What’s up, time travellers? Did everyone have a good day tomorrow?
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
I’m new round these ‘ere parts (so go easy on me), and I have the pleasure of introducing a whole new section of Time Travel Nexus called Time Travel Nexus Investigates (TTNI for short).
Time Travel Nexus is renowned for its commentary and insights on movies, books and TV series. Fictional time travel, in other words. But TTNI will look at real-life time travel. That is, the alleged instances of time travel that have popped up in the news and popular media.
In his bestselling book A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking said this:
“If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?”
Well, Stephen, to quote Carol Anne from 80s horror classic Poltergeist… “They’re heeeere!”
There’s a whole bunch of purported cases where time-travelling tourists (let’s call them TTTs) have turned up in places and times they’re not supposed to. These are the folks that have got scores of people asking whether time travel really does exist, and is already happening all around us.
Here at TTNI, we’re playing detective (call me Detective Chief Inspector Berry—ooo, yes, I like how that sounds) and hunting the TTTs. We’re setting out to solve these much-talked-about mysteries. And as all good detectives do, we’ll be examining the clues, evaluating the evidence, and making decisions on whether these cases hold water or are as leaky as colanders.
Without further adieu, let’s take a gander at the first case on our list… Did a TTT crash the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus in 1928?
Origin of the claim
The legend of the Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller is a new one. It dates back to 2010, when Belfast filmmaker and Charlie Chaplin superfan George Clarke posted a video on YouTube. Titled “Chaplin’s Time Traveller”, the video attracted millions of views in a matter of weeks and was the subject of hot debate in the world’s media.
Why? Because in the video, Clarke explains that he’s discovered evidence of a time traveller in a Charlie Chaplin DVD extra.
Nature of the claim
Clarke was watching a behind-the-scenes clip of the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in 1928 when he noticed something strange. Twenty seconds in, the camera closed in on a fake zebra, one of the temporary statues erected outside the theatre to represent the circus animals in the movie. Walking behind the zebra was a woman in a big, hooded coat, pointed shoes and a black top hat.
What caught George’s eye wasn’t her strange attire (he thought she looked like a man in drag). It was the thing she was holding to her ear and talking into. He couldn’t tell what it was, but the way her fingers were closed around it, it looked small and flat—like a smartphone.
Course, mobile phones didn’t exist in 1928 and weren’t invented till decades later. This led Clarke to decide that the woman in the clip must’ve been a time traveller.
See for yourself by watching the clip below.
The main piece of evidence is the clip in question, which appears among the bonus features on the DVD of The Circus and is called simply ‘The Hollywood Premiere.’
I can’t find any evidence that an expert has analyzed the clip, which means it’s impossible to say for sure that it’s authentic. As in, we don’t know whether the woman on the phone was inserted deliberately into the shot with special effects (à la the topless woman in Disney’s The Rescuers, sneakily added to two non-consecutive frames by naughty animators).
I doubt it, though. This DVD was released in 2003, part of a Charlie Chaplin boxset. But the woman on the phone wasn’t discovered or noticed until 2010. Why hoax something so subtle that only the eagle eyes of a fervent filmmaker might pick up?
Most people assume that the woman is real and was actually there when the clip was filmed. That means the case hinges on how you interpret the clip.
This is where the debate heats up.
A hearing aid?
This is the most common alternative explanation for what the woman is holding. Hearing aids and ear trumpets similar in size and shape to mobile phones were available from companies like Siemens and Western Electric in the 1920s, as shown below.
We can’t see the device in the woman’s hand, so we can’t discount the possibility that she is in fact holding a hearing aid. But if it’s a hearing aid, why is she talking into it? Just before the scene fades into another, you see her stop and turn slightly towards the camera, and it’s clear as day that her mouth is moving. That’s not how hearing aids work!
Some argue that she was just chattering to herself, or trying to get someone’s attention. That’s not what it looks like at all. There’s only one other person in the shot with her, a man, and she isn’t talking to him. He’s wandering along ahead of her. And the way she’s walking, stops, turns and leans slightly forward, it really does look like she’s talking into the device. And she seems to be having quite a serious conversation, because at the point where she turns, she looks angry.
Yes, someone has suggested that the woman might be walking by the Chinese Theatre listening to the resonance inside a seashell (and talking to it, apparently). Ahem. Moving on quickly.
If it’s not a hearing aid or—er—a seashell, then all we’re left with is a phone, aren’t we? And if it’s a phone she’s holding, then we might well have discovered a TTT.
The main argument against the phone theory is that there were no signal towers in 1928, so how could this woman have made a call? There’s a pretty obvious counter-argument that can be made here: if these people have mustered time travel—thought by many to be impossible—then surely their technology is sophisticated enough to manage a phone call without signal towers.
To me, the best argument against the phone theory is that this woman would have to be the stupidest time traveller ever. There she is, at the premiere of a Hollywood movie, cameras everywhere, and she’s using a piece of future technology in front of everyone. Not someone I’d trust with a time machine!
Last year I interviewed George Clarke for my website, Behind The Curtain. We talked about his discovery and, yes, he really does believe that the woman in the clip is a time traveller.
He wonders if the ‘woman’ is actually Charlie Chaplin himself, in disguise, travelling back in time to attend a personal event that made him really happy. This might explain the apparent stupidity of using a future device in the past—Chaplin might not give a monkey’s.
Clarke told me that when Chaplin left the US, he set up his family home and the Chaplin Ranch in Switzerland—not far from the CERN complex, a long-rumoured hub of time travel experimentation. He also told me that Chaplin and Albert Einstein were great friends, so…
This, in my view, is one of the more ambiguous instances of potential time travel. I don’t buy the hearing aid explanation, and I’m not sure what else this device could be. Until more evidence comes to light, I’m marking this case as open.
Comments, thoughts and insights welcome!
Watch the original video posted by George Clarke below.
Next month: Did a time traveller pop up in Times Square in 1950?