The Philadelphia Experiment

The Philadelphia Experiment is the name given to a naval military experiment which was supposedly carried out at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, sometime around October 28, 1943. It is alleged that the U.S. Navy destroyer escort USS Eldridge was to be rendered invisible (or “cloaked”) to enemy devices. The experiment is also referred to as Project Rainbow.

The story is widely regarded as a hoax. The U.S. Navy maintains that no such experiment occurred, and details of the story contradict well-established facts about the Eldridge, as well as the known laws of physics. Nonetheless, the story has captured imaginations in conspiracy theory circles, and elements of the Philadelphia Experiment are featured in other government conspiracy theories.

Synopsis of the Experiment

Several different, at times conflicting, versions of the purported experiment have circulated over the years. The following synopsis serves to illustrate key story points common to the majority of accounts.

The experiment was conducted by a Dr. Franklin Reno (or Rinehart) as a military application of a Unified Field Theory. The theory, briefly, postulates the interrelated nature of the forces that comprise electromagnetic radiation and gravity. Through a special application of the theory, it was thought possible, with specialized equipment and sufficient energy, to bend light around an object in such a way as to render it essentially invisible to observers. The Navy considered this application of the theory to be of obvious military value (especially as the United States was engaged in World War II at the time) and both approved and sponsored the experiment. A navy destroyer escort, the USS Eldridge, was fitted with the required equipment at the naval yards in Philadelphia.

Testing began in summer 1943, and was successful to a limited degree. One test, on July 22, resulted in the Eldridge being rendered almost completely invisible, with some witnesses reporting a “greenish fog” in its place. However, crew members complained of severe nausea afterwards. At that point, the experiment was altered at the request of the Navy, with the new objective being invisible to radar only.

Equipment was not properly recalibrated to this end, but in spite of this, the experiment was performed again on October 28. This time, Eldridge not only became almost entirely invisible to the naked eye, but actually vanished from the area in a flash of blue light. Simultaneously, the US naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, just over 600 km (375 miles) away, reported sighting the Eldridge offshore for several minutes, whereupon the Eldridge vanished from their sight and reappeared in Philadelphia, at the site it had originally occupied in an apparent case of accidental teleportation.

The physiological effects on the crew were profound. Almost all of the crew were violently ill. Some suffered from mental illness as a result of their experience; behavior consistent with schizophrenia is described in other accounts. Still other members were physically unaccounted for or supposedly vanished, and five of the crew were allegedly fused to the metal bulkhead or deck of the ship. Still others were said to fade in and out of sight. Horrified by these results, Navy officials immediately cancelled the experiment. All of the surviving crew involved were discharged; in some accounts, brainwashing techniques were employed in an attempt to make the remaining crew members lose their memories concerning the details of their experience.

In 1955, Morris K. Jessup, an amateur astronomer and former graduate-level researcher, published The Case for the UFO, a book about unidentified flying objects which contained some theorizing about the means of propulsion that flying-saucer-style UFOs might use. Jessup speculated that anti-gravity and/or manipulation of electromagnetism may have been responsible for the observed flight behavior of UFOs. He lamented, both in the book and the publicity tour which followed, that space flight research was concentrated in the area of rocketry, and that little attention was paid to these other theoretical means of flight, which he felt would ultimately be more fruitful.

On January 13, 1955, Jessup received a letter from a man identifying himself as Carlos Allende. In the letter, Allende informed Jessup of the Philadelphia Experiment, alluding to poorly sourced contemporary newspaper articles as proof. Allende also said that he had witnessed the Eldridge disappear and reappear while serving aboard the SS Andrew Furuseth, a nearby merchant ship. Allende further named other crew with which he served aboard the Andrew Furuseth, and claimed to know of the fates of some of the crew members of the Eldridge after the experiment, including one whom he witnessed disappear during a chaotic fight in a bar. Jessup replied to Allende by postcard, asking for further evidence and corroboration for the story.

The reply came months later; however, this time the correspondent identified himself as Carl M Allen. Allen said that he could not provide the details for which Jessup was asking, but implied that he might be able to recall by means of hypnosis. Suspecting that Allende/Allen was a crank, Jessup decided to discontinue the correspondence.

In the spring of 1957, Jessup was contacted by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in Washington, D.C. and asked to study the contents of a parcel that they had received. Upon arrival, a curious Jessup was astonished to find that a paperback copy of his UFO book had been mailed to ONR in a manila envelope marked “Happy Easter”. Further, the book had been extensively annotated by hand in its margins, and an ONR officer asked Jessup if he had any idea as to who had done so.

The lengthy annotations were written in three different colors of ink, and appeared to detail a correspondence between three individuals, only one of which is given a name: “Jemi”. The ONR labeled the other two “Mr A” and “Mr B”. The annotators refer to each other as “Gypsies”, and discuss two different types of “people” living in outer space. Their text contained nonstandard use of capitalization and punctuation, and detailed a lengthy discussion of the merits of various suppositions that Jessup makes throughout his book, with oblique references to the Philadelphia Experiment, in a way that suggested prior or superior knowledge.

Based on the handwriting style and subject matter, Jessup identified “Mr A” as Allende/Allen. Others have suggested that the three annotations are actually from the same person, using three pens.

A transcription of the annotated “Varo edition” is available online, complete with three-color notes.

Later, the ONR contacted Jessup, claiming that the return address on Allende’s letter to Jessup was an abandoned farmhouse. They also informed Jessup that the Varo Corporation, a research firm, was preparing a print copy of the annotated version of The Case for the UFO, complete with both letters he had received. About a hundred copies of the Varo Edition were printed and distributed within the Navy. Jessup was also sent three for his own use.

Jessup attempted to make a living writing on the topic, but his follow-up book did not sell well and his publisher rejected several other manuscripts. In 1958 his wife left him, and friends described him as being depressed and somewhat unstable when he travelled to New York. After returning to Florida he was involved in a serious car accident and was slow to recover, apparently increasing his despondency. Morris Jessup committed suicide in 1959.

In 1965, Vincent Gaddis published Invisible Horizons: True Mysteries of the Sea, in which the story of the experiment from the Varo annotation is recounted. Later, in 1977, Charles Berlitz, an author of several books on paranormal phenomena, included a chapter on the experiment in his book Without a Trace: New Information from the Triangle.

In 1978, a novel, Thin Air by George E Simpson and Neal R Burger was released. This was a dramatic fictional account, clearly inspired by the foregoing works, of a conspiracy to cover up an horrific experiment gone wrong on board the Eldridge in 1943. In 1979, Berlitz and a co-author, William L. Moore, published The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility, the best known and most cited source of information about the experiment to date.

In 1984, the story was eventually adapted into a motion picture, The Philadelphia Experiment directed by Stewart Rafill. Though based only loosely on prior accounts of the experiment, it served to bring the core elements of the original story into mainstream scrutiny.

In 1990, Alfred Bielek, a self-claimed former crew-member of the Eldridge and alleged witness of the experiment, supported the version as it was portrayed in the movie, adding embellishments which were disseminated via the internet, eventually to surface in various mainstream outlets. In 2003, Bielek’s version of his participation in the Philadelphia Experiment was debunked by a small team of investigators, and the general consensus now is that he was nowhere near the ship at the proposed time of the experiment.

Many observers argue it inappropriate to put much credence in an unusual story put forward by one individual, in the absence of more conclusive corroborating evidence. An article written by Robert Goerman for Fate in 1980, claimed that Carlos Allende aka Carl Allen was in fact Carl Meredith Allen of New Kensington, Pennsylvania, who had an established psychiatric history and may have fabricated the primary history of the experiment as a result of his illness.

Dash, in particular, is stark in illustrating the near-total lack of research by those who eventually publicized the story; others speculating that much of the key literature has more emphasis on dramatic embellishment rather than pertinent research. Though Berlitz and Moore’s famous account of the story (The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility) contained much supposedly factual information, such as transcripts of an interview with a scientist involved in the experiment, it has also been criticized for plagiarizing key story elements from the fictitious novel Thin Air published a year earlier, which, it is argued, undermines the credibility of the text as a whole.

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