In May 2003, millions of Internet users got a refreshing break from the run-of-the-mill spam that routinely invaded their email in-boxes. Instead of hawking mortgages, penis-enlargement pills, or weight-loss products, an email arrived that seemed straight out of a science-fiction novel.
The message offered $5,000 to any vendor capable of promptly delivering a collection of far-fetched gadgets for conducting time travel, including an "Acme 5X24 series time transducing capacitor with built-in temporal displacement" and an "AMD Dimensional Warp Generator module containing the GRC79 induction motor."
Dave Hill, a software programmer in Iowa, normally deleted a couple dozen junk emails every day with hardly a glance. But when he received the time-travel solicitation, he hit the reply button instead. Hill sent the spammer a message saying he could get him what he wanted. With a little deft photo-editing, Hill created a fake online store with all the sci-fi items sought by the would-be time-traveler. In July, Hill even shipped an old hard-drive motor disguised as a "warp generator" to a Massachusetts address provided by the spammer, who said his name was Bob White.
When White gratefully acknowledged receipt of the parts a few days later and earnestly asked for help obtaining others, Hill decided to end the stunt. He had expected White to tell him that it was all a joke. But instead White seemed totally serious about his quest for time travel and in need of psychological ...