John Titor: Who was the time traveler that visited Rochester?
20 years ago, the most famous “time traveler” of this generation lit up the Internet. He had come from the year 2036 to help save the world. And he was heading to Rochester for the IBM 5100.
On Nov. 2 of 2000, a man calling himself John Titor—actually “Time_Traveler_0”—posted a message on a little-known Internet discussion board, something called the Time Travel Institute Forum.
“Greetings,” he wrote. “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.”
He had, he said, made a side trip to 2000 to pick up some family photos and check in on family in Tampa and Rochester.
That introduction—posted to the kind of paranormal/extraterrestrial/conspiracy theory message boards that were just finding a foothold on the Internet—would set off a four-month flurry of “what-” and “when-ifs,” as Titor answered numerous questions, told readers about his life in 2036, and gave us glimpses into our own future.
Over the next four months, Titor’s 570 or so Internet posts would describe an upcoming “civil conflict over a U.S. presidential election.” Warn us about a Mad Cow Disease outbreak. Tell us about the impending nuclear war with Russia.
On March 24 of 2001, John Titor signed off. He was heading back to 2036.
“Bring a gas can with you when the car dies on the side of the road,” he wrote. “Farewell. John.”
But the John Titor phenomenon was not over. It was, in fact, just beginning.
Because those four months, those 570 or so posts, would lead to a website (JohnTitor.com), numerous books (like “John Titor: A Time Traveler’s Tale”), a movie (“Time Traveler Zero”), a stage play (“Time Traveler Zero Zero”), a video game (“Steins Gate”).
Those posts would eventually lead to private investigations.
And plenty of people who didn’t want to talk to us for this story.
The backstory: The future
“In 2036, I live in central Florida with my family and I’m currently stationed at an Army base in Tampa,” explained Titor in one of his earliest posts. “The people that survived [the civil war and then the limited nuclear conflict with Russia] grew closer together. Life is centered on the family and then the community. I cannot imagine living even a few hundred miles away from my parents.”
He was, he said, a member of a military unit—the 177th Temporal Recon Unit—whose missions centered around returning to the past to retrieve specific items necessary for survival in 2036.
Titor’s current mission? To travel to Rochester, Minnesota in the year 1975. And to retrieve the then-new IBM 5100, arguably the first “portable” computer. He was chosen for the mission, he said, because his grandfather had been on that IBM 5100 team.
The 5100, Titor said, was needed to “debug various legacy code computer programs” in 2036. He described “a very simple and unique feature that IBM ... removed from any future desktop computers. In order to take advantage of this feature, the 5100 required a couple of special ‘tweaks’ that had to be done by one of the software engineers in 1975. Anyone who is familiar with this feature ... will be able to tell you what it is.”
B.D., a Rochester guy, was able to tell us what it is.
And, yes, we can only use his initials.
Back in 2003, when we first wrote about John Titor, we reached out to B.D., who had been the second engineer on IBM’s 5100 team in Rochester.
Here’s what B.D. told us: That unique feature—that secret function—existed. And B.D. helped create it. The specifics, here, are probably irrelevant to all but the biggest computer geeks. But the 5100 featured an “interface between the assembly code surrounding the computer’s ROM exterior, and the 360 emulator hidden beneath it.”
It was called a “dramatic step forward.” And IBM kept it quiet.
Back then, B.D. believed that John Titor could be a creation, a prank, of one of his IBM team members from the 1970s. But, when we showed him Titor’s posts, he said the info was “derived from information available on the Internet.” No members of that 5100 team, he said, would use the phrase “legacy code.”
“I’m not a ‘Star Trek’ watcher,” he told us then. “Somebody is just trying to tickle somebody else.”
Today, B.D. is no longer at IBM. He’s a well-respected area businessperson. A well-respected Rochester resident.
A guy who didn’t want his name used.
“I’ve said all I can say,” he has told us when we’ve reached out to him over the years (including recently). “The response of being part of this has been too much.”
We don’t blame him. His name still shows up in Titor stories. On Titor YouTube videos. On nationwide talk shows about the paranormal.
When we first ran our John Titor story in 2003, the web traffic shut down Rochester Magazine’s server. And the entire server for the Post Bulletin.
We got calls from Coast to Coast AM (the late-night radio show dedicated to the paranormal) and Weekly World News (maybe best known for discovering “Bat Boy!”).
We’ve heard B.D.’s gotten his share of calls from time traveler trackers and conspiracy theorists as well.
And B.D.’s just a bit player.
One of the biggest players in the John Titor story, longtime IT guy Morey Haber, didn’t want to talk to us either.
In 2008 and 2009, the Italian investigative TV show “Voyager,” and then the website Hoax Hunter, launched separate investigations into John Titor. Hired private investigators. Staked out P.O. boxes. Geolocated IP addresses.
Separately, the groups came to the conclusion that John Titor was actually Morey Haber, now the Chief Technology Officer at BeyondTrust, an identity protection company. Or Morey’s brother, Florida entertainment lawyer Lawrence Haber. Or Morey’s other brother John Rick Haber, a computer scientist. Or one of their sons. Or ...
Morey did, finally, send us a statement: “Just to set the record straight, I am not John Titor, nor do I know who he is or if he really exists. This is an alias bestowed upon me on the Internet by conspiracy theorists, ‘fact finders,’ and fanatics. It also represents the most bizarre case of identity impersonations and accusations I have seen in my 25-plus year career as a security and information technology professional.”
“My identity has been stolen (linked) by threat actors on the Internet who claim I am John Titor,” Morey said. “The attack vectors that it created are undeniably intense and clouded in the lore of the World Wide Web itself.”
Perrenial suspect Lawrence Haber saye the Titor experience has brought him “fame, fear, new relationships, but never fortune,” he tells us. “As an entertainment attorney, I’ve been involved in hundreds of different projects with all sorts of clients. Being involved with Titor has brought me more recognition and headaches than anything else I’ve ever worked on.”
“Regardless of the many theories out there about who John Titor is, I still don’t know for sure who the time traveler from 2036 was,” says Lawrence. “It’s not me, it’s not my son, nor is it my brother. I know only one person who claims to have been in direct contact with John. In the back of my mind, I’ve always had the nagging thought this could all be true.”
Another name that comes up on the could-he-be-Titor discussion boards has a Rochester tie. Joel Kostuch, who grew up in Rochester and now works in media production in Orlando, has a background similar to Titor’s. Supposedly has ties to the Habers. Allegedly filed the trademark for John Titor merchandise.
He never responded to our requests.
Lots of people didn’t.
Here’s a warning: Don’t Google “John Titor.” The cast of characters alone will take you down the kind of Internet wormhole that you emerge from and say “Did I really just spend two hours on that?”
Characters like computer engineer Marlin Pohlman, who applied for a patent for a time travel machine based on Titor’s schematics—and who was later sentenced to six years in prison for drugging and assaulting four women.
And amateur sleuth John Hughston, who posted a 40-minute video comparing “phrase usage” of Titor’s posts to that of his prime suspects.
And Pamela Moore, who claimed that John Titor provided her with a “secret song” that could be used to verify anyone who may come forward claiming to be John. Oh, and just how “intimate” was their relationship?
That sort of thing.
For every player in the Titor story who doesn’t want to talk, there’s one who really, really does. Someone who hopes it’s real, someone who’s open to the possibility, at least.
“If John Titor did not time travel, the perpetrating of the legend was an impressive undertaking that involved a substantive amount of creative man hours and ingenuity,” says Mike Sauve, author of “Who Authored the John Titor Legend?”
“I have no hard evidence, only glimmers of this nature, but as a theory, the breaching of temporality would explain a lot of the anomalous activity in the world today,” he says.
And there are plenty of players who see the Titor story as a reflection of society. As an Internet template—one of the first—for future conspiracy theories.
You’ve got to remember the context here: In 2000, only about 350 million people worldwide had Internet access. We were using 56K dial-up modems to watch Dancing Baby and the Hampster Dance. Staring into the blue of a desktop screen reading posts from someplace like China seemed almost otherworldy.
“Titor was fascinating because he stuck around and talked to people. It was the first time any ‘conspiracy theory,’ was truly interactive,” says Jacob Desjarlais, producer of the Crackpot Podcast.
“We learned a serious lesson about the persistence of conspiracy,” says Desjarlais. “Even after several decades of debunking, reality checks, and investigations, Titor persists. And all it took was a little bit of insider knowledge about the 5100 computer model and declaring that timelines alter a little when you jump around.”
Here’s something: Almost none of John Titor’s predictions came true.
Sure, he hinted at something similar to a Mad Cow Disease outbreak before the limited cases really hit the U.S. in 2003. He said we wouldn’t find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which we didn’t in 2003. He said China would send an astronaut into orbit, and they did, in 2003.
When those early “prognostications” came true—true enough, at least—Titor followers got excited once. Scared, even.
Because Titor also said this: “As a result of the many conflicts, there were no official Olympics after 2004. However, it appears they may be revived in 2040.”
And this: “The civil war in the United States will start in 2004. I would describe it as having a Waco-type event every month that steadily gets worse. The year 2008 was a general date by which time everyone will realize the world they thought they were living in was over.”
And this: “A World War in 2015 killed nearly 3 million people” after a “limited nuclear strike between the U.S. and Russia.”
To Titor’s hardcore believers, though, the failed predictions can be explained by a simple out, the ultimate catch-22 for time travelers. (Continued on page 36.)
“Simply by traveling back in time,” Titor said, “I have created a new ‘worldline,’ distinct from the one in which I grew up.”
His presence here, maybe his warnings, had created a “temporal divergence” that changed the future on this “worldline.”
“The longer I am here,” he said, “the larger that divergence becomes.”
The advice, the aftermath
“I don’t expect anyone to believe me,” wrote John Titor, “and I have nothing to sell.”
Somehow, 20 years after his first appearance, people still do believe John Titor. And he still has nothing to sell.
“One of the greatest lessons Titor can teach us is that you can create an entire reality around a few facts and a person who can post and respond to questions online,” says Desjarlais, of the Crackpot Podcast. “It doesn’t matter how outrageous your claims are or what you’re selling.”
Titor did that. He sounds like, well, one of us. He doesn’t pretend to know everything.
Even his time machine seems just ridiculous enough to be plausible. He uploaded a few photos and schematics. The info contained just enough real science to pass the eye test.
“My ‘time’ machine is a stationary mass, temporal displacement unit manufactured by General Electric,” he explained. “The unit is powered by two top-spin dual-positive singularities that produce a standard off-set Tipler sinusoid.”
Also, it was housed in the trunk of a 1967 Chevy Corvette convertible. Then, later, moved to a Chevy truck.
“The idea was to find a vehicle that would not draw too much attention for the time period,” he said.
He was, he said, just stopping off in Tampa and Rochester in 2000 to pick up some old family photos. To check in on some family members. To take a break.
Then he had to drive back to Tampa in 2001 to travel to Tampa in 2036. The machine only moved through time, not space.
“I am not a physicist,” Titor wrote. “Time travel is only a tool that allowed me to do my job. Most airline pilots are probably not aerospace engineers.”
He answered questions. Does time travel affect you physically? “I am not aware of any physical change to my DNA. I do, however, seem to be more susceptible to colds.”
Talked about his life in 2036. “I suppose an average day in 2036 is like an average day on the farm. I live in a community made up of ‘tree houses’ on a large river in Florida. The river floods sometimes and we have access to the Gulf. Most of our neighbors make a living off the sea or in moving cargo by boat.”
Even chastised us. “Perhaps I should let you all in on a little secret,” he wrote. “No one likes you in the future. This time period is looked at as being full of lazy, self-centered, civically ignorant sheep. Perhaps you should be less concerned about me and more concerned about that.”
Then, on March 24 of 2001, he loaded the IBM 5100 into the 1967 Chevy Corvette.
He made that final post, maybe for his own benefit: “Bring a gas can with you when the car dies on the side of the road.”
Then presumably left Rochester—maybe drove south down Broadway to catch 52 south to I-90 east—to head back to Florida. To head back to 2036.
And John Titor was gone, if he was ever here.
Did John Titor time travel?
“Whether or not the John Titor story is real, it has afforded me a higher level of credulity regarding the time travel question. Having planted a flag on Amazon, I knew certifiable loons would contact me claiming to be involved in temporal hi-jinx. What I didn’t grasp, was that I was also planting flags cataloged in time. Eerily-credible individuals have shown up to speak with me about time travel at events when there was no pre-existing public knowledge I’d be there. The implication eventually dawned on me that I had posted of attending the event afterwards, ‘predicting’ my presence only to someone with knowledge of the future. I have no hard evidence, only glimmers of this nature, but as a theory, the breaching of temporality would explain a lot of the anomalous activity in the world today.”
—Mike Sauve, author of “Who Authored the John Titor Legend?”
“No. Titor is a creation. You can trace the whole thing back to people who worked on the IBM 5100 and other ideas, but what is the fun in that? But, I’d love to think that in 2036 we’ll come across Titor in all his glory as he heads back in time to solve the Year 2038 Unix Problem we have coming in the future.”
—Jacob Desjarlais, producer of the Crackpot Podcast
“I can’t say for sure. What amazes me is the ability the posts have to leave just enough nagging doubt about this being fiction so you can never really put it to rest. I’ve seen one or two scientists who claim John’s technology is impossible, but I don’t think there has been any definitive proof either way. “
—”Oliver Williams,” who operated www.johntitor.com. (And whose name we put in quotes because, like a lot of this story, we can’t verify it.)
“It doesn’t matter whether John Titor was real, or his story true. His tale boggles the mind, whether he was whom he said he was, or an astoundingly resourceful trickster. He provided schematics, diagrams, photographs, and documents from his service in a TemporalRecon time travel unit in 2036; these visual aids can be laughed at or marveled at (or both). He presented a credible theory and description of time travel, both how it works, and how he does it. He clearly depicts the prevailing thinking, from Stephen Hawking to Philip K. Dick, on alternate worldlines, the multiverse and the mutability of time.”
—Kirby Malone, wrote and directed a multimedia stage performance based on John Titor’s story (and Rochester featured heavily in the performance). “Time Traveler Zero Zero” premiered at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in 2004.
“To channel Fox Mulder, ‘I want to believe’ he did. From a practical standpoint, science continues to peel back the veil of our existence, and with each new layer, reality seems to be far more complex than we could have ever imagined. And it’s happening at such an incredible pace. ... And if nothing else, the world is a more magical place if we leave a little room for stories like John’s. I keep an eBay alert active for an IBM 5100 just in case.”
—Mike Solo, Creative Director for the University Center for the Arts / School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, Colorado State University Arts Management Instructor, CSU. And the guy who played John Titor in “Time Traveler Zero Zero.”
"I don’t know for certain, but with where things are going in science today, who’s to say for sure that time travel is impossible? Around 2003, I was approached by a friend who introduced me to a woman claiming to be John Titor’s mother. We spoke on the phone many times but never met in person. I facilitated various agreements and personnel in creating media projects based on John’s posts. I was also interviewed a few times on national radio. The last time I heard from my client was in a letter, but even that didn’t seem to be the end of it. If anything, I learned that life is full of mysteries if you just pay attention."
—Lawrence Haber, attorney, who is regularly accused of having created John Titor
Famous Time Travelers?
"Time Traveling Hipster"
A photograph from 1941--deemed to be genuine--shows a guy in what appears to be modern clothing (modern sunglasses, a printed T-shirt?) attending the opening of a bridge in Gold Bridge, British Columbia. Researchers, though, determined the sunglasses had been around since the 1920s, and the shirt is probably a sweater with a sewn-on emblem, maybe from the now-defunct Montreal Maroons ice hockey team. And that tiny camera hanging from his neck? Kodak was producing those by 1940 as well.
"Charlie Chaplin Time Traveler"
In extra footage from "The Circus," a Charlie Chaplin silent film from 1928, a woman walks by holding her hand to her ear in the same way people do with cell phones. It set the Internet abuzz when the footage was rediscovered in 2010. Though experts say she was probably using a portable hearing aid. Also, we're guessing her reception would have been spotty, since cell towers would not yet have been invented.
"iPhone in 1670 Painting"
In 2016, Apple CEO Tim Cook, during a presentation at Startup Fest Europe, showed a slide of a Pieter de Hooch painting and jokingly pointed out that the man is holding an iPhone. The painting, though, was completed in 1670. Time travel? Plenty of people on the Internet thought so! Though the painting is titled "Man Handing a Letter to a Woman in the Entrance Hall of a House."
"The Ancient Astronaut"
In the early 1990s, reports surfaced of a recently discovered sculpture--apparently showing an astronaut--at a cathedral in Salamanca, Spain. A cathedral dating back to 1513. The cathedral, though, was renovated in 1992, and artist Jerónimo García de Quiñones added a modern touch to a new sculpture.
"The Mummy Wearing Adidas"
In 2016, archaeologists unearthed an ancient mummy, who had died maybe 1,000 years ago, high in the mountains of Mongolia. Wearing boots over her Adidas? Well, no. The boot material and style matched the era, and the woman was probably a seamstress, and she was found with a sewing and embroidery kit, an ancient clutch bag, a mirror, a comb, a knife, and more.
From a 2000 Internet posting by self-described time traveler John Titor, advising inhabitants of today’s world on how to prepare for the war-torn future:
1. Do not eat or use products from any animal that is fed and eats parts of its own dead.
2. Do not kiss or have intimate relations with anyone you do not know.
3. Learn basic sanitation and water purification.
4. Be comfortable around firearms. Learn to shoot and clean a gun.
5. Get a good first aid kit and learn to use it.
6. Find 5 people within 100 miles that you trust with your life and stay in contact with them.
7. Get a copy of the U.S. Constitution and read it.
8. Eat less.
9. Get a bicycle and two sets of spare tires. Ride it 10 miles a week.
10. Consider what you would bring with you if you had to leave your home in 10 minutes and never return.