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The Philadelphia Experiment (also referred to as Project Rainbow) was an alleged naval experiment in October 1943 in which the destroyer escort USS Eldridge was briefly rendered invisible, with disastrous side effects. It is universally considered a hoax.
Legend has it that the experiment was based on a Unified Field Theory, parts of which describe how light can be bent around something via electromagnetism to render it invisible. They then got a bunch of powerful magnets. When they powered up, a green fog appeared around the ship. Then things got ugly. Some of the crew were found embedded in the ship itself. Others developed mental problems, and still others simply vanished. The ship also teleported to a port over 200 miles away and back, and went back in time for about 10 seconds. So in effect, they invented a 3-in-1 megadevice: invisibility cloak, teleporter, and time machine.
Obviously none of this is true. First off, even today, we still don't have a Unified Field Theory. Second, there's no documentation of any such experiment occurring; in fact, U.S. Naval records show that the USS Eldridge wasn't even in Philadelphia at all during the month of October, being in Bermuda for the first half of the month and New York for the second half of the month, with a three-day direct voyage between the two. Third, the original source for this conspiracy theory traces back to a series of letters and writings by a certain Carl Allen (a.k.a. Carlos Allende), who claimed to have witnessed the disappearance of the ship while on the SS Andrew Furuseth, and no one else.
History of a hoax
The story surrounding the Experiment is arguably stranger than the alleged phenomenon. Morris K. Jessup, an astronomer moonlighting as an ufologist, was approached by the aforementioned "Carlos Allende" shortly after publishing The Case for the UFO in 1955. Purporting to have witnessed the Experiment firsthand, Allende wrote a letter to Jessup describing it in detail, with vague citations indicating that contemporary newspapers reported the incident (which Jessup couldn't find). Allende also claimed that he had worked with Albert Einstein on researching the Unified Field Theory. After exchanging letters for several months, Jessup decided that Allende was a crank and discontinued their correspondence.
The matter rested there until 1957, when Allende mailed a copy of Jessup's book to the Office of Naval Research (ONR) with rambling, semi-coherent annotations about UFOs, lost continents and time travel. The ONR approached Jessup, who recognized the notes as Allende's handiwork but had fallen out of touch with him and couldn't help their investigation. The Navy tried to track the hoaxer down themselves, but discovered that the mailing address was an abandoned farmhouse near New Kensington, Pennsylvania. Allende's annotated version of The Case for the UFO was later published in a limited edition.
Jessup wrote several more books on UFOs, but they failed to find an audience. Depressed over his commercial failure and the dissolution of his marriage, Jessup committed suicide in April 1959 by carbon monoxide poisoning. Naturally, many ufologists insist Jessup was murdered by The Powers That Be to stop his research, despite his expressed skepticism towards Allende's story.
The story remained obscure until Vincent H. Gaddis wrote about it in his 1965 book Invisible Horizons, alongside accounts of other paranormal phenomena. Charles Berlitz discussed Jessup and the Experiment in his popular 1974 book The Bermuda Triangle. He later devoted an entire book to the subject, The Philadelphia Experiment (1979), co-written by William L. Moore.
Allende continued contacting paranormal researchers from a variety of locations throughout the US and Mexico, keeping his true identity a secret. Robert Goerman finally identified him in a 1980 Fate magazine article as Carl Meredith Allen, a Pennsylvania man with a history of mental illness. In 1990 another man, Alfred Bielek, claimed to have served on the Eldridge during the Experiment, but he was also exposed as a hoaxer.
The most likely explanation for this story's origin is in the degaussing procedures used on another destroyer escort, the USS Engstrom. Degaussing would render it undetectable to certain types of torpedoes and underwater mines; however, it has no effect on visible light or radar. Likewise, accounts of this degaussing were garbled and exaggerated, and voilà, the Philadelphia Experiment was born.
- Command & Conquer: Red Alert spoofs this by producing the whole experiment verbatim complete with jumping a warship… and then including it as a Allied superweapon in all subsequent games.
- The incident inspired a 1984 film, The Philadelphia Experiment, which used the time travel aspect as the hinge for a fish-out-of-water romance. There was a 1993 sequel Philadelphia Experiment II, in which Nazis got a modern warplane via a timeslip and won World War Two, while simultaneously defeating the laws of physics. In 2012, SyFy channel unveiled another film also called the The Philadelphia Experiment, a semi-sequel to the original in which the warship is brought forward from 1943 to the present day and investigators track down Malcolm McDowell playing the guy behind the 1940s experiment (meanwhile, Michael Paré, star of the original, plays an unrelated part). None were well-reviewed, although the 1984 original will kill time on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and PopMatters suggested the 2012 version strays towards "so bad it's good" territory.
In a nutshell
- The Philadelphia Experiment From A-Z Good website on the topic with great National Archive Images
- Anatomy of a Hoax: The Philadelphia Experiment Fifty Years Later, (PDF) by Jacques F. Vallee, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 1994
- Naval History & Heritage Command, FAQ, The Philadelphia Experiment. A copy of the microfilm containing the World War II action report and war diary coverage of the USS Eldridge is available for purchase as well.
- Online here: http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/ciencia/ciencia_flyingobjects03.htm, for the curious.
- Annotated version as PDF: http://cassiopaea.org/cass/Varo-Jessup.PdF
- Carlos Allende and his Philadelphia Experiment at windmill-slayer.tripod.com.
- The Philadelphia Experiment (1984), IMDb
- Philadelphia Experiment II, IMDb
- The Philadelphia Experiment (2012), IMDb
- 'The Philadelphia Experiment' Is So Bad It's Almost Good, PopMatters, 24 Jun 2013