The untold truth of 'time traveler' John Titor

If we do someday day crack the secret code of time travel, we'll be opening a Pandora's box full of both nightmares and wonders. As if the threat of Skynet sending cyborgs back into the 1980s wasn't scary enough, the nature of time travel is so confusing that we'll forever question every element of reality.

On the other hand, what if time travelers have already set foot in our time, and we just didn't know about them? Some people believe that back in 2000, one time traveler from the future — a man who called himself John Titor — risked everything in order to tell the hairless apes of the present day a little bit about the terrifying destiny that supposedly lies ahead of us.

In the year 2000, a man from the future said hello

Before we begin, it's important to step back and remember that in the dawn of the new millennium, the internet wasn't the refined, smartphone-accessible, Facebooked social network that it is today. Back then, the internet was a scary place still trying to find itself, and you never knew who was on the other end of a screen name. It was in this atmosphere that an unknown man signed up on a message board with the username TimeTravel_0, according to i09, and opened the doors to a conversation that never closed. In January 2001, he announced his name as John Titor and said he had come from the future. He posted:

"Greetings. I am a time traveler from the year 2036. I am on my way home after getting an IBM 5100 computer system from the year 1975. My "time" machine is a stationary mass, temporal displacement unit manufactured by General Electric. The unit is powered by two, top-spin, dual-positive singularities that produce a standard, off-set Tipler sinusoid. I will be happy to post pictures of the unit."

From Day 1, John Titor started fielding a lot of questions, both from believers and disbelievers. What separated Titor from the everyday crank call was the level of detail he provided. Rather than sticking to vague fortune cookie platitudes, Titor's answers were precise.

His science checked out more than you'd expect

An everyday prankster wouldn't last ten minutes when confronted with real scientists ready to poke holes in his story. However, according to the Guardian, Titor "held his own against skeptical physicists." He even shared detailed schematics and photographs of his time machine, which were all surprisingly convincing. It soon became clear that if this John Titor guy was a prankster, he'd at least done his homework.

Every layer of Titor's story was there for a reason, including his seemingly contrived mission statement: though it might sound silly that scientists in the year 2036 would have any interest in collecting an antique IBM computer, the Minnesota newspaper Post Bulletin pointed out that Titor's explanation was based on facts. Basically, Titor's claim was that programmers in the future needed the old computer because it had a function that would give them access to a secret "memory code." Post Bulletin writer Patrick Stephenson interviewed one of the engineers of the original IBM 5100, Bob Dubke, who confirmed that this function existed. Crazy, right?

If Titor's story was a hoax, nitty-gritty details like this were the key ingredient. His mission was mundane enough and the scientific details specific enough that you had to wonder. This same logic applied to Titor's descriptions of society in the future, with forecasts rooted in contemporary fears.

He warned of a dark future

Like any proper time traveler, John Titor warned us about scary, apocalyptic events that we could look forward to in the decades ahead. Titor made it clear that our era of humanity did a lot of damage to the environment. He added that people in his time have made "huge strides" in getting the radiation cleaned up, and that they produce far less waste since all their food and water production is localized.

According to AV Club, Titor claimed that his society was radically different from ours because people in 2000 were only a few years away from entering decades of horrible wars. Titor predicted that the 2004 U.S. presidential election would fracture the country into two opposing sides — yeah, you can probably guess what the sides are — resulting in a violent civil war erupting by 2008. As if that wasn't gloomy enough, the Guardian added that Titor predicted World War III would begin in 2015, caused by Russia dropping nukes on the U.S., Europe, and China, slaughtering three billion people. All this post-apocalyptic bloodshed supposedly caused Titor himself to become a child soldier at age 13.

Titor finished this dark tale by explaining that after this bloodshed cools off, the U.S. will settle down into a collection of small feudal communities. Honestly, it's surprising that this concept hasn't already become a Netflix series.

He said people in the future don't like us too much

Sadly enough, Titor made it clear that people from his time weren't too fond of the denizens of the early 2000s. After surviving the wars, he claimed that the humans of his time had become hardened, efficient workhorses who knew how to make their own tools, use their own guns, and pick up and move anywhere if they needed to. According to the Telegraph, Titor rather harshly condemned everyone in the message board by saying, "Perhaps I should let you all in on a little secret. No one likes you in the future. This time period is looked at as being full of lazy, self-centered, civically ignorant sheep."

If Titor's story were true, it'd be hard to blame him for the hard feelings, considering that his entire world seems to have gone to hell by 2015. But oddly enough, despite the fact that Titor noticeably disliked almost everyone he talked to online, this supposed time traveler did invite his followers to come to the future with him. Titor warned that the trip would be a lengthy process involving multiple long drives across the country, since the time displacement unit had to be loaded into a vehicle, a la Back to the Future. If anyone did go with him, well, we never heard about it.

He made a close friend

According to Mike Sauve, who is known as the official John Titor academic due to his book Who Authored the John Titor Legend?, the controversial time traveler did make some friends on the message board. Titor's closest connection was a woman named Pamela Moore, who shared a warm relationship with him, almost as if she already knew him from outside the boards. Moore has said that Titor left her with a so-called "secret song," which she could use to verify his identity in case any impostors came along in the future.

Moore later explained to Sauve that the reason she was so immediately interested in talking to Titor was that back in 1998, she'd experienced a vivid dream about him. In this dream, she had rode in a car with a time traveling man whose answers were identical to the ones Titor later gave in the message board. Moore — whom Titor once referred to as his "dear friend" — has always maintained her firm belief in Titor's story.

The most intriguing wrinkle in Moore's story is her mysterious relationship with a woman named Kay Titor, who claims to be John Titor's mother. Kay once sent Moore a personal letter, along with a package that Kay claims John meant for Moore to have. However, it's worth noting that all correspondence between both parties has been carefully monitored and controlled by Larry Haber, who is Kay Titor's lawyer.

In 2001, he went home

If he was real, John Titor didn't stay in our time for long. After looking around, meeting the past versions of his family, and answering every question that his online following wanted to ask him, he said adios to the early 2000s. His final post appeared on March 24, 2001. To summarize why other time travelers didn't make a point to speak to denizens of the past, Titor wrote, "Quite frankly, you all scare the Hell out of me and I'm sure other temporal drivers would feel the same."

This post, which can still be seen on Stranger Dimensions, is also a lengthy speech where Titor explains what he believes is so terrible about the humans of present-day Earth, angrily stating his belief that people in the modern era needed to do a better job taking care of each other. In the post, Titor rails against the way people ignore the sick and homeless, as well as expressing his disbelief that people so callously drive right by anyone broken down on the side of the road, never asking if that person needs help.

Finally, John left his followers with a parting line that could have been a movie quote: "Bring a gas can with you when the car dies on the side of the road." After that, he sped away in his time traveling car into a temporally fleeting sunset, or whatever, presumably never to return … right?

He came back to post a grave warning on CNN

While most people doubt that John Titor was really a time traveler, there are those who still believe, and he may even have come back a few times. The most notable example of this occurred on November 30, 2010, when a user calling himself John Titor issued a terrifying warning on CNN's iReport feature, frantically warning the United States not to get into a war with North Korea. Titor explained that the conflict would be a horrendous mistake, which would result in half of the U.S. being wiped out.

Was this the same John Titor as before? Maybe just an impostor using the name for dramatic effect? Or perhaps, was it … a different Titor? The time traveler's friend, Pamela Moore, told Mike Sauve that our current timeline could be invaded by John Titors from various alternate timelines, all of whom might come from different post-apocalyptic futures. For a glimpse at how confusing all these overlapping timelines can get, try watching one of the later Terminator movies.

The real John Titor may have been found

Most observers believe the John Titor saga was a hoax, but no one has ever claimed the bragging rights for it. Nonetheless, interested parties have dug for answers. According to Pacific Standard, the most notable investigation was conducted by Voyager, an Italian TV series. Voyager's professional sleuths peeked into a for-profit LLC called the John Titor Foundation, which sells self-published collections of Titor's posts. The Foundation's CEO is a man named Lawrence "Larry" Haber. If that name sounds familiar, it's because Larry Haber is the same lawyer who represents Kay Titor, the woman who claims to be John's mother.

As written by io9, investigator Mike Lynch believes that the real John Titor is actually the lawyer's brother, a computer scientist named John Rick Haber. This guy's professional background would certainly explain why "John Titor" was so knowledgeable. According to Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Haber's son Brandon is also an IT expert who previously worked for NASA and the U.S. Air Force. Crazy stuff, but it does seem plausible that the John Titor story could've been a group effort.

As seen on Thrillist, multimedia artist Joseph Matheny claims that he was a consultant for the John Titor "project," which he says was a postmodern storytelling effort using the internet to create folklore for the new millennium. However, Matheny claims he left the project at a relatively early point, and he has no idea how Larry Haber got involved.

John Titor appeared earlier in the timeline than we thought

One aspect of the story that would go along with Joseph Matheny's explanation is that a different "John Titor" appeared in 1998, with a slightly different story of the future.

Two years before John Titor landed on the internet, someone sent two faxes to Art Bell, according to io9. On Bell's overnight talk show Coast to Coast AM, the host read the faxes aloud on the air. The John Titor who wrote the faxes also claimed to be from 2036 and was also on a mission to retrieve an old IBM, but there was one stark difference from the online version: this Titor claimed that worldwide devastation would occur in the year 2000, as a result of Y2K. Now, seeing as Y2K was the biggest conspiracy theory of the late '90s, it makes sense that a time traveling huckster would jump on it. However, given that it was only two years later that Titor "came back" with the Y2K business removed from his storyline, it sure looks like those Art Bell faxes could've been a "first draft" before the actual literary experiment happened in 2000. As far as disbelievers are concerned, these faxes are the smoking gun.

Pamela Moore, on the other hand, wrote to Mike Sauve with a different explanation. She think it's bizarre that "not one single person" remembered the faxes in 2001, back when Titor was posting online, and she questions why the faxes "magically just appeared in the timeline."

Is a real time traveler out there?

So, long story short: the evidence points to John Titor having been a neat experiment put together by a group of creative folks, possibly including John Rick Haber or Joseph Matheny. However, unless the key creators someday come forward, there will probably always be a lingering "what if." Whether the truth ever comes out, this whole story does pose a trippy question: what if time travel does get discovered in the future? And if so, could there be real time travelers walking among us today?

In 2014, two physicists decided to look into that very question, according to the New Republic. Teresa Wilson and Robert Nemiroff from Michigan Technological University hunted the internet for any posts between the years 2006 and 2013 which mentioned the terms "Pope Francis," or "Comet ISON." These phrases were chosen because their specificity meant it was unlikely they would have been used by chance before they became official terms. When this search proved unsuccessful, the physicists also hunted through popular Google searches, and finally put out a query, asking time travelers to identify themselves by using a 2014 hashtag in any posts before 2013. 

The results? Negative. No time travelers were found. However, the physicists pointed out that these results were hardly conclusive. So if any John Titors are really out there, leaping through spacetime and setting right what once went wrong … well, we haven't found them yet, but maybe someday.