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The Bermuda Triangle and the ‘Hutchinson Effect’

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 17.3, September 2007

Calling it “the world’s greatest mystery,” Gian J. Quasar (2004) revisits the enigma of the Bermuda Triangle, an oceanic region where ships and planes mysteriously disappear. In his search for an answer, Quasar dares to consider such possible explanations as undersea bases established by extra- terrestrial abductors, time warps that send hapless craft “to other dimensions,” and “electronic fogs” associated with something called the “Hutchison Effect” (Quasar 2004, 6—7, 126—132, 249—261).

National Geographic Channel, with whom I have worked on numerous projects for their Is It Real? series, asked me to look at the Hutchison Effect for one such program on the Bermuda Triangle. I shared the assignment with my longtime colleague at the Center for Inquiry, Thomas Flynn, whose relevant expertise will become apparent.

Background: the Bermuda Triangle

Also known as the Devil’s Triangle, the Triangle of Death, and other appellations, the Bermuda Triangle is an area of the western north Atlantic approximately bounded by imaginary lines drawn between Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and the tip of Florida (figure 1). It has achieved legendary status for the mysterious vanishings of countless airplanes and ships—even two nuclear submarines. Various “theories” (or fanciful notions) have been conjured up to explain the disappearances (Berlitz 1974; Winer 1974; Nickell 1992).

However, in 1975, investigator Lawrence David Kusche published his monumental The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved, a classic example of paranormal investigation at its best. Rather than merely passing along the legends published in secondary sources, or sources at even greater remove, Kusche—a librarian and experienced pilot—searched out and scrutinized original records.

Take, for example, the case of a vanished tanker. In early February 1963, the S.S. Marine Sulphur Queen, a 523-foot tanker on a voyage from Texas to Virginia, disappeared. Its last message was a routine one on February 4 as it approached the Straits of Florida. Four days later, when it was a day overdue at Norfolk, officials launched a sea and air search but found neither the tanker nor any of its crew of thirty-nine. Two life preservers were all that were found, according to Charles Berlitz in his bestselling The Bermuda Triangle Mystery (1974, 56—57), who adds that “the weather was good,” and a Coast Guard investigation offered “neither solution nor theory concerning this disaster.”

In fact, as the Coast Guard Board of Investigation report made clear, there were “rough seas” and the ship had structural flaws caused by the removal of bulkheads to accommodate large storage vats. These held the ship’s cargo, some fifteen thousand tons of molten sulphur, either the fumes or steam from which offered the possibility of an explosion. This possibility is underscored by the fact that during prior voyages, tons of molten sulphur had leaked into the tanker’s bilges. Besides the life preservers, much “additional debris” was recovered, including part of a name board bearing the letters “ARINE SULPH” between its shattered ends. Thus, as investigation demonstrated, the Marine Sulphur Queen’s fate was not a mysterious disappearance but obviously a tragic accident instead (Kusche 1975, 206—216, illustrations pp. 166—167).

One by one, the other major casualties of the Bermuda Triangle came under Kusche’s scrutiny. The Sandra, a freighter which “disappeared” in “peaceful weather” (Gaddis 1965, 202), was actually lost at sea during hurricane-force winds. The Freya, which was supposedly found mysteriously adrift in “The Triangle area” (Berlitz 1974, 54), was in fact abandoned (probably during a storm as indicated by its condition) in the Pacific Ocean! And so on, and so on (Kusche 1975, 59—61, 182—184).

Flight 19, a group of five U.S. Avenger aircraft, which allegedly disappeared under what Gaddis (165, 191) termed “ideal flight conditions,” was really a training mission plagued by malfunctioning compasses and weather that was “‘average to undesirable’ for a training flight,” as Kusche notes in a book devoted to this mystery, The Disappearance of Flight 19 (1980). Investigation demonstrated the probability that the crew became disoriented, flew far out to sea, and were lost at night in rough water. The disappearance of a Mariner plane that was subsequently lost searching for the Avengers becomes less the mystery Triangle promoters make of it when we learn that such planes were nicknamed “flying gas tanks” (due to a chronic problem with fumes) and that there occurred an explosion—just where the Mariner would have been—approximately twenty minutes after takeoff (Kusche 1980, 119; Nickell 1992).

As the U.S. Coast Guard states concerning the legendary Triangle: “there is nothing mysterious about disappearances in this particular section of the ocean. Weather conditions, equipment failure, and human error, not something from the supernatural, are what have caused these tragedies” (quoted in Winer 1974, 207—208). One might add that it is also human error on the part of paranormalists that has helped perpetuate the pseudomystery.

The Hutchison Effect

Nevertheless, Gian J. Quasar is determined to resurrect the “mystery” with his credulous Into the Bermuda Triangle (2004). He takes seriously the work of one John Hutchison and his Hutchison Effect—actually a series of effects—mostly captured on videotape. Hutchison has crammed a room of his Vancouver home with various electromagnetic-field-emitting devices (radio frequency transmitters, Van de Graaf generators, Tesla coils, etc.) and turns them on to produce what Quasar gushes are “astonishing effects”: objects that suddenly appear, disappear, or levitate; liquids that spontaneously swirl; and other wonders (Quasar 2004, 126—132; Solis 1999).

States Quasar (2004, 128):

Some of these results give us an alarming view of the potentiality of electromagnetic effects on matter, its destruction, and transmutation. Metal turns white hot (but does not burn surrounding flammable material), 1-inch metal bars split, shred at the fracture point, wriggle like a worm, and flutter like a rag in the wind; fires start around the building out of nonflammable materials like cement and rock; metal warps and bends and even breaks (separating by sliding in a sideways fashion), and in some instances it crumbles like cookies.

Such effects on metal provoke comparisons of the Hutchison Effect with an earlier alleged “Geller Effect” (Solis 1999), the term conjured up as an explanation for Israeli magician Uri Geller’s “strange powers”—a hodgepodge of purported wizard’s feats that include bending metal by only looking at it, as well as reading minds, projecting pictures through a camera’s lens cap, and other wonders (Geller and Playfair 1986; Randi 1982).

videographer thomas flynn compares a claimed levitating-object effect (left), allegedly relevant to the bermuda triangle 'mystery,' with one he and the author created (center). the screen at the right shows flynn and the author creating the replication. (photo by henry huber and thomas flynn.)

Videographer Thomas Flynn compares a claimed levitating-object effect (left), allegedly relevant to the Bermuda Triangle “mystery,” with one he and the author created (center). The screen at the right shows Flynn and the author creating the replication. (Photo by Henry Huber and Thomas Flynn.)

Geller has been challenged and his feats exposed by various stage magicians, many of whom perform his effects much better than he. Notable among them is James Randi whose The Truth About Uri Geller (1982) is the definitive work on the Geller Effect. Randi posed as an editor of Time magazine when Geller performed in the Time offices. Randi says he saw Geller using simple tricks to accomplish his apparent wonders: For example, although pretending to cover his eyes while a secretary made a simple drawing, Geller actually peeked, thus enabling him to appear to read her mind and reproduce the drawing; also, instead of bending a key “by concentration,” as he pretended, Geller bent the key against a table when he thought no one was looking (Randi 1982, 90—97).

Quasar seems entirely credulous as to Hutchison’s claims, when there is every reason for skepticism. Using words like “inexplicable,” “extraordinary,” and “unusual and hitherto ‘impossible’” to describe the alleged phenomena, Quasar (2004, 126—127) appears oblivious of the maxim that “incredible claims require incredible proof”—that is, that evidence should be commensurate with the extent of the claim. Suspicions are heightened when we are told that “Sometimes one must wait for days for something to happen, and 99 percent of the time nothing happens at all” (2004, 129).

Despite Hutchison’s use of pseudoscientific terminology—he bandies about made-up terms like “cronons” and “gravitons”—his work seems anything but scientific. He does not use proper methods or controls, produce replicatable results, or publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Instead, many of his alleged phenomena are dubiously “authenticated” by videotape and film (Hutchison 2004, 126). Moreover, observers of Hutchison’s feats “have uniformly expressed astonishment at the weak electrical power that seems to be sufficient to produce very stupefying results” (Quasar 2004, 129). Such conditions could certainly be consistent with trickery.

Nevertheless, Quasar (2004, 130) likens the supposed Hutchison Effect to certain reported phenomena in the Bermuda Triangle—not only disappearances and wrecks but also an “electronic fog” that some boats and planes have supposedly sailed through. Hutchison has produced this grayish metallic-like mist in his “lab”—or so a videotape purports to show.

Replication

Producer Owen Palmquist (2006) of National Geographic Channel sent me some videotapes of Hutchison’s so-called experiments asking for my opinion. Not unexpectedly, perhaps, Hutchison’s dial-spinning shenanigans for National Geographic’s camera had produced nothing but a minor fire that he rushed to extinguish (Is It Real? 2006). Therefore, Hutchison’s own tapes were all that could be studied.

Because evidence available only on film or tape can easily be faked, I enlisted the help of Center for Inquiry colleague Thomas Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry and an experienced photographer and videographer. We decided that what we were seeing might easily have been staged. One video sequence showed an empty one-liter plastic soft-drink bottle wobbling, then shooting suddenly upward. Tom laughed at the suspicious fact that the handheld camera did not follow the flying object, an indication that there was perhaps something up there that the camera should not see.

We concluded that the movement of the bottle was consistent with it having been controlled by an “invisible” thread—or rather threads: frame-by-frame study showed that two attachment points would be required. We then reproduced the effect on a similar bottle using the necessary two lengths of monofilament line with which we caused the bottle to wobble and then soar. I was the hidden puppeteer to Tom’s camera. (See figure 2.)

Of more interest to National Geographic was Hutchison’s production of “electronic fog.” Tom and I were unimpressed with this effect which we readily simulated by jiggling a jumble of metallic wire, backlit by a suitable lightbulb, before the video camera’s lens.

Our videotaped results—along with clips showing us making our experiments and commenting on them—subsequently aired on the National Geographic Channel (Is It Real? 2006). The similarity of our effects to Hutchison’s are readily apparent. We see no need to give the supposed wizard further attention—certainly not with regard to Gian J. Quasar’s mystery-mongering and ridiculously pseudoscientific speculations about the Bermuda Triangle.

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Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.