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Toynbee Tiles


Toynbee tiles are messages of mysterious origin found embedded in asphalt in several major cities in the United States, with at least two known examples in South America as well. The tiles, which are generally about the size of an American license plate but are sometimes considerably larger, contain some variation on the following inscription:

IN KUbricK's 2001

Some of the more elaborate tiles also feature cryptic political statements or exhort readers to create and install similar tiles of their own. The material used for making the tiles was long a mystery to enthusiasts, but evidence has emerged that they may be primarily made of layers of linoleum and asphalt crack-filling compound.

People and things referenced

The "toynbee" referred to in the text is almost certainly Arnold J. Toynbee, a famous historian. "Kubrick" certainly refers to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, co-writer and director of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Commonly, a city will have a couple of large and colorful tiles along with numerous small and simple tiles like this one, spotted just a block from the White House. The majority contain text similar to that above, although a second set is often found nearby alluding to a mass conspiracy between the press (including newspaper magnate John Knight of Knight-Ridder), the U.S. government, the USSR (even in tiles seemingly made years after the Soviet Union's dissolution), and Jews. In addition the writing is of a similar style and poor quality. A tile that used to be located in Santiago de Chile references a street address in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The current occupants of the home at this address know nothing about the tiles and are annoyed by people who ask. Due to the frequency with which tiles appear in Philadelphia, the apparent age of many tiles, the variety of carving styles, and the presence of the "tile creator's screed" (see below), and the Philadelphia address on the Santiago tile, those who have investigated the phenomenon believe a native Philadelphian created the Toynbee tiles.


The text as a whole does not appear to reference any particular idea, the concept of raising the dead is not a part of any of Toynbee's writings nor Kubrick's (although it could be weakly argued it did in the sequel to 2001, 2010: Odyssey Two, although that was not written nor directed by Kubrick). In fact any connection between either of the Toynbees and Kubrick is difficult to find.

A different style of Toynbee tile, found at the corner of 13th & Chestnut Sts. in Philadelphia A possible interpretation is that the Toynbee reference comes from the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury's short story "The Toynbee Convector", which alludes to Toynbee's idea that in order to survive, humankind must always rush to meet the future, i.e. believe in a better world, and must always aim far beyond what is practically possible, in order to reach something barely within reach. Thus the message might be that humanity ought to strive to colonize Jupiter as in Kubrick's work or something greater, to survive. A complex of four tiles was once located at 9th & Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia. Consisting of four panels of barely-legible italic printing, this work can be interpreted as being a lengthy complaint about real or (most likely) imagined enemies. A possible transcription of its message reads:

John Knight Ridder is the Philadelphia thug hellion Jew who'd hated this movements guts- for years- takes money from the Mafia to make the Mafia look good in his newspapers so he has the Mafia in his back pocket. John Knight sent the Mafia to murder me in May 1991 [illegible] journalists [illegible] then gloated to my face about death and Knight Ridder great power to destroy. In fact John Knight went into hellion since of joy over Knight-Ridder as great power to destroy. I secured house with blast doors and fled the country in June 1991. NBC attorneys journalists and security officials at Rockefeller Center fraudulently under the "Freedom of Information Act" all [illegible] orders NBC executives got the U.S. federal district attorney's office who got FBI to get Interpol to establish task force that located me in Dover England. Which back home Inquirer got union goons from their own employees union to [illegible] down a "sports journalist." Who with ease bashed in lights and windows of neighborhood car- as well as men outside my house. They are stationed there still waiting for me. NBC CBS group "W" Westinghouse, Time, Time Warner, Fox, Universal all of the "Cult of the Hellion" each one were Much worse than Knight-Ridder ever was mostly hellion Jews. When K.Y.W. and NBC executives told John Knight the whole town gloated in joyous fits on how their Soviet pals found a way to turn it into a...

The creator

The tiles, of which about 130 are known, appear to be the work of a single person. The best theory to date on the tile's creator is that they are the work of one James Morasco, a Philadelphia social worker, who was trying to interest the Philadelphia area newspapers on an idea similar to what is found on the tiles in the early 1980s; however, it should be noted that Mr. Morasco would have been in his 70's when most of the tiles were laid. Mr. Morasco died in 2003 and many new tiles have been seen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania since Mr. Morasco, the presumed creator passed, adding to the mystery. It is possible that Mr. Morasco was never the Toynbee Tile perpetrator, or that he was and someone has continued to make tiles. A number of license-plate sized tiles reading "Resurrect Dead" and "Planet Jupiter" have been spotted embedded in the right-hand lane on several major highways, including Route 476 in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and Interstate 95.


Theoretically, the method of laying such a tile is simple. It has been claimed by a prominent Toynbee-tile enthusiast that a newly laid tile was once found and examined. This new tile was wrapped in tar paper and placed on a busy street during the wee hours of the morning (perhaps only a few minutes before its discovery). The pressure exerted by automobiles driving over the tile for weeks on end pushes it into the road surface. (It can be speculated that the tile maker may have laid his tiles during warm weather.) Eventually the tar paper wears away, exposing the message carried upon the tile. A reader of one Toynbee-tile enthusiast Web site reported a tile found in Pittsburgh that included deployment instructions (see photo), which the reader transcribed thus: lenoleum, asphalt glue (?) in several layers, then placing tar paper over it so that car wheels won't mess it up, and apparently the heat of the sun on the tar paper will bake it into the street. More detailed instructions on creating and deploying the tiles can be found in the book, Recipes for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook published in 2004 by Crimethinc.

Destruction and Conservation

Since the messages on most of the Toynbee tiles cannot be construed to be offensive, no municipality is known to have deliberately destroyed tiles; some have however been destroyed during the course of regular road maintenance work. The largest tile complex known, the tile maker's paranoid rant against his imagined enemies, was destroyed when Chestnut Street in Philadelphia was being repaved. At the present time, there is no public or private agency dedicated to conserving Toynbee tiles. Many tiles now exist only as photographs taken before their destruction. In late 2004, a Toynbee tile enthusiast removed a freshly laid tile intact from the Southwest corner of Broad and Juniper Streets in Philadelphia and it remains in his possession. Tiles that are located in the middle of busy streets and highway on- and off-ramps tend to wear away quickly and also can become victims of resurfacing; smaller tiles and those located close to pedestrian crosswalks tend to be in better condition.

posted: 1/14/2006

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