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During WWII, a group of science fiction writers, Robert Heinlein & Isaac Asimov prominent among them, were involved in a classified project for the US government.

Isaac Asimov mentioned this project in his autobiography In Memory Yet Green. There are also some comments on it in the posthumous Heinlein tribute/collection Requiem; several people are quoted to the effect that Heinlein never said exactly what he did because it had not been declassified.

Have the details about this project and these writers’ involvement since been declassified? If not, are there any hints as to what the project entailed?

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  • Hmm... one of the top 5 Google hits for "asimov heinlein classified project wwii" ends up on Wiki "Nazi UFOs" page. Coincidence? :) Commented Jun 20, 2012 at 22:49
  • @Darius Your edit sort of confused the question. I rolled it back and Gilles made the question clearer. Commented Jun 20, 2012 at 22:54
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    asimovonline FAQ has only this: "He [Asimov] worked as a junior chemist at the Philadelphia Navy Yard from May 1942 to October 1945, together with fellow science fiction authors Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp" Commented Jun 20, 2012 at 23:12
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    Do you have a reference for this?
    – AncientSwordRage
    Commented Jun 20, 2012 at 23:33
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    @Pureferret: look in Asimov's first autobiographical volume, In memory yet green, which writes about this.
    – b_jonas
    Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 23:54

2 Answers 2

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There are actually plenty of details about their work, for example in Learning Curve, Heinlein's authorized biography. It may have been classified at one time (most war operations were as a matter of course) but it's not any more. De Camp and Asimov wrote about it too.

Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague De Camp, and Isaac Asimov during World War 2
L to R: Heinlein, De Camp, Asimov

There have been rumors that the group were somehow tied to the apocryphal "Philadelphia Experiment". De Camp responded to this question himself and said basically: that's a great story but he worked on testing hydraulics and de-icers and equally mundane problems

According to a couple chapters of Heinlein's book, they worked at the Aeronautical Materials Lab at Philadelphia Naval Yard. Their work included a "high altitude pressure suit" (an early space suit), and a "Cold Room" (a cryogenic hypobaric chamber) to test exposure to extreme cold and low oxygen. Heinlein was also the personnel manager (where he broke policy by hiring female engineers) and worked on "mechanical problems of Plexiglas aircraft canopies" (where he got in trouble for refusing to falsify data). Heinlein was officially retired Navy, De Camp was a Navy reservist, and Asimov was a civilian contractor (though he was later drafted in September 1945). Forry Ackerman was involved too, as an Army enlisted man.

But the most important work they did was not something they directly worked: they contributed ideas to and consulted on the development of the CIC or Combat Information Center - the today-familiar Operations Room of a combat vessel. Their consultation was regarded as critical to its development. The idea came right out of, and is still part of, science fiction and was implemented in reality by the US Navy during WWII. So it's a funny bit of history -- the Operations Center came out of Sci-Fi as related by Heinlein/Asimov/deCamp, got implemented for real in the Navy, and now the Ops Centers in modern Sci-Fi are directly informed by the real-life ones, full circle! But it's a stretch to say they worked on it.

Basically the truth was this: Heinlein, De Camp, and Asimov were friends and colleagues, the war meant they had to either serve the US professionally or get drafted, and they were all educated men who could do useful engineering work. So Heinlein worked hard to get his friends and colleagues jobs in a stateside engineering center rather than on the front. Since they were very bright people with good scientific knowledge, their contributions were useful though not mysterious nor earth-shattering.

There was a novel released last year, The Astounding, The Amazing, The Unknown, which fictionalizes and sensationalizes the whole idea but in not in fact true :)


You might also check out the Cleve Cartmill Affair (1) (2), which involved Heinlein/Asimov/DeCamp peripherally, as well as John Campbell. That's when the US Gov't was convinced that Cartmill and Campbell had been stealing nuclear secrets.....

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    There was no chance of Heinlein being drafted. He could not get himself declared physically able to serve, his first choice resuming his service as a naval officer. I don't think de Camp or Asimov needed that particular job to avoid the draft either.
    – user41519
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 21:11
  • In the excellent "Information at Sea: Shipboard Command and Control in the U.S. Navy, from Mobile Bay to Okinawa" by Timothy S. Wolters (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), we read on page 219-220: "A few months after World War II ended, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations decided to publish a confidential synopsis of the CIC "for the uninitiated who want information on the what and why" of the navy's relatively new shipboard facility. OPNAV described the Combat Information Center as "a weird and eerie jungle of electronic gear, illuminated tables, shining dials and gadgets," with Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 11:25
  • "officers and enlisted personnel ... wearing earphones and talking strange jargon into microphones, telephones, and squawk boxes that seem to be constantly flashing red light." Employing a touch of hyperbole, OPNAV claimed the CIC made "Flash Gordon look like a piker and Buck Rogers an anachronism" ("CIC Yesterday and Today", C.I.C., November 1945, 3.) Indeed, to many individuals the CIC must have seemed like something from the future. Perhaps even Caleb Laning thought so; at one point during the war, he suggested that the science fiction of his good friend Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 11:25
  • and Naval Academy classmate Robert Heinlein had influenced his thinking, writing in a letter to Heinlein that the "basic ideas" of the CIC were "very similar to some of [your Astounding Science Fiction] 'brain machine' ideas." Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 11:25
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    The link between science fiction and actual science is pretty damn strong. Mentioned that Szilard was inspired by Wells who first spoke of atomic bombs although probably it was the other way around with bombs specifically. But how many scientists and engineers were inspired by scifi in their youth? How many future astronauts watched Star Trek or Forbidden Planet (could it literally be that no astronaut did NOT see Forbidden Planet? i bet maybe every single one did. i sure doubt that any missed reading Wells and Verne,)
    – releseabe
    Commented Mar 26, 2023 at 23:29
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From all evidence, Asimov, Heinlein and de Camp didn't work together on any particular project. They all worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, each on projects that suited their talents.

This is an addition to @Mark Beadles excellent answer.

Asimov describes his efforts in typical detail in his autobiography. He was involved in an effort to make dye markers that would help airman downed in the ocean to be found by search/rescue craft. Asimov's particular role was in developing a way to predict from lab measurements how visible a particular dye would be:

While working on dye markers that made ditched pilots more visible to rescue searchers, he developed a test to compare dye visibility that did not require a plane flight, but in order to validate his test he volunteered to fly in a small plane to observe the markers.

Asimov also worked on a "seam sealing" project during this period. From It's Been a Good Life:

When it finally came my time to prepare the specification of the seam-sealing compounds, a certain Puckishness overtook me. Writing with absolute clarity, I nevertheless managed to break everything down into enumerations, getting all the way down to [(1)] and even [(a)]. I further managed in almost every sentence to refer to some other sentence for which I duly listed a complete identification.

The result was that no one on earth could have plunged into it and come out unscathed. Brain coagulation would have set in by page 2.

Solemnly, I handed in the specification. I had done nothing wrong, so I could not be scolded or disciplined. All they could do would be to come back with some embarrassment and ask for simplification--and, of course, the joke would be over and I would simplify. I just hoped that none of my supervisors would require hospitalization. I didn't really intend things to go that far.

In his autobiography Asimov mentions seeing Heinlein and de Camp in the morning when entering the Navy Yard, at lunch (eating the terrible food) and after hours socializing, with no indication that they worked on the same project.

Regarding the draft: Per Asimov's autobiography the Navy Yard's maneuvers to keep its personnel safe backfired somewhat - the Navy Yard could declare certain personnel "essential" (and thus immune to the draft), but couldn't do that with too many people, so they declared "essential" only people who were important and were fit enough to be drafted. Since Asimov was pretty portly even then, the Navy Yard didn't think it needed to declare him essential, but before the war was over, the Army reduced its fitness criteria considerably, leaving Asimov vulnerable and thus drafted in September 1945.

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