In 1956, on an episode of then-popular game show "I've Got a Secret," 96-year-old Samuel J. Seymour tottered out on stage, sat down gingerly beside the program's host, and proceeded to blow the audience's mind. Over ninety years earlier, he had witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Washington D.C.'s Ford Theatre.
It's an incredible thing to watch, and The Atlantic's Rebecca Rosen does a great job of nailing down one of the reasons for why that is.
"The America of Lincoln and the Civil War can feel like distant history," she writes, "but every now and then, through the appearance of what Jason Kottke has called a "human wormhole," we are confronted with the brevity of a century and a half."
It's difficult to say, however, exactly who — or, rather, what — the wormhole is in this scenario. Yes, the term "human wormhole" is, as its very name implies, used to refer to living persons who "bridge distant historical periods", and in that sense Seymour is certainly a wormhole; but there are unique societal and technological wormholes in play here, as well.
Truth or Consequences, the first game show to air on commercially licensed television, was first broadcast in 1941 (around the same time that television because a mainstream phenomenon), just 15 years prior to the airing of this particular episode of "I've Got a Secret." We don't know when Seymour died, but it's probably safe to say that had television or the game show format come around any later than they did, this program probably never would have aired.
And when you get right down to it, aren't wormholes — human or otherwise — really just about compounded coincidence? In order to become a human wormhole, Seymour had to be born in the right era, be physically present at Lincoln's assassination, and live long enough to eventually shuffle his way out in front of a studio audience and a handful of gameshow contestants.
Without that advent of television and the social phenomenon that is the game show, Seymour would never have been a wormhole to as many people as he was when this program first aired. You also wouldn't be watching this video. Granted, the gameshow format and the televised distribution of that format (not to mention the late-date popularization of the internet and digital media) aren't wormholes in and of themselves. But the fact that they could not only be experienced in the 1950s but easily preserved — first on film and later on video, both of which are data formats that are widely used to this day — elevate all of them to a sort of nonhuman wormhole status. In this way, these various technological and social phenomena have become another wormhole in and of themselves, connecting you to the human wormhole that was Samuel J. Seymour, all through your computer (or smart phone, or tablet) screen.
Oh, and just to add another layer to all of this, here's the newspaper article — written by Seymour — that's mentioned in the video.
[Spotted on The Atlantic]