Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Philadelphia Experiment

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Hey, we thought we'd start the New Year off by dusting off an old chestnut, the Philadelphia Experiment.

We've all seen the movie. The tale was based on alleged happenings in 1943, when the Navy did some electronic and Einsteinian unified force field tinkering with the USS Eldridge and ended up teleporting it (or sailing invisibly) to Norfolk and frying the crew upon arrival.

The vessel, as the plot-line goes, had all kinds of interesting and history-altering stops during its famous lost day of time-traveling. So what really happened?

Well, first the USS Eldridge wasn't involved; it was in the Carribean at the time on its shake-down cruise, according to log entries. But an experiment called Operation Rainbow was tried on the USS Engstrom, which was in dock then.

The Royal Navy came up with a degaussing system, like you use on your PC, that made ships undetectable to magnetic torpedoes and mines. The Americans were trying to achieve the same effect, and that was the grand experiment underway.

And the technique does work against magnetically controlled devices, based on readily available science, not Star Trek technology. It's still used today, though it doesn't deflect light or sound. The procedure doesn't affect the crew at all, and it definitely doesn't make the ship invisible or send it from Point A to Point B in the flash of an eye, as much as the Pentagon wished it would.

So how did they show up in Norfolk so soon, with that eerie lost day? Easy - they sailed the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. It took less than a day to cover the 200 miles or so of water. The route was hush-hush then to prevent the Germans from targeting it, and it was only open to naval vessels during the war.

Interestingly, three great science fiction authors - Isaac Azimov, Robert Heinlein, & L. Sprague deCamp - were supposed to be working at the shipyard at the time of the Philadelphia Experiment. It sure sounds like one of their tales.

At any rate, this is one story that seems to have nothing to do with multiverses and the gray zone between science and spookiness. Physics is stranger than fiction.

(Wikipedia has a comprehensive account of the whole Philadelphia Experiment affair. But hey, here's the alternate history as provided by the 1984 movie.)