In 1943 the US Navy was convinced that it could achieve radar invisibility, something that would give it a tactical advantage over the Japanese fleet in the Pacific. The theoretical basis is not very clear, because some point to a consequence of the Unified Field Theory, a term coined by Albert Einstein to describe his efforts to find a joint mathematical formulation of electromagnetism and gravity . Some accounts go deeper into this point, mentioning that Navy scientists thought that by using powerful electrical generators they could get that mysterious unified field to cause a strong refraction that would literally cause the light to completely surround the object, making it it would render it totally invisible to both radar and the human eye.
So neither short nor lazy, and since in the North American Navy everything seems to be done in a big way, instead of starting with small objects they decided to test directly with a ship, the destroyer escort USS Eldridge , which they equipped with the equipment required at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Testing began in the summer of 1943 and reportedly met with limited success: in one test the Eldridge became nearly invisible and a greenish mist appeared in its place. When questioned , most of the crew members confessed to having felt nauseated and many had vomited . Of course, what is a mystery is why they left the crew on the ship, given that the military scientists did not know what the effects of that supposed field were on living organisms; apparently the Navy had plenty of human guinea pigs to experiment with.
Given the sad result, those responsible should have stopped the test, but minutiae like these are not the kind that stop the hardworking scientists of the Navy and the experiment was repeated on October 28, 1943 . But there was a problem: the technicians made a mistake by not recalibrating the instruments properly – whatever that means. This time the Eldridge not only turned invisible, but disappeared from the harbor in a flash of light . It had not disintegrated but instead ‘appeared’ in Norfolk, Virginia, more than 200 miles away. There the surprised sailors of the SS Andrew Furuseth – a cargo ship built during World War II – saw the Eldridge appear and disappear before their very eyes. The ship reappeared in Philadelphia right where it had disappeared from. We can already imagine what happened to the poor crew: some appeared embedded in the structure of the ship, quite a few suffered mental disorders, a few rematerialized with all their organs outside , and others simply disappeared.
After the disaster, shelved with an order that no one talk about it. This is, in broad strokes, the story of the ‘ Philadelphia experiment ‘.
The origin of the legend
The truth is that it is hard to believe that someone has taken it seriously at some point (and it has been). The plot is that of a movie , and not because of the implausibility of the supposed science that is underneath -which does not exist- but because of the behavior of those responsible for the navy, the sailors involved and their families. The story has all the overtones of the classic movie about the mad scientist who is so sure of himself that he doesn’t need to make previous demonstrations, he is capable of developing a totally new technology in record time and with totally acceptable ‘collateral damage’. And the narrative thread could not be more filmy : it goes in crescendo until the (predictable) final disaster.
But who came up with such nonsense?
The true story of the Philadelphia experiment began in 1955 , when a salesman, a University of Michigan astronomy graduate turned ufologist, Morris K. Jessup , published a book titled The Case for the UFO . Fascinated by the aerial ability of flying saucers, he proposed a series of colorful hypotheses about the type of propulsion that animated them. On his book tour, Jessup asked his audience to encourage lawmakers to fund research programs on antigravity and Einstein’s (nonexistent) Unified Field Theory to “make space travel effective and economical.”
On January 13, 1956, Jessup received a letter from New Kensington, Pennsylvania. The sender was a certain Carlos Miguel Allende and in it he reprimanded him for suggesting that the (I repeat, non-existent) Unified Field Theory be investigated. Allende told him that in October 1943 the US Navy had used Einstein’s theories in an experiment that not only made a destroyer invisible, but also caused it to be teleported from the Philadelphia pier to Norfolk in a matter of minutes. The intense force field used caused many crew members to fall into a cycle of invisibility or, as Allende put it, into “limbo”. To support his story, Allende vaguely referred to articles in regional newspapers and mentioned some names of people who supposedly accidentally witnessed this experiment aboard the SS Andrew Furuseth.
I think so, I don’t think so…
Jessup didn’t know what to believe. Maybe this Allende was a crackpot, or maybe he wasn’t. In a letter he asked for evidence to support his incredible story. On May 25, Jessup received an answer: Allende became Carl M. Allen, he was not able to remember the exact dates or any name… Jessup was clear about it and dropped the matter.
But in the spring of 1957, the Office of Naval Research in Washington called him in for a meeting . There an officer handed him a paperback copy of his book that someone had mailed anonymously. Jessup didn’t understand what it was all about until he opened the book: there were a series of annotations in the margins of the text made by three different people in three different shades of blue, and they were christened “Mr. A.”, “Mr. .B.” and “Jemi” (because that’s how he called himself). Jessup immediately recognized Mr. A’s handwriting with its odd spelling; it was that of his mysterious correspondent Carlos Allende (twelve years later, Allen would say that he was the author of all the annotations to “scare Jessup”).
Two members of the Office of Naval Research became interested in the case and spent their spare time researching this whole story . They even traveled to Pennsylvania to locate the post office box Jessup received the letter from, but all they found was a vacant lot.
Jessup continued his path in the world of ufology, but without success. His books were failing to sell, his publisher lost interest in his manuscripts, and a series of personal setbacks drove Jessup to suicide on April 20, 1959. Quite a few years later, in 1979, William Moore and Charles Berlitz sprang into action by publishing The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility . His strategy was to rescue, update and fatten up an old story, archived and forgotten as absolutely incredible. A tactic that the following year they would use again with what would be their great best-seller, The Incident , about the alleged crashed flying saucer in Roswell.
The Philadelphia experiment is a clear example of conspiracy legend . The proof that it did not happen is that there is not the slightest proof. The ship’s war log shows that she was in New York, Long Island, Norfolk, Casablanca, but never in Philadelphia. Perhaps that is why the experiment was a great success: nobody saw it because it was never there. When Eldridge veterans gathered in Atlantic City in 1999, the laughter was heard from blocks around.
As the writer Terry Prachett says: the truth is out there, but the lies are in your head.