Occasionally when boats are on long trips or when fighting lasts until fresh foods are all gone, a shortage of vitamins may occur. In these cases medical officers will supply men who are likely to be on night duty with vitamin capsules. Extra vitamins don't improve night vision if your diet or your night vision is already normal.

Night vision is affected by fatigue. Anything that reduces your physical well-being has a greater effect on night vision than on day vision. Experiments have shown that hangovers, slight illnesses, or excessive fatigue may double or even triple the amount of light needed to see an object/ The night fighter must train for his job as a boxer trains for a big match. The boxer who is not at the peak of training is likely to be knocked out. The night fighter whose eyes are not at the peak of efficiency is likely to be killed.


a. Protect your eyes from light before you go on night duty and while you are out.

b. Don't look directly at any light or illuminated object. If you must, be quick about it.

c. Use the corners of your eyes. Night targets are more clearly seen when you don't look directly at them.

d. Keep your eyes moving. Quick, jerky movements and short pauses are better than long, sweeping movements and long pauses.

e. Keep your windshield spotless and free of scratches and fog.

f. Keep yourself wide awake and on the alert. Don't break training. Use good sense about eating, drinking, and smoking.

g. Practice what you know about seeing at night until it becomes second nature to use your eyes to the best advantage. Use every possible device to aid you in learning to recognize ships, planes, and other important objects from slight cues.


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