Paul Arthur Crafton of Potomac apparently has led a carefully compartmentalized life for nearly 30 years, beginning long before the academic odyssey that ended in a Pennsylvania jail.

He was college professor, inventor and naval research scientist, all using the Crafton name, before the period when, authorities say, he began using aliases to get multiple teaching jobs.

Since 1956 he has been known as Professor Crafton at the George Washington University here where he taught engineering administration; from 1944 until 1969, Crafton was a mechanical engineer and scientist at the Naval Research Lab in Southwest; and in the 1970s, Crafton was known as an inventor and company president who successfully patented a drilling method.

People who worked with Crafton in each endeavor said yesterday they were unaware that the man was employed elsewhere.

Though Crafton used only that one name in those jobs, Pennsylvania authorities said yesterday that documents taken from his Lancaster, Pa., apartment showed he had used 34 different names in his quest for academic positions.

At least nine of those names appear to be those of real people.

"Oh my God," was the reaction of John Michael Ashworth of Salford, England, when told that a valid birth certificate for him was among the items seized in Lancaster. "It feels like someone's been wolfing over my grave." Ashworth, a biologist and former English Cabinet member who studied at Oxford, is vice chancellor of Salford University.

His dismay was echoed by officials at several colleges in Middle Atlantic and Eastern Seaboard states as many learned yesterday for the first time that correspondence taken from the apartment showed that Crafton, using various aliases, had applied for positions at their institutions.

Pennsylvania authorities said Crafton, using several names, had applied unsuccessfully for positions at 20 colleges. The schools included William and Mary, New York University and George Mason University. George Mason's math department chairman Richard Draper said yesterday that he recalled interviewing the man by phone about a year ago.

"His credentials looked very good, but he came on in a very arrogant way," Draper said.

Officials at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg said yesterday that Crafton, posing as David Burt Taylor, also applied for a position there. He was turned down, they said, after faculty members could not verify his credentials.

In addition, the University of Delaware and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, yesterday confirmed that Crafton taught at their schools, using two different names. Officials at four other colleges had previously confirmed that Crafton, using other names, had taught at their schools while he was also a tenured full professor at GWU.

Posing as Jonathan David North, Crafton was employed for the spring 1981 term at the University of Delaware to teach undergraduate computer programs, according to university Provost Leon Campbell. He said Crafton, as North, claimed to have a doctorate degree from the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, and to have worked at Holland and Co., an apparently nonexistent firm that Crafton used other places as a reference.

At Rutgers in the spring semester of '82, officials said, Crafton used the name Peter Pearse--the name by which he was known at Millersville State College in Pennsylvania. The real Pearse is a forestry professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

"In response to student complaints after the first week," Crafton was terminated from the post on Feb. 10, according to Sally Schwartz of the university's public affairs department.

According to the information released by Pennsylvania authorities, Crafton generally used the names of Pearse and John Byron Hext--the name under which he was teaching at Shippensburg State College--on most of his applications to other colleges.

"I think the guy's allowed to use my name, but certainly not my academic credentials," the real Hext said yesterday. Hext, 44, a professor at the Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, holds a doctorate from Cambridge University.

As the tangled academic lives of Paul Crafton came into sharper focus yesterday, information about his earlier professional career proved more elusive.

Navy officials said that Crafton worked at the Naval Research Lab from 1944, when he was hired as a mechanical engineer, until 1969, when he had attained the position of physical scientist. They said records showed he left to take another position.

But naval officials said they didn't understand how Crafton could have held down full-time jobs at both GWU and the naval lab. Crafton was appointed as associate professor at GWU in 1956. Prior to that, he was completing his doctorate in engineering at the University of Maryland and writing a textbook, according to records at the two schools.

And by 1974, Crafton apparently had developed a method and equipment needed to drill parallel tunnels. Alexandria patent attorney Leonard W. Sherman said the patent application was filed in July 1974 and a patent on the drilling process was granted in September 1976.

Sherman, who served as Crafton's attorney throughout that period, later sued Crafton, claiming that he hadn't paid all the fees involved in filing for the patents in several other countries.

The patent is listed in the name of United Continental Corp. At the time the patent was granted, the company listed a Rockville Post Office box as its primary address. A company phone is listed in U.S. Postal Service records, but no one answered it yesterday.

Sherman said that he won a legal judgment against Crafton, but noted yesterday, "we've never been able to find him to serve the summons to get him into court to establish his assets."