Origin Stories: Who Invented Time Travel?

Welcome to Origin Stories, a monthly series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at the origins of popular Sci-Fi concepts.  Today on Origin Stories, we’re looking at the origins of:


If I ever have a time machine—a real, working time machine—the first thing I’d do is go back in time and meet the person who invented time travel.  We do know who that person was.  His name was H.G. Wells, and he was the author of the classic science fiction novella The Time Machine.

Wells got the inspiration for The Time Machine from an unlikely source.  As science historian James Gleick explains in his book Time Travel: A History:

At some point [Wells] sees a printed advertisement for a contraption called Hacker’s Home Bicycle: a stationary stand with rubber wheels to let a person pedal for exercise without going anywhere.  Anywhere through space, that is.  The wheels go round and time goes by.

Of course there had been time travel-like stories before.  Remember the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.  Remember the story of Rip Van Winkle, who found himself suddenly in the future after a really long nap.  Or remember Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Authur’s Court, in which a man from Connecticut gets bonked on the head and wakes up to find himself in the distant past.

But H.G. Wells was the first to take the idea of time travel semi-seriously.  He was the first to try to dress up the idea with scientific and technological jargon.  And in my opinion, no other author has handled time travel so clearly and concisely as Wells did.

The protagonist of The Time Machine, a man of science referred to only as “the Time Traveler,” first explains to a group of friends that we exist in a world of not three dimensions but four.  Everything that exists in this universe has the qualities of “Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration.”  The Time Traveler’s friends then raise all the objections Wells’ readers might have had, and the Time Traveler explains all those objections away in exchanges like this:

“But,” said the Medical Man, staring hard at a coal in the fire, “if Time is really only a fourth dimension of Space, why is it, and why has it always been, regarded as something different?  And why cannot we move in Time as we move about in the other dimensions of Space?”

The Time Traveler smiled.  “Are you sure we can move freely in Space?  Right and left we can go, backward and forward freely enough, and men always have done so.  I admit we move freely in two dimensions.  But how about up and down?  Gravitation limits us there.”

“Not exactly,” said the Medical Man.  “There are balloons.”

“But before the balloons, save for spasmodic jumping and the inequalities of the surface, man had no freedom of vertical movement.”

In other words, we can only move freely in the third dimension thanks to technology—hot air balloons, airplanes, rockets….  Therefore technology may also give us the power to move freely through the fourth dimension of time.

Of course H.G. Wells didn’t actually believe in time travel.  As James Gleick goes on to say, all Wells was trying to do was “gin up a plausible-sounding plot device for a piece of fantastic storytelling.”  But as it would turn out a decade or so later, Wells was not too far off from the truth.  Physicists like Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowski were soon treating time as variable, rather than a constant.  No, Einstein and Minkowski didn’t build any bicycle-like contraptions in their basements, but the notion of time as the fourth dimension—that soon became serious science.

Time travel has always been my favorite subgenre of science fiction.  It has been ever since my Dad first introduced me to Doctor Who.  I realize time travel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but personally I enjoy the kinds of brain-twisting puzzles that a good time travel adventure presents.  It’s the reason I still love Doctor Who, and it’s the reason time travel features so prominently in my own writing.

So if I ever have my own time machine, the first thing I’d do is go back in time to meet H.G. Wells.  I think I owe Mr. Wells a thank you.  

16 thoughts on “Origin Stories: Who Invented Time Travel?

  1. And going back to Doctor Who, the episode “Timelash” has “Herbert” traveling with the Sixth Doctor and seeing all kinds of strange things…

    Of course, at the end we learn Herbert is actually H.G. Wells, who was on holiday near Loch Ness when he encountered The Doctor.

    Now we know where he came up with the ideas for most of his novels.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Time travel, War of the Worlds, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. I imagine The Time Traveler was based off Colin Baker. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wells may have been the earliest to imagine future time travel. And unlike most later authors, he actually has his protagonist explore deep time, to the end of the earth and sun if I recall correctly. That, and the implication that there’s no guarantee human evolution will proceed in a way we today would see as progress.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The time traveler ends up seeing the Sun as a red giant, and after that he describes something that sounds a little like the heat death of the universe. But the stuff about the future evolution of humanity takes up most of the book. It’s a social commentary, really: if society keeps going the way it’s going, here’s how we’ll end up. The time machine itself really is just a plot device.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I read somewhere that it was sort of a socialist commentary about the elite (Eloi) vs working class (Morlocks). Today, the commentary is lost on most of us, leaving just the wonder. That’s the thing about commentary. The story has to be good nonetheless. If it is, even people who don’t get or care about the commentary will enjoy it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I have that problem with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There are so many witty cultural references that, as a modern reader, I just don’t have enough cultural context to understand everything. The social commentary in The Time Machine is more generalized, I think, and therefore I think it’s easier to follow. It probably helps that wealth inequality is still a relevant issue today.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Memories of it are hazy but it was this 80s show about a man and a kid who traveled through time with a magic stopwatch or something. I remember being totally enthralled by it because I was all about time travel anything. It had a very HG wells quality to it. It was kind of like Indiana Jones meets The Time Machine.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You know what, that does sound familiar. I remember some sort of crossover episode with Spartacus and Harriet Tubman. It was something about fighting against slavery in two different eras.

        Liked by 1 person

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