On November 2, 2000, someone using the name John Titor began posting on the "Time Travel Institute" online message board. He claimed to be a time-traveler from 2036, originally sent to 1975 to retrieve an IBM computer that would debug Unix computers of his era. He had stopped in 2000 for "personal reasons" and wanted to talk to people about the future.
And a bleak future it was. After a controversial election in 2004, Titor said America would split into five states and descend into civil war. Somehow, other nations would get involved, and in 2015 there would be a small-scale nuclear exchange with Russia that wipes out Washington, D.C. The country would then reunify, with Omaha as its new capital.
Anyone can invent a future history and post it online. But Titor went much further, uploading images of his time machine—a crate-sized device and battery pack hidden in a 1967 Chevrolet—as well its user's manual. He included a photo of what looks like a laser beam being bent by the machine's gravitational forces. Titor said his device was a "stationary mass, temporal displacement unit powered by two top-spin, dual positive singularities", producing a "standard off-set Tipler sinusoid" ...which certainly sounds credible. If you were just goofing around on the internet, making up future wars, would you go to the trouble to produce this:
Titor's mission makes sense, too. He says he was sent to 1975 to obtain an IBM 5100 computer to debug computers of 2036. There's a factual basis to this, as Unix computers are going to run into a problem on January 19, 2038 similar to Y2K: The computers' internal calendars will run out of digits and reset, possibly causing malfunctions and shutdowns around the world. That fact wasn't known to many outside the computer industry, and even less well known was that IBM 5100 computers could emulate older computer languages. So engineers in 2036 could use the computer to update their own software. IBM feared its competition would use this information, and never released it to the public. The fact that Titor knew about it is perhaps the strongest argument in his favor.
Because he sure didn't share a lot of information about the future online. In fact, he was downright insulting. When someone asked about stock tips, he replied, "Are 'stock tips' really the first thing you want to know about in the future? As a representative of your time period, do you realize what that says about you?" When someone asked who would win the Super Bowl that January, his response was "I do not answer questions like this. If a time traveler had knowledge of your future, and you could only ask one question, would this be it?" (The Ravens would win the franchise's first-ever championship, which Titor could have at least hinted at). Those are selfish questions, to be sure, but what about future natural disasters? Knowing about them could save lives. Titor's statement on the subject: "That's one area I've decided not to talk about, sorry."
Titor's messages stopped in March 2001, by which point his vague posts and lack of proof were causing most of his earlier advocates to abandon him. He had already missed the disputed 2000 election and made no mention of the looming catastrophe of September 11. He pinned the nation's unrest on the 2004 election, which was nothing compared to its predecessor. By focusing on 2004, he "forgot" major moments of 2003: The start of the Iraq War, the Columbia disaster, and the college football season ending in a split national championship.
Then Titor went silent—returned to 2036, perhaps—but a "John Titor Foundation" sprouted up in 2003, selling merchandise that included John Titor: A Time Traveler's Tale, which compiled Titor's posts on future history and physics, along with diagrams and schematics like the ones above. While there seems to be no one on Earth (yet) named John Titor, a private investigator zeroed in on the foundation and discovered it was registered in Florida, where Titor supposedly lived in 2036. The investigator linked Titor's IP address to the location of the foundation. Finally, he named Larry Haber, an entertainment lawyer who is listed as CEO of the foundation, as the man behind Titor. Haber's brother, John Rick Haber, is a computer scientist, who could have provided the proprietary information about the IBM 5100 computer. Neither man has confirmed or denied the claims.
We're now far enough into Titor's timeline to know there was no civil war in 2004 or nuclear attack in 2015. Then again, Titor may have changed that future history through his presence here. He said the science of his era confirmed the many-worlds theory of time travel, so he was creating a new "worldline" by spending time in 2000. He figured the "temporal divergence" between his worldline and ours at two percent, but added, "the longer I am here, the larger that divergence becomes." So maybe we should believe him—and thank him—after all.
Jason Ginsburg is the senior digital producer for Discovery Channel. Follow him on Twittter @Ginsburg.