You’ve probably heard of the Philadelphia Experiment. You may also be familiar with the extended Montauk mythos that surrounds it. Both have, after all, spawned several pop cultural adaptations—from The Philadelphia Experiment (1983) to Stranger Things (2016-present).
But what you might have missed are the details.
From 1931, as the story goes, Nikola Tesla and others were researching invisibility on behalf of the US Navy—allegedly applying Einstein’s unified field theory of everything. (So far, so improbable.) Their major breakthrough came in 1940 when, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York, the team successfully made a small ship—without any personnel on board—disappear.
Encouraged, the Navy set Tesla to work on a much larger battleship, this time complete with a crew. If that could be made invisible, they reasoned, anything could. But as the scheduled test drew closer, Tesla began to have serious doubts as to whether the crew would survive. He could iron out the problems, he said, but he needed more time. And, since this was something the Navy couldn’t give, Tesla scrupulously sabotaged the experiment instead—detuning the equipment and ruining his otherwise impeccable record in the process.
When he died a little while later (or was otherwise removed from the project), another genius took over: John von Neumann. Von Neumann redesigned the experiment to favor pulsed energy as opposed to continuous waves, and significantly increased the power. He also requested a specially modified ship for the test and was assigned the DE-173, or USS Eldridge, to do with as he pleased. This Cannon-class destroyer escort would have looked pretty bizarre once complete; along with a heightened central mast for generating electrical fields, it’s said to have had four Tesla coils and thousands of vacuum tubes on deck.
Like his predecessor, von Neumann doubted its safety and attempted (briefly) to offset the risk with a “protective counter-field,” that is, an electromagnetic field in addition to those required for invisibility. When this put a technician in a coma, however, he abandoned the idea altogether and for some reason went ahead with the test.
The battleship test finally ran for 20 minutes on July 22, 1942. During this time, the Eldridge and its crew of 15 (loosely informed) volunteers were almost entirely erased from sight and completely undetectable by radar. All that remained was a kind of gaseous haze—ozone, apparently, generated by the equipment itself. The fields also resisted penetration from the outside—an obvious strategic advantage.
But there was a problem. Not only was the ship invisible but, owing to the shape of the fields, so was the water beneath it. Needless to say, this gaping, hull-shaped abyss was bound to give the position away. (The crew were also sick and disoriented when the ship reappeared but, with plenty more guinea pigs in reserve, the Navy was far less concerned about this.) Von Neumann was given a deadline—a mysterious order from above—to solve the waterline issue by August 12, 1943.
Tests #2 and #3
The second test began much like the first, cloaking the ship from sight and radar for T plus 70 seconds. But something went terribly wrong. Following a sudden blue flash, the ship physically disappeared without a trace. It wasn’t just invisible this time; it was somehow irretrievably gone.
And when it spontaneously reappeared four hours later, it had sustained a great deal of damage. Worse, several crew members had actually merged with the deck of the ship, embedded up to their waists in the steel and gasping in agonized confusion. Others had been driven insane. Only those who remained below deck throughout the experiment appeared to be relatively unharmed, but there were a number of men unaccounted for.
Nevertheless, a third and final test took place at night in late October, this time without any crew on board. Again, the Eldridge disappeared and returned with significant and unacceptable damage. Enough was apparently enough. The Navy decided to scrap the project, repair the ship, and, ultimately, sell it off to the Greeks—albeit with considerable redactions to the logbook.
But what happened to the survivors?
In January 1956, the astronomer-ufologist Morris K. Jessup received an answer to that question. Although he seems to have had no prior knowledge of the Philadelphia Experiment, he’d recently given a talk stressing the urgency of research into Einstein’s unified field theory as a basis for anti-gravity space flight. In a strange, obsessively scrawled letter, one Carlos Allende wrote to inform him that not only had such research been completed, but that its results and application had been horrifying. The “complete invisibility of a ship, Destroyer type, and all of its crew, While at Sea” in 1943, as well as its alleged reappearance in Norfolk, Virginia, was only the least of it.
Many of the survivors, he claimed, were now “Mad as Hatters.” And some continued to experience after-effects of the test—namely, spontaneous invisibility, or “going blank”/“getting stuck” as they called it. Like the USS Eldridge itself, those brought back from this state and the “Nether World” it transported them to were severely damaged, which in this case meant “Stark Raving, Gibbering, Running MAD.”
Or was that just Allende?
Allende knew all of this, he said, because he’d seen the Philadelphia Experiment firsthand while stationed as a sailor on the observer ship, the SS Andrew Furuseth. His service number checked out and he even volunteered to answer questions under hypnosis and the effects of Sodium Pentothal.
However, around the same time that Jessup received the letter, an annotated copy of his 1955 book The Case for the UFO was anonymously mailed to Rear Admiral Furth, the Chief of Naval Research at the time. Enclosed in a manila envelope labeled “HAPPY EASTER,” it contained the scribbles of three alien beings—or “Gypsies,” as they regarded themselves—about a “great bombardment” or war, “force-fields,” “magnetic and gravity fields,” “dematerialization,” and other related topics. When Jessup was called in to make sense of it, he recognized the handwriting as Allende’s. But the Navy still, supposedly, found it compelling enough to distribute copies among its “top people” (and, nowadays, the public at large).
Unfortunately, since Allende’s account of the Philadelphia Experiment was also (apparently) the first, any doubt cast on his credibility casts doubt on the experiment itself. And it doesn’t help much that his dubious credibility is just as consistent with a cover-up as it is with a psychotic delusion—as with Jessup’s “suicide” a few years later.
But he wasn’t the only witness
Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, another figure entered the fray: Alfred “Al” Bielek. Although seemingly no more credible than Allende (or Jessup), Al Bielek not only claimed to have witnessed the disappearance of the USS Eldridge, he claimed to have been among those on board.
This was in another life, though. According to him, he was born Edward Cameron on August 4, 1916, whereas Bielek was born in 1927. Cameron’s essence, or soul, was transferred to Bielek’s body as part of a Montauk Project cover-up when it was decided he knew too much.
In 1940, Edward and his brother Duncan—fresh from their PhDs in physics—arrived at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Essentially they were there as spies for the Navy, filing classified reports on “time matrices,” “five-dimensional realities,” and other mind-bending fields. They were involved in the Philadelphia Experiment from the start, back when it was officially known as “Project Invisibility,” and before it was codenamed “Project Rainbow.” They saw Tesla’s first success—that is, at cloaking the unmanned ship—and they witnessed his subsequent “failure” (which may well have saved their lives).
In 1941, having spent much of the year at sea, Ed and Duncan Cameron were due to report to Pearl Harbor—just days before the impending attack. But they were stopped by a naval captain and informed that their orders had changed. Apparently, they were “too valuable” to die. By January 1942, they were back on the project, and in July they were assigned to the test crew. Not one of them was aware of the danger, even after the disorienting first test.
But they each had a bad feeling about the second.
Everything seemed “normal” at first, Bielek said; he and Duncan were among those below deck. But after the first minute or so, “strange wave rings” appeared in the tubes and electrical arcing overwhelmed the control room. Unable to reach anyone by radio, they attempted to power down the equipment but found it impossible even by force. They had no choice but to abandon ship.
Rushing onto the deck, the two of them found others in a similarly panicked state. And they could see nothing beyond the handrail but a gray and lifeless fog. No-one had merged with the ship just yet but their situation wasn’t improving. Wasting no time, the brothers leapt overboard with the intention of swimming to safety. But they never hit the water.
Instead, they found themselves falling through some kind of tunnel, surrounded by strange flashing lights as they gradually began to lose consciousness.
This is where things get weird
When they came to, Ed and Duncan were laid up in adjacent hospital beds being seen to by medical staff. They’d been exposed to hazardous radiation, they were told, and their bodies were badly burned. But nobody seemed to know how they’d gotten there. Indeed, it wasn’t even clear where “there” was. There was something strange about this hospital—and it wasn’t just the flat-screen TVs.
Somehow, the brothers had landed in the year 2137 AD and (according to those flat-screen TVs) the world was substantially changed. For one thing, the United States was no more. Florida was mostly underwater, the Georgia coastline was miles inland, and New Orleans had been wiped from the map. Further north, the Great Lakes had all merged into one and, on the West Coast, Los Angeles was surrounded by water.
It wasn’t just North America that had changed. At some point before the year 2025, a series of catastrophic Earth changes had devastated much of the globe. And this had led to the rise of an authoritarian one-world government, a so-called “New World Order,” and the culling of billions of people. By 2137, the brothers heard, there were only 300 million left. This was partially the result of “World War Three,” but a great many had been eaten by aliens—a shadowy horde of humanivores that were ultimately driven away.
After four weeks’ recuperation, Ed was allowed out of bed and spent a further two weeks exploring the hospital. During this time, he learned more about humanity’s future past, as well as its future present. In particular, he remarked on their techno-holistic approach to medicine, complete with “vibrational” therapies, light-based surgery, and (bizarrely enough) a commitment to universal healthcare.
Then he was gone again.
Without Duncan, and “by means unknown,” Ed found himself out of the hospital and stranded in a yet more distant future:
2749 AD, the middle of the 28th century
If things had been weird before, they were now certifiably bonkers. Ed spent two years living among our distant descendants in the 28th century and during that time got a job as a tour guide. Not the most obvious career choice for a sailor from 1943, granted, but he’d forgotten that he came from the past. In any case, he learned a great deal about the world of the future and by the end knew even more than most locals.
Here are some things he observed…
People live in giant floating city-states
Bielek never went into much detail as to the purpose of cities that fly, except insofar as to say they could wander wherever they wished. It didn’t seem to have been a safety measure, though, since many people still lived on the ground. And even sky-folk could return to the surface—whether to visit ancient ruins like Manhattan or vacation aboard long, wide cruise trains. But he could certainly see the appeal.
Towering 2,200 stories, or 2.5 miles, in height, these vast, streamlined utopias were buoyed by powerful anti-gravity technology—the same tech that prevented collapse. Residents zipped from floor to floor and place to place by way of rapid transportation tubes called “accelerons”—which, Bielek said, were every bit as fun as they sound. They also had moving sidewalks and (eliminating a lot of everyday hassle) even Star Trek-style replicators for food. In fact, citizens had access to pretty much whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, because, in this future:
Society is fair
Cameron only got a job as a tour guide out of (semi-enforced) civic duty. He didn’t actually need to earn a living. Instead, a citywide system of credit assigned everyone an ample allowance—a universal basic income, in other words. Aside from slight variations in social status, everything was more or less equal. Indeed, most people even looked the same; in Cameron’s city, at least, every citizen appeared to be Caucasian and genetic variation was minimal.
Crime was also practically unheard of, because people could do what they liked—within reason anyway. According to Bielek, there weren’t any law courts, nor any kind of proscriptive religion. People simply lived and let live. There were certain behavioral norms, of course, but these were internalized from birth. And anyone who wished to live differently was free to move into the “boonies,” a kind of no-frills autonomous zone where people could fend for themselves.
So in the unlikely event that someone did do something heinous, like kill somebody else, their punishment was swift and severe—and delivered by an all-seeing AI.
Government is a floating computer
As mentioned, these hovering megalopolises weren’t just cities but city-states—nations unto themselves. But humans weren’t running the show.
Bielek talked at length about the AI systems in charge, describing them as large, radioactive crystalline structures with control over space and time. They were nicknamed “lamas,” he said, like senior Tibetan monks, and were peculiarly unable to lie (although otherwise conscious and amoral).
Being a curious sort of time-traveler, Cameron wondered how and when these lamas came about. Were they built? If so, by whom? And how long did they last? For a long time, he didn’t get an answer. Most people didn’t know and often they didn’t really care. Eventually, however, he was introduced to the builders themselves:
This elite group of telepathic humans, bioengineered for genetic perfection, explained the origin of the lamas as an experiment in utopian socialism. Government by computer, they said, eliminated human self-interest. And clearly it was going very well.
But the Wingmakers had a far more important task to fulfil—namely, traveling through time changing history to avert apocalypse in 3000 AD. (You’ll have to jump down the rabbit hole yourself to learn the ins and outs of all that.)
Ed Cameron goes back to Philadelphia
Some time after meeting the Wingmakers, Cameron returned to 2137, picked up Duncan, and went home to the 20th century—albeit with one final detour. Arriving at the Montauk Air Force Station in 1983, they were met by an elderly John von Neumann (reputed to have died decades earlier). According to von Neumann, the Philadelphia Experiment had created a “hyperspace bubble,” an artificial reality, that was only getting bigger by the day. The Cameron brothers were to return to 1943, smash all of the equipment on the Eldridge, and stop any of this from ever happening in the first place.
So they did. Kind of.
Although Ed and Duncan did manage to shut down the experiment, it was too late for many of the crew. And, tragically, among the dead and dying was their own (heretofore unmentioned) brother Jim, who they found buried up to his shoulders in steel. This was too much for Duncan to bear and he jumped over the handrail once again. But Ed remained, watching as the invisibility fields collapsed and the harbor came back into sight.
When it came down to it later, (1940s) von Neumann did not believe his report.
And presumably neither do you.
The story feels like a hoax, sounds made up, and probably wouldn’t be taken seriously today. Even back in the ‘90s, when Bielek told it on Coast to Coast AM, listeners were skeptical of his tale, asking questions like:
- What’s to stop amateur physicists replicating the Philadelphia Experiment in their basement?
- If they developed invisibility back in 1943, why do they fund stealth research to this day?
- If time travel is possible—and was available back in 1983—why doesn’t America rule the world?
Bielek had answers for them all, some more compelling than others:
- Access to the hardware is restricted.
- Invisibility is routinely used by the military—not only to cloak aircraft, but to cloak individual humans as well.
- America isn’t the one pulling the strings.
Interestingly, the US Navy has actually bothered to respond to the claims. Their verdict? The Philadelphia Experiment never happened. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? And it remains a spellbinding tale.
Ironically, if it is true then it should also be false—and if it’s false, then it could still be true. Ed Cameron stopped the Philadelphia Experiment, after all (possibly numerous times), which only leaves us with Bielek’s fractured memories—of an alternate future, no less, run by people who tamper with time. So whether or not it “really happened” is a meaningless musing on nothing.
Sounds like Bielek had fun, though, and that future sounds pretty nice.