originally published September 4, 2013

Here’s a thought. If Marty McFly had set the time circuits on the DeLorean to show up fifteen minutes early instead of ten when he returned to 1985, he might have thwarted the Libyan terrorists before they’d shot Doc Brown, leaving two Martys in the parking lot and an irreconcilable paradox fluttering around the space-time continuum like a wayward grocery receipt in a wind gust.

Such is the fickle nature of time travel, which is why every movie that touches on the subject winds up raising heaps of skeptical finger-pointing at its plot holes. And for this reason, the majority of reasonable people tend to doubt that time travel – apart from that tediously slow, gradual one-way type we’re all experiencing right now – can exist.

But every so often, common sense will retreat to its cabin for a weekend and we’ll all get swept away in some tale so heinously unlikely, the slack-jawed sense of wonder we experience could only wind up thwacking us with an agonizing hangover of reason and logic the next morning.

We all know if anyone is going to play around with time travel then cover it up, it’ll probably be the US government. The most ridiculous rumor along this tangent has to be the Philadelphia Experiment. According to the story – which had been passed on to a respected astronomer by a guy who was later revealed to be an ‘imaginative loner’ – the USS Eldridge underwent an experiment during World War II in which it was ‘cloaked’, and rendered invisible. When it reappeared, some crew members had gone insane, while others had materialized with body parts fused to the hull.

In a second experiment, the Eldridge appeared to have teleported from the Philadelphia Naval Yard to Norfolk, Virginia (about 200 miles away), and it also zipped back in time to the tune of about ten seconds. The story of the experiment has been disavowed by the US Navy, by witnesses, by factual evidence of the Eldridge’s activities in 1943, and by every applicable law of physics.

This is Rudolph Fentz. One evening in June of 1950, Mr. Fentz was struck by an automobile in New York’s Times Square. He died on the scene, and baffled witnesses reported that Mr. Fentz had been standing in the intersection, appearing disoriented. On his person was a copper token for a 5-cent beer at some saloon no one had heard of, roughly seventy dollars in old bank notes, business cards with Mr. Fentz’s Fifth Avenue address, and a letter postmarked 1876.

An investigation revealed that Mr. Fentz had in fact disappeared some 75 years earlier, clearly having voyaged as if by magic to the middle of the 20th century where his innate genetic inability to get out of the way of fast-moving objects led to his immediate demise. This story bounced around the urban legend circuit for a while in the 1970’s before someone realized it was lifted straight from a Jack Finney short story from 1951.

If you can’t look to an internet discussion forum for absolute truth, then what’s left? So maintained the true believers who logged in to the Time Travel Institute’s forum back in November of 2000, when TimeTravel_0 began posting that he had travelled back from the year 2036. He moved over to another forum and became known as John Titor.

Titor described his time machine at length, using terms that no one could verify, like ‘off-set Tipler sinusoid’ and ‘dual positive singularities’. He warned of an upcoming civil war in the US, which was to start after the contested presidential election of 2004. Keep in mind, this was published in the rancid afterglow of the 2000 election. The civil war goes full-force in 2008, and by 2015 the Russians fire nukes at China, Europe and the US. Omaha, Nebraska becomes the new national capital.

It’s a ridiculous (and clearly false) story, but it did lead to a book, a play, and even some guy filing a patent application using Titor’s time machine diagram.

Then we have Andrew Carlssin, who rolled the dice on 126 high-risk stock trades in 2002 and won big on all of them. In only two weeks, Carlssin turned his $800 investment into $350 million, leading the SEC to arrest him for obvious insider trading and/or fraud and/or black voodoo magic. In his four-hour confession, Carlssin only admitted to being a time traveller from 200 years in the future.

It was rather kind of Mr. Carlssin to offer Osama bin Laden’s location or the cure to AIDS in exchange for a reduced sentence. But readers of this story in Yahoo! News, which is supposed to be a somewhat factual news source were likely confused. Well, it turns out that Yahoo! opted not to look too deeply into ‘facts’ or ‘common sense’ and instead simply re-ran a story from the Weekly World News tabloid, home of Bat-Boy and Elvis’s alien offspring.

This is a photo from the 1941 opening of South Forks Bridge in Gold Bridge, BC. As you can see, a number of locals turned to watch the… wait, what’s up with that hipster in the sunglasses just to the right of center? He’s got to be a time traveller, right?

Well, no. And this might not be Photoshop either. What looks like a printed t-shirt could be a sweater with a sewn-on emblem. Those sunglasses might not be Ray-ban Wayfarers, but they could be actual shades from that era, similar to what Barbara Stanwyck wore in Double Indemnity. He could logically be a casual guy in a sea of snappily-dressed fedora-sporters. Or he might be a time traveller. Or maybe it is Photoshop – who the hell knows?

If you’ve never seen Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus, you are denying yourself an uproariously brilliant piece of silent cinema. You’re also missing out on seeing the most modern example of time travelling urban bullsh… sorry, urban legends. In one scene from the bonus material – and you’ll probably miss it if you aren’t watching for it – a woman walks by in the background, holding what appears to be a black rectangular cell phone to her ear.

This shot took place at the movie’s premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. The woman is there; here’s video proof. But the truth is (spoiler!), that ain’t no cell phone. First off, unless she’d also transported the rest of the cellular network back in time with her, the thing wouldn’t work anyway. Secondly, it’s a hearing aid. Like this one:

It was relatively new technology for the time, but come on… was anyone convinced in 2010 when this story broke that it was a cell phone?

Time travel is a great fantasy. And we’re probably due for the next urban legend to drop – some sort of ‘proof’ of a future voyager’s existence in the present or past. But we’ll never get to take a temporal holiday, folks. We’ve got to accept it. If they do figure out the technology, it’ll end up being some lucky celebrity that gets to hop aboard first. Of course, it’s all just a silly daydream, right?

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