Time Travel in Science Fiction: A Brief History | James Gleick

If there was one startling fact that got me
going on this book it was realizing that time travel is a new idea. We’re so familiar with it. We grow up with time travel. We have time travel in cartoons. We know all of the jokes. We know the paradoxes. It’s like part of the fabric of our culture. And it was really a surprise to me to discover
that before H.G. Wells there was almost no conception of time travel. Nobody put the two words together. Time Machine, his 1895 book is really the
first time people thought there could be such a thing as a time machine and that just struck
me as weird.Because your first impulse is you want to argue with that. Probably. I mean a lot of people well that can’t possibly
be true, what about this? What about this Greek legend? What about stories told by the ancient Japanese? And there are things where, for example, a
fisherman falls asleep and wakes up many generations later and everybody he knows is dead. And that’s like the Rip van Winkle story. And Rip van Winkle was before H.G. Wells,
of course. They’re not that much more before. And because we have such an expansive sense
of time travel ourselves and we’re imaginative people we can immediately see that for, example,
when the Greeks imagined going down to the land of the dead, going to Hades and crossing
the river Styx and meeting their dead ancestors that’s a kind of time travel we might say.Anyway,
if you’re a sci-fi geek you might be thinking of racking your brain trying to think of predecessors. And there are things, there are sort of weird
things that if you’re a geek you can find. But it’s the truth that before the late Victorian
era it was practically impossible for people to conceive of time travel. And I say it was impossible because they didn’t. So it raises two questions, two mirror image
questions: Why not before? What was it that made this not a natural way
to think about things? And then the other question is why now? Was there something that is H.G. Wells just
an oddball, a one in a millennium quirk or was there something in the culture? Was there something about the times that made
time travel an interesting or natural or plausible idea? And, of course, I think it’s the second of
thing. And the point of my book is to investigate
these questions, or at least I should say the starting point of the book is to investigate
these questions. One sort of basic thing to say about why it
wasn’t a natural idea is imagine yourself in the 16th century, you’re a farmer let’s
say and somebody asks you, “So what do you think life is going to be like for your grandchildren? ” You would say, what do you mean? That question doesn’t make any sense. Life is going to be the same for my grandchildren. Life is the same for me as it’s always been. There’s nothing different about the world
I live in from the world of my known ancestors. The world wasn’t changing fast enough for
anybody to have a sense of technological progress, much less a sense that technological progress
is kind of inevitable, that we are on a conveyor belt bringing us inexorably into the future. So you can see that start to change during
the Industrial Revolution, the pace of technological change accelerates. And it accelerates to a point when suddenly
people can look around and become aware that things actually do change fast. In 19th century England there were railroad
trains and you could ride a railroad train across the landscape and look out the window
and see a farmer behind a plow, the same kind of plow that his ancestors had been using
for 500 years and you’re hurtling across this landscape and you would be acutely aware that
your parents didn’t do that. And at the same time the telegraph arrived
on the scene and things started to change really fast. And you can see in the way people talked about
these technologies at the time that they were very aware of these changes. They spoke the way we do today about technological
change and how the world is being transformed. For example, the telegraph is annihilating
space and time. That was part of the subject of my last book,
Information. So H.G. Wells, in the 1890s, is living in
a world where it was possible now for somebody like him, and he was an exceptional person,
to become intensely curious about the future to say the future is what I care about. He was able to think of himself as a kind
of futurist. That was not a word that really existed comfortably
in the language but he used it. And he felt, because he was a forward-looking
a guy, politically forward to looking too. He was a socialist. He thought the smart people, the cool people
should be thinking about what the future is like. So that’s another peculiar fact about his
book The Time Machine that not everybody remembers. He had this time machine and it could go wherever
he wanted but it only goes into the future. H.G. Wells never thought I can travel into
the past, who would I want to meet? Which is the kind of thing we think all the
time now. A lot of time travel stories involve travel
to the past. Of course there’s much more to it. There’s much more going on about notions of
time. And that becomes, for me at least that was
the fun of doing the book was to see what was happening. There was a kind of ferment, a kind of upheaval
in the way people were thinking about time. Part of it had to do with discovery of geology. People were digging in the earth and looking
at buried layers and understanding for the first time that these layers of different
kinds of rock, sedimentary, volcanic rock, were a kind of diagram of the earth’s history. And at the same time Darwin had arrived and
spoken and people were understanding something for the first time about the history of life
on earth and the way that history of life on earth could be visualized and explored
again through buried layers. So there’s a kind of spatial metaphor for
time. You can look at the earth and archaeologists
were digging things up and realizing that this is a kind of record and you can think
of time as something extending deep into the earth, for example. I mean there were a lot of new ways of looking
at time. Here’s another example. It comes along with instrumentation for thinking
about the weather. You have a barometer and it makes a graph
of the air pressure over time and so the needle goes up and down and you look at this graph
on a paper. And one of the dimensions on the paper represents
time. And that wasn’t a totally new idea in the
19th century. Descartes did that and Newton did it, they
graphed time against space as a dimension. So there’s something that also was coming
into people’s awareness. And so a funny thing about H.G. Wells’ book,
to stick with him for a second, is his time traveler, as he calls him, gathers his friends
around the fire and explains to them, explains his time machine, and the explanation involves
a kind of lesson on science, a lesson about geometry. And he says, “The first thing I have to tell
you is that everything you think you know about geometry it’s wrong. They teach you that there are three dimensions,
length, breadth and height, but actually there’s a fourth dimension and the fourth dimension
is time.” And he explains this to them and to them it’s
a new idea. By to them I mean to Wells’ readers. In the fiction he’s explaining it to his pals,
but of course he’s really explaining this brand-new idea to the people of 19th century
England. Well, to us that idea is a second nature. Time is the fourth dimension. Everybody knows that. We don’t exactly learn it in kindergarten
but almost. And it’s odd that Einstein was ten years after
Wells, that is Einstein’s very first presentation of the special theory of relativity was ten
years after Wells’ Time Machine. So what am I trying to say here? I am not trying to say that Einstein got this
idea from Wells. That would be great if there were any evidence
for it but there isn’t any evidence for that and it would be silly to say that. I’m also not trying to say that Wells was
such a genius about physics that he anticipated these ideas before – well, he did anticipate
them, but he wasn’t putting forward a theory of physics. He was not – he never dreamed that ten years
later this would be a new orthodoxy of the most important science that the professionals
were discussing. He thought he was making up a story. He thought he was trying to invent a plausible
excuse for this piece of fantastic storytelling that he wanted to sell. It was his first book. He was a young striving writer trying to make
a buck. And for the rest of his life he lived a long
time and he lived through an era where relativity became well understood and time as the fourth
dimension became a recognized concept and people started to take time travel seriously
and those people were generally disappointed in Wells himself because Wells never did time
travel again. He never cooperated with people who wanted
to say you know, could time travel be real? How could we do it? He always said don’t you guys know I’m just
telling a story? So he disappointed his fans, as no doubt I’m
going to disappoint my fans when they buy my book hoping to discover the secrets of
time travel.

55 Replies to “Time Travel in Science Fiction: A Brief History | James Gleick”

  1. Not sure who this book is for. A time travel fan would be bored with these obvious questions, and I can't see a non-fan buying this. We imagine time travel now because of more rapid advances in society, and more plausible theories and technology to do it, and it leads to very creative novels and movies, and….so what…the end.

  2. Late Victorian era, maybe. HG Wells? No. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was six years before The Time Machine. And prophecy has been around for millennia and is essentially informational time travel. "King Oedipus" was playing around with time travel paradoxes long before "The Terminator".

  3. Incorrect and just plain ignorant. The concept of time travel is easily found in most ancient eastern fiction and religious texts. The most famous of the stories can be found in the Panchtantra/Jataka tales. Religious stories can be found here: https://www.quora.com/What-is-said-about-time-travel-in-ancient-Hindu-texts
    In fact, there are stories about the Buddha physically traveling across time. Let's just time travel back to the point where this video wasn't created! There are even stories about relative time – there's a story in the Bhagvatam(9. 3.29-32) about a man who traveled to another planet, he stayed there for only 20 minutes, but when he came back all his relatives had died, and so he became an ascetic.

  4. Time travel doesn't exist, we are always in the now. We haven't ever been in the past or the future, only thinking about in the now. When you time travel to "the future" you are still in the same moment so from that perspective we cannot ever escape from being in the "now".

  5. The problem with a time machine is that the universe doesnt record information in a way that exists as it did in a previous state. Take a tape recorder for example. Yes you can rewind and fast forward and revisit all the material on the tape but that is only possible because the material exists in that exact data form giving the tape machine something to read. The universe might not get rid of information and matter but it and the events surrounding it no longer exist in the same form that it once had. Now you could be able to reconstruct and interpret that information one day to form it as it was but it would be its own identity and no longer consist of the environment it once came from and existed in. It would consist of the present and exist in the present. Time travel is like religion in such that it exists for our own desires. The multiple dimension theory is also not a case of time travel in the true sense of the notion. Multiple dimensions would be seperate and of little to no consquence of our own. The idea that there exists past versions of our universe comes from the idea that these multiple dimensions are infinite meaning no beginning or ending of numbers thus any possibility will occure.

  6. Haven't people always said something along the lines of "It takes a fortnight by horse to get from place X to place Y."?

  7. you should read the sequel Time Ships by Stephen Baxter! brings quantum physics into His world. including many world's theorem. more than 1 future! time war.

  8. Great piece. What about a "A Christmas Carol"? I suppose Scrooge can't interact with the past and future there though, so it doesn't really count as travel.

  9. This guy needs to do better research. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Clock That Went Backward, and Memoirs of the Twentieth Century were all years before H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine.

    His point stands that time travel in fiction is a relatively new idea, but The Time Machine is not the first.

  10. Charles Dickens Christmas Carol(1849) shows events of a possible future and of the past.
    The Clock that Went Backwards(1881) by Edward Page Mitchell .
    The secret to time travel is also the secret to all knowledge. Just dream the bigger you dream and the more effort you use to make those dreams come true more you will accomplish.

  11. In the last book of the Confessions, Augustine discusses the nature of time. His view was that time was established by God–in a sense like a movie reel that's unrolled back into the past.

  12. If far fetched fiction has a quantitative effect on the direction that science takes, should we consider it slightly less of a financial endeavor and more of a public service?

  13. "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", by Mark Twain, was released in 1889 – six years earlier than Wells' work. This is neither an obscure nor "geeky" selection. There are certainly other, equally common examples of time travel literature previous to 1895. Your attempt to revise literary history to support your own narrative has failed, serving only to highlight your own wanton ignorance.

  14. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843. A very popular story about time travel predating the time machine by 52 years. Granted Scrooge was unable to interact with the visions but the way in which this was explained to him in the novel clearly indicates that Dickens considered the idea but likely chose a vision based plot to avoid paradoxes and to keep the plot as plausibly realistic.

  15. "Time machine" was mentioned in 1881.
    Starting point of your book is wrong.
    This channel is lying by the video.
    1733 Memoirs of the Twentieth Century by Samuel Madden A guardian angel travels to the year 1728, with letters from 1997 and 1998.
    1781 Anno 7603 by Johan Herman Wessel A good fairy sends people to the year 7603 AD.[1] The people find themselves in a society where gender roles are reversed. Only women are soldiers.
    1819 Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving A man falls asleep on a mountain side and wakes twenty years in the future. He finds he has been forgotten, his wife has died and his daughter is no longer a child.
    1843 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens The heartless Scrooge is shown his past and future (in a dream) by three ghosts in order to teach him the consequences of his selfish ways.
    1881 The Clock that Went Backward by Edward Page Mitchell A clock takes people back in time. The first story to use a machine for time travel
    1887 Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy In the late 19th century, Julian West falls into a deep, hypnosis-induced sleep and wakes 113 years later.
    1888 A Dream of John Ball by William Morris John Ball travels between mediaeval and contemporary worlds.

  16. In Hindu mythology: one king traveled(instant traveling) to realm of gods to fight a war but he was tricked by the king of gods(Indra) as he was not told time runs slow in that realm thus when he came back after a few days of war all was gone, his kingdom, everything he knew has changed, everything except his family who were with him the whole time he dint understand what is going on, and went to realm of Brahma. Brahma took a couple of minutes(in his realm) to explain him what had happened and told in his realm time runs even slower and he reappears on earth hundreds of years have passed, and and his daughter marries the Krishna’s brother. There are various version of this story each essentially similar to time dilation.

  17. first concept of time travel was the first person who was resentful or regretful of something that transpired and wished they could relive and alter a key moment.

  18. This guy need to do research before speaking. Neither time travel or time machine is a new concept. Both concepts are well used in Indian Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata also known as Jaya long before H.G. wells or any modern author as per say.

  19. surely, time travel must have been a kniwn paradox in relation to the omnipotence and omniscience of God. God forsees the future and the past. God can undue the present and start all over again. id like to see if timetravel was thought about in relation to an all powerful paradox proof diety.

  20. The BBC investigated the literary roots of time travel:
    HG Wells or Enrique Gaspar: Whose time machine was first? http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-12900390

    It mentions:

    Edward Page Mitchell's story The Clock That Went Backward (1881)
    Enrique Gaspar's El Anacronopete (1887)
    HG Wells' The Time Machine (1894)

    Altough Mitchell's story doesn't have much time travel, while Gaspar's very clearly does.

  21. 'Ask yourself, as a farmer, in the 16th century where do you see your grandchildren?'' Witchcraft, demonology etc all perceived future/ past events (which is basic time travel) the idea of living or transporting to the future or past (without a machine) even goes back to superstition; cats who have nine lives etc. it is inevitable that someone got an idea to write about a machine that can bounce around. Also, don't forget superman

  22. Everyone just repeats the same arguments against the main thesis of James Gleick not understanding that he speaks 1) of a specific kind of technological time travelling that indicates a new physical understanding of time 2) speaks about a book intending this new understanding, reflecting it and making it to the main topic! That is different from other books. That time and the metaphysical wish to change time is important in books before "the time machine" is not the most intelligent observation. I would recommend to read books by dickens or twain instead using them for arguments like theologians did using bible verses against bible verses (dicta probantia).

  23. Looking at the comments… What Wells brings to the table is not the idea of time travel per se but rather the idea of voluntary time travel. In the comments I read of prophecies and gods taking ppl into the future… yeah but Wells takes the industrial revolution, and the wonders of man-made machines and thinks of what ppl could eventually achieve with that. Thats the difference.

  24. Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward (1888), Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). Two examples that predate The Time Machine by 7 and 6 years respectively. Not that I believe James Gleick is entirely wrong; the period did lend itself to introspection of society and how it stood from where it came from (traveling backwards) and where it might be going (traveling forwards). H.G. Well's just was not the only one at the time using time Travel in narrative fiction.

  25. It wasn't only time machines, but machines in general that weren't thought of in the same way until the Victorian era, or rather, until the industrial revolution.

  26. I bet the idea of time travel goes all the way back to when human beings started to recognize their mistakes. Then wishing to go back and do it differently was an automatic human desire.

  27. It is most interesting that time travel is a very new concept. I had not consciously thought about that before seeing this video but indeed, I believe he is correct about the beginning of the idea in human thought. Dang, I'm a history buff and must cogitate upon this.

    While it has been pointed out that Wells was not the very first person to have thought about such things, it was he, Wells, that helped made the idea common in modern thinking. He had the good fortune of having written The Time Machine at a time when people could understand and deal with the idea partly because of the massive quick changes happening in Europe.

    I have never met a historian or archaeologist that does not have time travel fantasies regarding the past.

    Jung mentioned people who were living in the wrong era, people who felt they should have been born some time in the past. He pointed out that these people always saw themselves as truly belonging in the past, never in the future.

    Even knowing how horrible life was in many places at many times, the unknown future is more intimidating than the relatively known past

  28. This reminds me of another similar idea, the emergence of the concept of space travel and astronomy. That people, for the longest time, did not grasp the context for the Earth co-existing with other planets in the same physical space.

  29. Before you can define time travel you have to define time.

    Time as we generally think of it is is just a human invention. The reason the Industrial revolution is significant is because before man didn't live by the clock. Afterwards he did. Humans lived life by the passing of the seasons, the movement of the sun and the moon. A ticking clock brought about an acute awareness of the passing of our lives.

  30. Interestingly, in Well's "The Time Machine", there is NO concept whatsoever about changing something, either in the past (the possibility of travelling into the past is only briefly mentioned in the novel but it IS mentioned) or in the future.

  31. Time travel is there in the story of balarama marrying his wife from tretayuga , while he is in dwaparayuga .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *