Hollerith and the Flaming Arrow of Time

“Much knowledge has been lost over the centuries to fire. The several burnings of the Library in Alexandria destroyed, perhaps, a million books. Possibly the greatest of such disasters were the accidental burning of the 1931 UK census, which resulted in a data gap between 1921 and 1951, an entire generation, and also the destruction of the US 1890 census, from a period of immense population growth, and prior to consistent metrical record-keeping.” — anonymous archivist, 2025

Construction had halted, although the air was still so dusty that the historians from Georgetown University wore face-masks. Dozens of workers hovered, equipment idle, watching.

“Looks like an Art Deco sarcophagus,” somebody muttered.

“Time traveling Egyptians? Wasn’t there a movie like that?”

“I think they were aliens. It looks like that though, with those sculptures along the sides.”

The box had been uncovered during renovations to the basement of the Herbert C. Hoover Building. A wall had been demolished to reveal an empty rectangular space, which contained–

“It’s nickel-plated,” said a professor. He held up his phone. “Both the conductivity and the coloration check out.”

“So when? Nineteen twenties?”

“Maybe as late as the thirties. It’s around a hundred years old.”

“There are hinges on the other side. It’s meant to be opened.”

“Maybe we should call in the archaeology department first? I’d hate to break something.”

Traffic being what it was, by the time the archaeologists arrived, many of the workers had drifted away, either heading for home, or moving on to other sections of the basement. An area around the sarcophagus, as everyone now called it, had been sealed off with plastic sheets, and the air filtered to reduce the dust. Somebody had suggested rigging a rope hoist to open the box, but, as it happened, the hinges were well oiled, and the inside of the box concealed a pneumatic system that helped raise what must have been a tremendously heavy lid. As the box opened, cold fog seeped out, and curled its way across the floor.

“That looks like sublimating liquid nitrogen. There must be a freezer inside. I wonder where the power comes from, and how it is still working?”

“There’s somebody inside the box!” At this, people rushed over, shredding the sealed plastic sheeting. A man, possibly of late middle-age, lay cradled within thick padding. Bundles of chrome-plated piping, intermittently blinking lights, and tubes filled with clear liquid, filled the remainder of the tightly-packed space.

“Wait, everybody please get back, you’re–”

“He’s moving!” somebody shouted. “Call an ambulance!”

#

A significant police presence was required to cordon off the crowd at GWU. Inside the emergency department, the medical team had reluctantly permitted an historian from Georgetown to enter. The patient, although possibly disoriented, was evidently alive, and as hale as someone asleep for a century could be.

“Can you hear me?” the historian asked. “My name is Alita Espinal. I’m a history professor at the university.”

The patient nodded, and noiselessly moved his lips.

“You need to give him space,” said a nurse, with a shooing movement of her hands.

“Wait,” said the patient. “What year is it?”

“Twenty-thirty,” said professor Espinal.

“Nearly a hundred years,” said the patient, amazed. “Nikola said his machine would work. I was never all that certain.”

“Nikola?” asked the professor. “As in Tesla?”

“Yes. Putnam called him after the census burned.”

“Who? What?”

“Herbert Putnam is… I suppose, was… the Librarian of Congress. A fire in 1921 burned most of the census from 1890. Putnam called Tesla to see if he could recover anything from the mess. I was one of the clerks who entered the original data into the Hollerith machines. That was the first census that used them.”

“Why did he call you?” she asked him.

“I have an eidetic memory,” said the patient. “I can recall every line on the cards that I fed into the tabulating machine. It would take a lifetime to write them all down again though. Tesla said that one day people would have machines to read the contents of a person’s mind. He said that was beyond him, but he thought perhaps that he could freeze a person, let them hibernate like a bear. Maybe safely wake later. I’m already old. Nothing to lose. So I volunteered.”

“To be frozen?”

“Yes. I slept so that in time, perhaps, what was burned can exist again.”

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