What's the truth behind the Philadelphia Experiment? A sensational story about a US Navy ship docked for repairs, being turned invisible in the course of secret experiments and the entire crew rendered insane — was there any truth to this? A close examination of the facts suggests that, while it was a great story, the Philadelphia Experiment was a smoke-screen to distract from the real experiments in teleportation and the like.
Background: A Panicked Autumn Day at the Philadelphia Naval Yard
The story starts with an astronomer named Morris K. Jessup, who published a book in 1955 arguing that UFOs worked based on still-secret theories of electricity. He spent a lot of time talking about how space flight (at least, the kind known to the public) was focused on rocketry… yet there were other, potentially much more effective ways of getting into space than riding a giant tube of explosive chemicals. What if Einstein was wrong, or if Einstein had secretly developed a version of his theories that made anti-gravity just a matter of voltage and current?
Jessup's book apparently struck a nerve with one dedicated man. On January 13, 1956, someone calling himself Carlos Allende sent Jessup the first of more than 50 letters. This letter attacked Jessup's speculations and described a version of Einstein's theories that — so Allende claimed — had allowed for invisibility and time travel.
Now, a man who claims to have survived the Philadelphia Experiment (Al Bielek) says the original idea was developed by Nikola Tesla, who felt everything Einstein said was wrong. But no matter who you ask, the general idea was that with the right kind of electricity applied in the right way, you could make the ship invisible and probably travel through time.
Needless to say that with World War II raging, the Navy was very interested in this and set up a research project to look in to it. The first few attempts produced partial successes. The invisibility worked, but the crew was badly affected — people were throwing up, disoriented, delirious. The pressure to produce being what it was, the Navy ordered research to keep going.
Finally on a day in fall 1943 — sources vary here, but August 12th 1943 is the most common date — it was time to do the final test. The men threw the switches, the generators hummed to life, and the 1,260 ton USS Eldridge disappeared from the radar screens.
Observers could still see a bit of an outline of the ship, but that was fine. All the Navy wanted was a ship that wouldn't show up on radar. They could already be "optically invisible" by going out at night!
This initial success lasted about 60 to 70 seconds. Just as the scientists were starting to break out the champagne, however… poof, there was a blue flash, and the ship disappeared completely.
The scientists panicked. Nobody knew where it had gone! Needless to say it wouldn't respond to radio calls. Some four hours later, however, it reappeared right back in the place it had left, but with visible damage. As before, the ship wouldn't respond over the radio, so they sent out a small boat to board the USS Eldridge and find out what was going on.
The boarding crew was greeted with something right out of a horror film. Two men were stuck through solid steel bulkhead walls, another man had his hand embedded in a steel bulkhead. (According to the story, he survived after they cut off his hand, and was given an artificial one.) All the sailors were running around completely insane. Men appeared and disappeared seemingly at random. Some men were even on fire, burning but appearing not to suffer from the flames.
(The man who claimed he survived, said he did so because he'd been protected from the effects because he was below decks. But, when he jumped overboard to escape the "ship of horrors" that 1943 afternoon, he was told by the people who greeted him after swimming to shore that the year was 1983.)
The Office of Naval Research Steps In
Needless to say, having just written a book which speculated that exotic physics might allow remarkable things to happen, Jessup was very interested in "Carlos Allende's" story. However, after Jessup started receiving replies from a "Carl M. Allen" instead of "Carlos Allende," he suspected an impostor and stopped sending letters to the man.
The story doesn't stop there, however. About a year after the initial contact from Carlos Allende, Jessup heard from the Office of Naval Research. Someone had sent them an elaborately annotated copy of Jessup's book, and they wondered if Jessup could help them trace who it was.
Jessup quickly identified the handwriting of "Carlos Allende" as one of apparently three people who'd written in the margins.
Particularly interesting to the ONR — and to Jessup — was the way in which the mysterious commentators seemed to know a lot about the technology and the Philadelphia Experiment. This was so interesting that the ONR paid a defense contractor, the Varo Manufacturing Company, to reprint the "annotated" book. (It is now available online for anyone to read.)
Now, right here you may be scratching your head at this. If there really was a top-secret experiment at stake here, why would the Office of Naval Research pay for this "revealing" information to be published? Wouldn't they instead try and keep it secret?
The Origins of the "Philadelphia Experiment"
Weighing the available evidence for and against the Philadelphia Experiment would take more space than we have here. A lot of people have looked at the history and the records, and a few things are clear: the USS Eldridge wasn't anywhere near Philadelphia at the time of the experiment, there are records form the ship available which show it participating in normal duties at the time, and many USS Eldridge crewmen have denied hearing about any experiment.
What's more, the man who launched the story — "Carlos Allende" — turned out to be indeed named Carl M. Allen. What's more, he turned out to be the son of a family friend of a well-known paranormal researcher named Robert Goerman. Goerman did some digging and concluded that Allen was probably making it all up.
There is a good deal of evidence that the USS Eldridge did undergo special treatment to make it invisible. That is, invisible to magnetic mines, which the Germans used extensively in WWII. This treatment required subjecting the ship to electromagnetic fields while in dock. One sailor who served on a ship which docked next to the USS Eldridge recounts many of the "incidents" from the Philadelphia Experiment story (like sailors disappearing on shore)… and explains they were all due to readily explainable circumstances. (The sailors "disappeared" from a bar because they were underage, the police were on the way, and the bar staff whisked them through a back door.)
So… What Really Happened?
If the "Philadelphia Experiment" was just a very imaginative man's way of turning routine wartime demagnetization procedures into a compelling tale (which UFO and conspiracy experts largely conclude was a hoax), this still raises one key question.
Why was the Office of Naval Research so interested in the story, and why did they pay for the publication of a key piece of "evidence?"
One answer may be that Carl M. Allen's imaginings may have been close enough to the truth to bear investigating, but far enough away from the truth that the Navy could quietly support the story without endangering the real secrets. According to a highly technical presentation given by an electrical engineer who worked with them, the Navy's radio transmitter at Bolinas, CA could indeed produce teleportation. The presentation can be seen below.
In other words, the Philadelphia Experiment story may have been an ideal way to send Soviet spies chasing after false leads, while the real research happened on the other side of the country.