Sunday, 23 July 2017

Philadephia and Beyond


Gareth J. Medway

Jack Parsons was the only disciple of Aleister Crowley to have a crater on the far side of the Moon named after him. A rocket fuel expert, he blew himself up in his own laboratory in 1952, but his contribution to the science was remembered and commemorated. Half a century after his death, he was the subject of a biography, Strange Angel by George Pendle, and I just got around to reading it. His life is not well documented, and little is known about his early years beyond the fact that he was brought up in Los Angeles, and was interested in rocketry and science fiction from childhood onwards, so Pendle gives us potted histories of Los Angeles, rocketry, and pulp science fiction.

It is now largely forgotten that, except in Germany, few people took rockets seriously, until V2s started falling on London and Antwerp. So the Suicide Squad, as Parsons’ little team was known from their regular handling of dangerous chemicals, usually had to fund their experiments themselves. The book is of interest for several reasons, but I want to look at a single paragraph whose possible significance seems not to have been noticed by the author. During the war, Parsons was invited to join the Mañana Literary Society, a forum for science fiction authors, though his own contribution was limited to an unpublished novel. It met at the L.A. home of Robert Heinlein.

“The Mañana group did not last long. By the middle of 1943, the authors had been drafted, not for their writing or fighting skills but for their scientific pedigrees. In its dissolution the group provided one more good story. When word got out that Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp had all been sent to work at a research laboratory at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, rumors spread like wildfire among science fiction fans that they had been ordered by the Naval Research Board to create a think tank, heading a project that aimed to make their own futuristic inventions, ‘super-weapons and atom-powered space ships,’ into realities. The truth was a little more prosaic; the three had been called up by the materials laboratory in Philadelphia but in order to investigate, among other things, hydraulic valves for naval aircraft, ‘exercises in monotony,’ as de Camp called them.”

Some readers will by now already have thought of the ‘Philadelphia Experiment’, said to have taken place at the dockyard there in 1943. The Second World War was a fertile breeding ground for rumours about secret inventions, and some of them, such as the atomic bomb, turned out to be true. Others were not. R. V. Jones, in Most Secret War, tells how just before the war he belonged to a scientific team who tried to find a way to detect aircraft at night by the infra-red radiation from their engines, a project that was abandoned when radar proved to be more effective. This was to be done on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, so when a man from another department questioned him during a lunch break, he said that they were working on a project to make ships invisible. They had succeeded in making a gunboat invisible, but unfortunately its crew could still be seen.

John Keel gave another possible origin: “As near as I can put it together, during the Second World War, the leading magician in the United States, Joseph Dunninger, who was also a master showman, came up with a proposition to the U. S. Navy that he would make ships invisible. He may have been talking about some form of camouflage; but in time, Dunninger’s claim did get publicity.” Two other facts that may have contributed to the legend are that Albert Einstein was then lived in Philadelphia, and was consulted by the navy; and that the dockyard was the site of degaussing, which was designed to make ships invisible, at least to magnetic mines.

Be all that as it may, the story took a long time to get any publicity. In 1956 astronomer and archaeologist Morris K. Jessup received two letters headed ‘Carlos Miguel Allende’, giving a box number in Pennsylvania as return address, but were signed Carl M. Allen. They were inspired by Jessup’s The Case for the UFO. In his rambling missives Allen(de) claimed that in October 1943 the navy had applied Einstein’s Unified Field Theory to making a ship invisible. They succeeded, but afterwards half of the crew were found to be ‘Mad as Hatters’, while others ‘froze’, burst into flames, or faded away once more and were never seen again. On one occasion the ship was teleported to its other dock in Norfolk, Virginia, but after a few minutes returned to Philadelphia. He knew of this because: “This was also noted in the newspapers but I forget what paper I read it in or When It happened.” He also implied that he had seen it from a neighbouring ship.

Soon afterwards, Jessup was invited to the Office of Naval Research in Washington, where they showed him a copy of his own book, The Case for the UFO, which had been mailed to them in the summer of 1955. It was full of marginal annotations in three different coloured inks, ostensibly by three different persons, but at least one and perhaps all of them seemed to be by the mysterious Allende. They purported to give the truth about flying saucers (they are piloted by beings who once lived on earth, but have evolved to permanent residence in space, only returning here to abduct the occasional human).

It was subsequently determined that he was indeed a Pennsylvania man named Carl Allen, and that he had joined the navy in July 1943.All this remained unknown to the general public until 1968, when Brad Steiger and Joan Whritenour printed extracts from the letters and annotations in their New UFO Breakthrough. In 1974, Charles Berlitz included a section on it in The Bermuda Triangle, based upon what Jessup’s friend Manson Valentine had told him in an interview (Jessup himself had committed suicide in 1959). A journalist named William Moore conducted his own investigation, and was able to uncover several independent witnesses. Of course, Ufologists will be aware that off-duty and retired military personnel are often willing to proved researchers with exactly the information they were looking for, though usually demanding anonymity, and Moore is good at locating them.

Eventually he met Berlitz, and the two men had a bestseller with The Philadelphia Experiment, 1979. This, and the subsequent film, produced more witnesses, some of whom had ‘buried’ their memories for many years. Meanwhile, the Office of Naval Information has maintained that nothing happened except routine degaussing – well, that’s what they want you to think. Many writers have dismissed the case as a hoax, without giving coherent reasons. There is actually an obvious objection to it having really happened, however: if half of the crew of a destroyer had all suddenly gone insane, whilst others had mysteriously died, or disappeared entirely, then the navy would have been besieged by relatives of the men demanding an inquiry, or at least a full explanation. This did not happen, indeed, nothing is known to have been written about it for more than a decade. This is not to say that it was a hoax, exactly: Allen’s letters were so disjointed that he may well have believed what he was saying. What is impossible to say, at this distance in time, is how far it was inspired by gossip among science fiction fans.

Later, having written the above, it occurred to me that, whilst sci-fi fans may not have been able to build super-technological weapons to defeat the Nazis, there was nothing to stop them from writing about such things. Though Allen said that he could not recall the name or the date of the newspaper in which he had read about the affair, he thought he would be able to do so under hypnosis. If this had ever been tried, I suspect that he would have remembered that it had actually been a pulp science fiction magazine. This hypothesis is not easy to verify. The British Library does have microfilms of old numbers of Amazing Stories, but their holdings are not complete, and there are none from the Second World War. The editor was then Ray Palmer, who went on to edit Fate and Flying Saucers (despite having told a correspondent to Amazing Stories, in 1938, that “We do not believe in the possibility of interplanetary travel, but the subject has given many good stories”); when the Philadelphia Experiment came to be widely discussed, in the late 1960s, he would surely have recognised it as corresponding to a fictional story that he had published a quarter of a century earlier, and said so.

The British Library also has Alva Rogers’s A Requiem for Astounding, a history of Astounding Science Fiction from its foundation in 1930 up until 1960, when its name was changed to Analog. He gives a summary, if only a very brief one, of every story that they ran, and I can find nothing that matches. But there were many other such magazines, including Astonishing, Weird Tales, Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Unknown, Fantasy, Comet Stories, Captain Future, Dynamic Science, Unknown Worlds, and Miracle Science. Presumably copies of all of these were deposited with the Library of Congress. There may also be issues in the Special Collections of some American universities, such as the Sprague de Camp archive at the University of Texas in Austin. Perhaps someone in the United States, or planning a long vacation there, could find the time to look into this?