I have long been interested in the “Philadelphia Experiment,” which was supposedly conducted by the U.S. Navy during World War II as one of the three “city projects.” The Manhattan Project, of course, was the development of the atomic bomb; the Philadelphia Experiment supposedly involved the use of magnetism to bend light rays and thus make objects invisible. Legends and sketchy reports have it that objects could be transported from place to place by the use of strong magnetic fields. I grew up around Portsmouth, Virginia, and have long heard rumors that the degaussing facility at the mouth of the western branch of the Elizabeth River was the “receiver” facility for this project, and that a destroyer was briefly transported here before being returned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Is this true? –John W. Hall, Norfolk, Virginia
Get serious. Even the author of one of the better-known books about the Philadelphia Experiment has backed off on his more outrageous claims, although he still maintains an experiment of some kind did take place. The whole thing first came to light in the mid-1950s, when someone variously identifying himself as Carlos Allende or Carl Allen wrote several strange letters to a UFO writer named Morris Jessup. Filled with misspellings and stylistic eccentricities, the letters told of a U.S. Navy destroyer that in October 1943 had been subjected to a force field in an effort, apparently successful, to make it invisible. Somehow the ship was also teleported from the Philadelphia Navy Yard to Norfolk, Virginia, and back, all within a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, the experiment also had the side effect of rendering half the officers and crew insane, with some of the crewmen unpredictably becoming invisible or bursting into flame years later. Since this had a decidedly negative effect on morale, the Navy halted the experiments and hushed up the whole affair. Or so the letter writer claimed.
The story was taken up by various writers over the years, but received its fullest treatment in The Philadelphia Experiment by William L. Moore with Charles Berlitz (1979). The book, which was the basis for a 1984 movie, claimed the ship involved was the U.S.S. Elbridge, but offered virtually no hard evidence. The Navy, unsurprisingly, says it has no knowledge of any such experiment.
Cecil recently spoke with William Moore and found he no longer believes the Philadelphia Experiment involved invisibility or teleportation. Instead, further research has convinced him it was part of an effort by the Navy to make ships radar-proof, supposedly in an effort to foil radar-guided torpedoes that the Germans were believed to be developing. The idea was to feed a high-power, low-frequency current into the ship’s hull, in effect making it into a radar antenna that would jam incoming radar. But the initial experiment had unintended side effects on the crew, ranging from nausea to hallucinations and loss of consciousness. The hallucinations were the basis for the wild tales that later arose.
This version is a lot less implausible than the original yarn, but it’s still got some holes in it. A Navy historian sensibly points out there’s no such thing as a radar-guided torpedo–radar doesn’t work underwater, something people understood even back in 1943. (The Germans used acoustic torpedoes, which homed in on the sound of a ship’s engines.) And Moore still doesn’t have much documentary evidence. If it exists, both he and the Navy agree it’s in the National Archives in Washington. But Moore says R & D records take up “a mile and a half of shelf space” and aren’t indexed, so finding the right stuff could be a bit of a project. I might get around to it one of these days, but in the meantime you can purge yourself of any thoughts of teleported warships.
In order to unmask evidence of a vast criminal conspiracy, Cecil needs to see a videotape of an episode of Moonlighting that aired in October 1986 entitled “The Man Who Cried Wife.” If you have a cassette of this show, please write the Straight Dope at once so we can arrange to make a copy. There’s a free copy of the Straight Dope book in it for you, not to mention my undying gratitude.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.