A Brief History of Time Travel

time travel

Wait a minute, Doc. Ah… Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of an industrial age understanding of the arbitrary segmented concept of time as it pertains to human understanding of the revolutions of our world around the yellow dwarf, main sequence star that we orbit?

Time travel is an interesting concept, and it is a wholly new one. Most science fiction concepts that we have come to know are really just rehashed versions of older ideas. For example, robots are merely re-imagined version of clay Golems, and there are even ancient stories of many cultures pertaining to space travel and visiting other worlds. Yet, time travel is a completely new concept for our society -relatively speaking- and that has a lot to do with how we humans have come to see the movement of the sun and time in our world.

Forward to the Past
Now, let’s be clear. The concept of moving through time does have some ancient roots. Tales like the Mahabharata, the Japanese story of Urashima Tarō, and the Jewish tale of Honi ha-M’agel all talk about movement in time. The most common tale is of a character that leaves his home, gets into some otherworldly shenanigans, and then comes back only to discover that it is many years in the future. Everyone they know is dead and they have long been forgotten. These tales, though they involve moving forward in time, are not time travel stories as we think of the modern concept.

When the characters return to their lives they discover that the world has changed, but not in any significant way. The world still remains as it always was, but the people are different and the character discovers that they have not only suffered a mortal death, but a second death. That is the death you suffer when there is no one left who remembers you or your deeds in the world. These are stories more about the tragedy of mortality and the concept of remembrance, rather than the concept of moving through time. They do not talk about the progress of the world or its people. They focus on the allegorical understanding of mortality and the tragedy/reality of insignificance.

That is because of how our ancestors thought about time and the movement of the heavenly bodies. A lot of ancient cultures perceived time in a cyclical manner. They rose with the sun and set with it too. Every day was an affirmation that the world ran on cycles. All things young would become old and the world would continue in a series of cycles the way it always had. They ate when they were hungry, worked when the sun was up, planted with the seasons, and slept with the night. It was an existence without an understanding of what 5:00 am meant, or 11:34 am, or 6:45 pm. Those arbitrary numbers meant nothing to them. They judged the day by the passing of the sun or the movement of the people and the animals around them. To them stories about moving forward in time were more personal, because time was a more personal concept. It was the cycle of your life, which was just a part of a larger series of cycles. When Urashima Tarō is flung into the future, his own cycle is disrupted and he finds himself in a new one. This is a completely different understanding than how we in America think of time today.

Wibbly Wobbly Linear Time
Time is a property of space, but it is also a concept of human understanding. Even today different cultures have different understandings of time. Many Asian and eastern cultures still adhere to a version of cyclical time. While, many Mediterranean people, like Italians, Spanish, Greeks, and some Arabic cultures adhere to what is called Multi-Active Time, which is where time is valuable but not as valuable as relationships. Appointments can be pushed and the passing of the clocks can be ignored if something or someone more important arises during the day. Most Western cultures, especially Americans, British, Germans, and Swiss, however, adhere to linear time. That is the belief that efficiency comes from sticking to schedules. If a bus is meant to leave at 12:02, than it had better leave at 12:02. We run our lives based upon the ticking of our clocks. We see time as a straight-line, from the past to the future, and maybe it is no surprise that from these cultures the first modern tales of time travel arose.

The concept of linear time has its beginning in the Renaissance when early clocks began to be produced, but it was not until the Industrial Revolution, that the concept really caught on. There is a reason that Greenwich Mean Time is the standard average time of the world. The Industrial Age began in the UK, and it forever changed how we perceive time. -That may also be the reason why one of our most famous time travelers also calls the UK home, but that is just conjecture.- The working populace was no longer bound to the sun and the fields, but the clock and the factory line. The perception of time was also bolstered by the mass production of clocks and pocket watches. Suddenly, it was fashionable to wear timekeeping pieces and have clocks in your own home. The people of London and elsewhere were literally surrounded by reminders of time.

Enter into this atmosphere HG Wells. Wells was not the first person to write a modern time travel story, but he was the most memorable. He even coined the term for the device that travels through time, The Time Machine. In his 1895 book a scientist invents a machine that allows him to travel to the future to a world completely alien to his own. Wells incorporated other contemporary scientific understanding into his work, most prominently Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. This is note worthy because the new scientific understanding of evolution as well as the measurable progression of technology also helped propel the human race’s understanding of how time affects our world. The Time Machine was one of the first modern time travel stories because it shows a concept how the world and its people change from time period to time period. Wells is not necessarily concerned with the personal journey of the traveler, but the journey of time itself as it molds our future and our species.

There were also precursors to Well’s story. For instance, Edward Page Mitchell, was the first person to write about a device to travel back to the 16th century. Yet, one we should focus on is Washington Irving’s 1819 Rip Van Winkle, and that is worth mentioning for two reasons. First, it follows the tradition of “man wakes up in the future,” which we talked about with earlier examples, but there is an American twist. Rip falls asleep in the British Colonies and wakes up in the United States of America. His son is grown, his friends are dead, and his whole country is different. That last part is the important aspect, because it registers a change in the world. This change is more political than technological, but it still lends itself to an awareness of the passage of time. We hesitate to call it true time travel, but it shows an evolution from cyclical to linear thinking.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Paradox
Philosopher John Hospers wrote in 1953 that time travel was “logically impossible.” What he was perhaps trying to say, is that time travel is hard, and wrapping your brain around it is even harder. Any trip you take to the past would create a paradox, in both time and our understanding of time. What if you go back and kill your own father, or -even worse- learn that he was actually a pretty cool guy before he had kids? These sort of brain bending concepts may be why the majority of those original time travel stories were about people traveling to the future.

Time travel stories in the 19th century did examine the past, such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge is sent back in time to observe his own childhood. Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is also notable, as it send its protagonist to the past, but Twain was more concerned with lampooning chivalry than with any questions of paradox. Thus, a lot of those early “travel to the past” stories were more about adventure or fancy. For us, the most interesting time travel concept emerged in an odd place, The Defence of Duffer’s Drift. Written in 1904 by Major General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton, -which is a name more English than meat pies- it details the adventure of Lieutenant N. Backsight Forethought during the Boer War. His unit is attacked in six “dreams.” Each time Lieutenant Foresight uses the knowledge of the past dream to change his tactics and learn form his mistakes. It was written to promote critical thinking in the British military, but in doing so it also captures an essence of why we tell time travel stories in the first place.

As Hospers pointed out, the notion of time travel is nearly inconceivable from a logical standpoint, and yet we do it all the time: Back to the Future, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Terminator, Star Trek, Doctor WhoFuturama, and more tend to deal with going back to the past and creating paradoxes. In a way this new genre has helped us think differently about how time operates and about how we operate in time. Which time period would you travel to? How would you change history if you could? What do you want to see most about the future? These are questions that our ancestors rarely asked themselves. They rarely thought of them, because there were no words and no ideas on which to base them. Time travel literature has expanded our societal understanding. It has challenged us to think in new ways and that is kind of the point.

The City on the Edge of Understanding
Early time travel tales were personal. They were about people’s lives, because time was a part of us. Then, starting in the early 19th century, time travel became much more cultural. It stopped being about just us alone, and it became more about the world in which we inhabit. After 1887, there was a time travel story published almost every year. After 1950, there were time travel stories being published one or two every year. These days there are hundreds of time travel stories published every year. As we have watched our technology evolve, our political landscape grow, and our world change we have become more aware of the passage of time and the many ways in which it could or should have gone awry. Democracy itself contributes to this, as we continually find ourselves living between regimes and buffeted in the currents of change.

As life imitates art, so does life imitate time travel. These stories have not only come about because of our new concepts of time, but they have contributed to them. We have become a more appreciative of time and the ways in which it ebbs and flows. The “logical impossibility” of Hospers has been conquered in our mind, and replaced with a longing for the past, and a desire to know future. Perhaps, that is a blessing and the curse. We have an appreciation of the past, only because of the regrets we live with, the baby Hitlers we could -maybe even should- have killed along the way. Regardless, the concept of time travel is here to stay. It is both a symptom and a precursor to our modern society and it is a sign that we have evolved in our thinking, or at least in the way we deal with our own abstract understanding of time.

“The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine, why not do it with some style?”


Join the discussion