The Time Travel Trap

On November 5, 1955, a man named Emmett Brown had a tragic slip-and-fall accident — while standing on a toilet to hang a clock, he lost his footing, bumped his head, and began to hallucinate. A vision came to him, and what he saw looked something like this:

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Okay, that’s fiction. Emmett Brown is better known as Doc Brown, the mad scientist from the Back to the Future franchise of movies. That’s a rough image of the design for his flux capacitor, a made-up device which allows one to turn a gull-winged Delorean into a time machine. The formulas on the paper barely resemble math. It’s all fake.

Which is what makes the real auto parts store offering, below, impossible. But it isn’t a joke — even if it seems like first blush. Rather, as a fiction Admiral from another sci-fi franchise would say, it’s a trap.

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That’s a screenshot from the website of O’Reilly Auto Parts, a U.S. chain of auto supply stores. Like any other auto supply store, they sell the basics — brake pads, car batteries, windshield wipers, and more. They also have some novelty items, naturally, but this one is special. They’re the only auto parts dealer to claim to sell Doc Brown’s Flux Capacitor.

Well, kind of. The item, as the screenshot says, is “not available for purchase” and, if you check back regularly, you’ll find it’s perpetually out of stock. But don’t take my word for it: the actual webpage is here. (You can also click that link to see a bigger version of the image above, assuming they haven’t taken the listing down — and they almost certainly haven’t, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment.)  Once there, you’ll also see they had fun with it. Here’s the product description:

Time Travel at your own RISK!!!

Plutonium is required to properly operate Flux Capacitor.

Plutonium is used by the on-board nuclear reactor which then powers the Flux Capacitor to provide the needed 1.21 Gigawatts of Electrical Power.

Plutonium not Available at O’Reilly Auto Parts. Please contact your local supplier.

Flux Capacitor requires the stainless steel body of the 81-83 DeLorean DMC-12, V6 2.9L, to properly function.

Once the time machine travels at 88 mph (142 km/h), light coming from the flux capacitor pulses faster until it becomes a steady stream of light. Then, time travel begins.

As you can imagine, this little stunt has gotten O’Reilly a good amount of press — whenever the Internet community discovers it, the flux capacitor ihas a tendency to spread virally. There are news stories about the flux capacitor going back almost a decade — here’s one from 2011 — and as recently as a few weeks ago, when USA Today took notice, here. USA Today decided to contact O’Reilly about their apparent PR stunt, and it turns out that the free publicity was a happy accident: the real reason for the flux capacitor page was to prevent data theft. USA Today explains:

The complete list of parts offered by O’Reilly is “a valuable database,” [O’Reilly spokesperson Mark] Merz said. While the company wants customers to be able to see if O’Reilly carries a specific part, it doesn’t, for competitive reasons, want others to have access to the entirely of its offerings.

While someone could theoretically visit each parts category of the O’Reilly website manually, writing down the products offered, that would amount to hundreds of thousands of listings, Merz said. It’s more likely that someone would try to copy the database using some sort of computer program or feature that would compile the information automatically.

It turns out that O’Reilly had a problem — they’re retailers, selling the same things that other auto parts dealers could also sell. What’s to prevent a competitor from copying their database of products? Not much — and there’s really no way of knowing of the competitor copied O’Reilly or if the very similar listing is just a coincidence — at least, until O’Reilly made the Back to the Future joke. USA Today continued: “If a copied database was subsequently published, Merz said, the company would be able to tell it was stolen from O’Reilly if it included a flux capacitor.”

Whether O’Reilly has used this easter egg to identify a data thief yet has gone unreported. But who knows what the future will hold.

Bonus fact: Back to the Future’s premise is based on a car with a nuclear reactor. That’s a bad idea, but not an impossible one. Rolls-Royce, the iconic car manufacturer, is already part of the way there — they have all the parts, after all. They make all the nuclear reactors for the British navy’s submarine fleet.

From the Archives: Back to the Archive Footage: How a controversy between a Back to the Future actor and the movie producers changed how movies are made.

Related: Mr. Fusion. Well, a replica. Still, $600 with shipping, and still, it won’t take you back to 1889 (or “forward” to 2015).