Monday, February 15, 2010

The Atomic Heritage Foundation's Version of the Philadelphia Experiment

 The Quonset Hut visitors from down under are particular stars in their areas of specialty. Friend Langley is the expert on the history of the development of atomic energy and on the effects of the atomic tests conducted in the South Pacific.  He was one of the first to educate me to the fact that America's quest for atomic energy  originated before the war at the Naval Research Lab as part of their search for a silent propulsion system.

By the time General Groves and the Manhattan Project came along, the Navy had mastered isotope separation via the thermal diffusion method. Their success was one of the most closely held atomic secrets for many years. So was the accident that killed three people in a demonstration put on for visitors from Oak Ridge. The full story of this documented "Philadelphia Experiment" is  now on the Atomic Heritage website.

And thanks to the US Navy, we have excellent records of Townsend Brown's life from 1930 to the time of his suspect "resignation" in 1942.  By August of 1932 he was sure enough of his own research work to write it up and demonstrate it for the Lab's senior scientists.  Seaman Brown's name had already been the subject of much correspondence at high levels but the letters flew back and forth faster in the next couple of weeks.

I felt quite honored to be holding a carbon of  the original letter which set off that flurry of concern. In it, Townsend summarized the many naval engineering benefits that would accrue from his discovery.  One of these was to be a method of noiseless propulsion.

I have seen a picture of the loooong toy boat that he would have used for this "silent running" demonstration and it was no dinky bathtub boat. How could his superiors NOT have been impressed?

Mysteriously, though, this ship propulsion topic seems to have floated off the Townsend Brown map, never to be seen or heard from again; or at least, not until Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler hit their techno-thriller strides.  In the meantime, Townsend walked out of the Navy as an enlisted man and walked into the Naval Reserve as a junior grade lieutenant, and a half a dozen years later, the superintendent of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard was requesting that USNR assign Lt. Brown  to him on a full time basis. Un-hunh.

Merlin, my online friend who has taken all kinds of secrecy oaths, and who knew Townsend back in the day, once offered as a comparable parable that of farmers plowing their fields.  The majority of the farmers were progressive and efficient, using tractors to plow large amounts of ground.  But they did not make allowances for the weather. Their crops were washed away in a disastrous flood.  The one farmer who did not follow the pack waited until the weather changed and time was right before he plowed and planted his fields.  He reaped a fine harvest. 

I like to think that Townsend's ideas did indeed come to life in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and that there is a still finer harvest waiting to be reaped from them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"...and that there is a still finer harvest waiting to be reaped from them."

Well said!