Do you want to hear about a conspiracy theory so ridiculous, so completely uncorroborated by any scientific evidence that one physics forum on the internet refuses to discuss it? We think you might.
“I have done some digging on the Philadelphia Experiment after watching the actor from Fringe [stumble] along trying to do a sci-fi science show called ‘Dark Matters’. It was disgusting even to an intelligent, but mostly layperson,” writes one innocent, interested user on PhysicsForums. “Anyway post research yielded much more accurate information and I am not interested in [discussing] the various aspects of the theory at all. What Im interested in is the physics…Id like the experts to weigh in if they don’t mind.”
The response from another user was definitive: “The Philadelphia Experiment is a banned topic. … Conspiracy theories are banned.”
And then the thread was closed by a moderator.
On its about page, PhysicsForums outlines its mission clearly. They value “quality,” “civility,” and “productivity.” One of the markers of quality, for them, is that the discussions be “based on science published in real scientific journals or textbooks.” They claim to have been started as an extra credit project in 2001 for a high school physics class, and to have evolved into “the #1 community for science and math discussion.”
Anyway, the point is this: these physics folks won’t even deign to discuss the Philadelphia Experiment on their internet forum. But even if it’s most likely bogus, it’s still an interesting tale to tell around a campfire. (And hey, what’s a little more fake news these days, anyway, amirite?)
What is the mysterious story of the Philadelphia Experiment?
The story of the Philadelphia Experiment, according to at least one website on the internet—because, honestly, how does one go about locating reliable sources to confirm the details of a story that has been widely accepted as a hoax?—begins in 1943, in the Philadelphia Naval Yard.
As Keith Veronese writes for io9, there exist two “separate and completely different Philadelphia experiments” that supposedly happened, though they both involve three elements: the Navy Destroyer escort USS Eldridge, the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and the year 1943.
In the first rumored experiment on July 22, electrical field manipulation allowed the ship to become invisible. In the second, on Oct. 28, the ship both time-traveled a few seconds into the past, and teleported to Norfolk, Virginia.
Veronese also points out that, before the mid-1950s, there weren’t any other wacky rumors floating around about teleportation or invisibility experiments in the United States. So, what happened?
Carlos Miguel Allende, The Author Of Some Truly Bonkers Letters
Enter Carl Meredith Allen, who went by the alias Carlos Miguel Allende. In 1955, Allen mailed a series of letters to Morris Ketchum Jessup claiming to have been involved in a highly-classified experiment during his time as a seaman with the U.S. Navy, during which the government had successfully rendered a destroyer invisible using Einstein’s Unified Field Theory.
Jessup—an astronomer who, according to a poorly proofread Wikipedia entry, “had a Master of Science Degree in astronomy and … [was] employed for most of his life as an automobile-parts salesman and a photographer”—had just published his book The Case for the UFO. Jessup, writing off Allen as mentally unstable, was likely shocked when, a couple years later, he heard from the U.S. Government asking about…Carlos Allende, aka Carl Allen!
As it turns out, Allen had anonymously sent a copy of Jessup’s book to the Office of Naval Research (ONR) that was filled with his own annotations referencing the claims he’d outlined in his letters to Jessup.
“One might suspect Navy staff would have tossed the book out with the garbage,” Nick Redfern writes for Mysterious Universe. “They did not. Instead, they did something most curious: they invited Jessup to meet with senior personnel in Washington, D.C., to discuss his findings.”
Most curious, indeed. The ONR’s motivation for doing so remains clear to me, and other people who are way more invested in this story.
Could Allende (Allen) have been thinking of another experiment?
As io9 highlights, more than half a century later, “we are left without a shred of credible evidence for the Philadelphia Experiment.”
Could Allen have been thinking of a different experiment, one that attempted another kind of invisibility? As the Naval History and Heritage Command points out on their website page addressing claims about the Philadelphia Experiment, they talk about “a process in which a system of electrical cables are installed around the circumference of ship’s hull, running from bow to stern on both sides,” called degaussing, which can effectively cancel out a ship’s magnetic field.
“Degaussing equipment was installed in the hull of Navy ships and could be turned on whenever the ship was in waters that might contain magnetic mines, usually shallow waters in combat areas,” they write. “It could be said that degaussing, correctly done, makes a ship ‘invisible’ to the sensors of magnetic mines, but the ship remains visible to the human eye, radar, and underwater listening devices.”
Whatever the case, the ONR is pretty firmly in the camp of disbelievers. (At least we think this is a statement by them, but maybe not.) “ONR has never conducted any investigations on invisibility, either in 1943 or at any other time (ONR was estabUshed [sic] in 1946.),” someone, maybe from the ONR, wrote for a fact sheet in 1996. “In view of present scientific knowledge, ONR scientists do not believe that such an experiment could be possible except in the realm of science fiction.”
The Philadelphia Experiment’s Only Verifiable Legacy
There is one legacy of the famed Philadelphia Experiment that exists squarely in the realm of reality: a bad movie.
The 1984 film inspired by Allen’s claims received a 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (rotten), and an even lower audience score of 39 percent. A blurb about The Philadelphia Experiment from one reviewer, Victoria Alexander, seems to reflect the general consensus regarding the conspiracy theory the movie is based on.
“Didn’t convince me,” she writes.