How the Model Was Made


Vol. 1 No 2, APRIL 1971

The model of the Sound’s underside – commissioned by ON THE SOUND and executed by artist-cartographer Walter Hortens – is both an exercise in mathematical precision and, as the author describes it, a deliberate caricature.

These terms sound incompatible; in one sense they are but in another they emphatically are not. Putting the contradictions together, Hortens achieved a compound of shapes and dimensions which makes the Sound’s bottom visually comprehensible to the eye. Short of siphoning the water out of the real Sound, there was no other way to do it.

Caricature implies exaggeration, which is exactly what the Hortens model does, but it does so to a calculated formula. Without exaggeration the model would seem merely a featureless saucer, imperceptibly undulating but with nothing recognizable to the thousands of boaters and fishermen who know the surface of the Sound intimately – but not what lies under it.

The model’s third dimension, executed in bold deep relief accounts for its fascination. Knowing that currents can rip through Plum Gut or The Race at six knots is one thing; seeing how narrow walls compress and accelerate the tide is something else. Knowledge that stripped bass congregate off Scotch Caps is useful; seeing why those shallows attract them is even better.

A few who have seen the model have complained that Execution Rocks, for example, do not appear to reach the surface. They know that they do, in fact, because they have rammed into them to their grief. This seeming discrepancy is an illusion, a product of the two scales to both of which the model is true.

Horizontally, the model is as accurate as official navigation charts can render it. Hortens scaled the model at 1 to 125,000, taking his measurements from a Coast and Geodetic Survey Mercator projection. This is a bathymetric rendition, representing depths and shallows by contour lines of a flat surface.. It can be read and understood by a navigator but is difficult to visualize.

The caricature lies in the vertical dimension. This is a distortion with the paradoxical quality of recognizable truth. For this third dimension, Hortens chose a scale of 1 to 217, in the model this works out to be ⅛ inch standing for one fathom – six feet.

A viewer, looking down on the model and exercising a reasonably knowledgeable eye, can estimate actual depth at any point with fair accuracy. Some spots astonish even sophisticated viewers. This is particularly true of The Race off Fishers Island which plummets 55 fathoms between sheer walls – the deepest single hole anywhere in the length of this miniature sea.

The scale has been worked out so precisely that – if the silk screened protective plexiglass cover were removed and the depths were measured with calipers – the water could be calculated within inches at the mid tide level.

Completing the model, from preliminary measurements to the final painting, took four months to of steady work by Hortens and art student helpers.

The basic model was built in steps, an intricately contoured staircase. First, the contours were transferred from the Mercator Chart –a type of projection of the globe’s curved surface which permits a navigator to chart a course as a straight line between any two points – to sheets of thin hard cardboard and pieces of wood.

These were laid up from the bottom, each fathom of rising bottom stepped back fractionally from the lower layer to which it was glued.

When all the layers were finally in place, minute adjustments were necessary to execute the true contours precisely. In the end, the steps were sanded and shaped with spackle, the stuff house painters use to fill the cracks in plaster walls before painting.

This is a technique Hortens learned and perfected on a project even more demanding than was ON THE SOUND’s model seascape.

Something over a quarter century ago Hortens, a young professional illustrator, felt that he was wasting his part of the war effort drawing pictures for training manuals. He wanted more action and got it as one of the 16 men in the 1622 Engineer Model Making Detachment.

Sent to North Africa, the group set up shop in an abandoned winery in a cave in the village of Fouk near Algiers.

There, working with flat contour maps, and stereoscopic photographs brought home by aerial reconnaissance, the group created three dimensional contour models of the Island of Elba, the coast of southern France from near the Spanish border to Nice and eastward to the Italian frontier and finally, as the war progressed most of central Germany.

Late in the war the detachment was moved to the Pacific and there began building the home islands of Japan in painstaking miniature. The earlier European charts were actually used to guide invasion forces but in the Pacific, somewhat to the model makers’ dismay, the war was moving faster than they could produce their Tom Thumb replicas.

Like the model of Long Island Sound – and the much larger working model planned for the New York Ocean Science Laboratory at Montauk - the three dimensional invasion charts Hortens finished were built to a formula which exaggerated the vertical dimension into caricature . It made it easier for the troops to recognize what they were shooting to hit.