Back to the Future with DuPont?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Browsing the Huffington Post one evening earlier this month, I came across the following headline: "Mystery of 1938 ‘Time Traveler’ with Cell Phone Solved?" I couldn’t resist, so I clicked to learn more.

It turns out that a video has been circulating on YouTube for the last year or so purporting to show a young woman talking on a cell 1938! Some netizens concluded that this woman must be a time traveler, while others dismissed the entire story as bogus. The time traveler suggestion does seem ridiculous to me due to the obvious difficulties posed by physics. But judge for yourself:

The story was considered newsworthy at the Huffington Post, Daily Mail, and Yahoo! News, however, because a reader with the online moniker of Planetcheck had come forward claiming to know the woman in the video. This reader claimed she was not a time traveler...she was Gertrude Jones, and she worked for the DuPont Company in Leominster, Massachusetts. Moreover, she was reportedly using an experimental wireless telephone developed by the DuPont Company. The reference to DuPont suddenly captured my full and undivided attention.

Further reading online showed that common sense arguments were being used to question Planetcheck’s version of the story. For instance, how could the woman hold a conversation on a cell phone without a wireless network to support transmission? Plus, the transistor was not invented until 1947. And think of the cordless phones used in the 1980s, which were enormous by comparison due to battery limitations. All of these are valid observations that focus on the seemingly anachronistic technology being used in the video.

But other questions occurred to me, and I wondered if Hagley’s library resources on the DuPont Company might shed additional light on the question. While the founder of was quoted in the Huffington Post article to say that videos like this are hard to ultimately prove or disprove, I couldn’t help but think it was worth a try. At the very least, I thought I might get a blog article out of it. So here goes:

Question #1: Was there a DuPont factory in Leominster, MA?

Answer: Yes. The Sterling Comb Company operated a plastics manufacturing plant in Leominster beginning in 1901. It was renamed the Viscoloid Company in 1912, and in 1925 it became the DuPont Viscoloid Company, Inc. This factory eventually closed in 1977.

Question #2: Did someone named Gertrude Jones work in that factory?

Answer: Undetermined. Hagley Library holds very few employee records for DuPont, and the records we do hold only pertain to employees that worked on the Hagley property itself between 1802 and 1902. Our telephone directories for the DuPont Company are also of no help in this instance. These directories list employees working in Wilmington, DE, at the Experimental Station, and at Grasselli, but they do not list other DuPont Company offices and factories. (Even if the DuPont Viscoloid Company in Leominster was included in our directories, as a presumed factory worker it is unlikely that Gertrude Jones would be listed by name).

Question #3: Did DuPont create an experimental wireless telephone in 1938?

Answer: No. I find no evidence that DuPont was ever involved directly in the electronics industry at any of its numerous production facilities. No Electronics Division currently exists, nor did so in the past. The DuPont Viscoloid Company manufactured plastics, not electronics. A search of Hagley’s digital archive, which includes full, text-searchable scans of every issue of the DuPont Magazine from 1913 to 1993, does not yield any relevant hits under the keywords of “wireless,” “telephone,” or “Leominster.” I browsed our issues of Better Living for 1938 as well, but there is no mention of this technology in production. DuPont’s World of Chemistry exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair was also silent with regard to such a futuristic invention. And the authoritative book Science and Corporate Strategy: Du Pont R&D, 1902-1980, by David Hounshell and John Kenly Smith (1988), also makes no mention whatsoever of such a DuPont product in development.

Final verdict:

The lack of evidence as indicated above reinforces my strong suspicion that this claim is false. So if DuPont was not responsible, is the woman in fact a time traveler? What do you think?

Max Moeller is Curator of the Imprints Department at Hagley Museum and Library.