A Brief History of Time Travel: A Relatively New Device

By OLIVER FRANKLIN-WALLIS / Posted on March 24, 2018

Jamie Gleick’s new book explores our (surprisingly new) obsession with era-hopping.

Of all time travel’s paradoxes, here’s the strangest of them all: hop on a TARDIS back to 1894 and the concept didn’t even exist. “Time travel is a new idea,” explains New York-based author James Gleick, 62. “It’s a very modern myth.” Gleick’s entertaining Time Travel: A History, out in hardback in February, quantum leaps from HG Wells’s The Time Machine – the original – via Proust and alt-history right up to your Twitter timeline. Until we get the DeLorean working for real, fellow travellers, consider it the next best thing.

9th century BCE

The Mahabharata

Time travel appears in Hindu text The Mahabharata, and in stories such as Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle (1819) – but it usually only involved a one-way trip. “People fell asleep, and woke up in the future,” says Gleick.

(The Mahābhārata is an epic legendary narrative of the Kurukṣetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pāṇḍava princes. It also contains philosophical and devotional material, such as a discussion of the four “goals of life” or puruṣārtha. Among the principal works and stories in the Mahābhārata are the Bhagavad Gita, the story of Damayanti, an abbreviated version of the Rāmāyaṇa, and the story of Ṛṣyasringa, often considered as works in their own right.

Traditionally, the authorship of the Mahābhārata is attributed to Vyāsa. There have been many attempts to unravel its historical growth and compositional layers. The oldest preserved parts of the text are thought to be not much older than around 400 BCE, though the origins of the epic probably fall between the 8th and 9th centuries BCE. The text probably reached its final form by the early Gupta period (c. 4th century CE). According to the Mahābhārata itself, the tale is extended from a shorter version of 24,000 verses called simply Bhārata.

The Mahābhārata is the longest epic poem known and has been described as “the longest poem ever written”. Its longest version consists of over 100,000 śloka or over 200,000 individual verse lines (each shloka is a couplet), and long prose passages. At about 1.8 million words in total, the Mahābhārata is roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, or about four times the length of the Rāmāyaṇa. W. J. Johnson has compared the importance of the Mahābhārata in the context of world civilization to that of the Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, the works of Homer, Greek drama, or the Quran. Within the Indian tradition it is sometimes called the Fifth Veda.)


HG Wells’s The Time Machine
“The idea of time travel with volition, in either direction, didn’t arrive until Wells,” says Gleick. It explains that time is a dimension – something not widely accepted until Einstein’s theories in 1905.

(Wells had considered the notion of time travel before, in a short story titled “The Chronic Argonauts” (1888). This work, published in his college newspaper, was the foundation for The Time Machine.

Wells frequently stated that he had thought of using some of this material in a series of articles in the Pall Mall Gazette until the publisher asked him if he could instead write a serial novel on the same theme. Wells readily agreed and was paid £100 (equal to about £11,000 today) on its publication by Heinemann in 1895, which first published the story in serial form in the January to May numbers of The New Review (newly under the nominal editorship of W. E. Henley). Henry Holt and Company published the first book edition (possibly prepared from a different manuscript on 7 May 1895; Heinemann published an English edition on 29 May. These two editions are different textually and are commonly referred to as the “Holt text” and “Heinemann text”, respectively. Nearly all modern reprints reproduce the Heinemann text.

The story reflects Wells’s own socialist political views, his view on life and abundance, and the contemporary angst about industrial relations. It is also influenced by Ray Lankester’s theories about social degeneration[4] and shares many elements with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Vril, the Power of the Coming Race (1871). Other science fiction works of the period, including Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) and the later film Metropolis (1927), dealt with similar themes.

This work is an early example of the Dying Earth subgenre. The portion of the novella that sees the Time Traveller in a distant future where the sun is huge and red also places The Time Machine within the realm of eschatology, i.e. the study of the end times, the end of the world, and the ultimate destiny of humankind.)


Henri Bergson’s Time And Free Will

Bergson’s thesis is published soon after Wells’s novel. “Bergson is a friend of Marcel Proust,” says Gleick. Soon Proust et al are jumping on the idea of time travel to explore free will – and influencing new sci-fi in return.


Time Capsules

The idea of preserving a time stamp only arose in the 1930s in Scientific American. “It’s the most pedestrian form of time travel: sending something into the future at a rate of one minute per minute.”


Robert A Heinlein’s By His Bootstraps

Heinlein’s short story, published in Astounding Science Fiction, introduces the idea of a character appearing in multiple timelines, meeting themselves amid complex – and funny – paradoxes.

(Bob Wilson locks himself in his room to finish his graduate thesis on a mathematical aspect of metaphysics, using the concept of time travel as a case in point. Someone says, “Don’t bother with it. It’s a lot of utter hogwash anyhow.” The interloper, who looks strangely familiar, calls himself “Joe” and explains that he has come from the future through a Time Gate, a circle about 6 ft (1.8 m) in diameter in the air behind Joe. Joe tells Bob that great opportunities await him through the Gate and thousands of years in his future. By way of demonstration, Joe tosses Bob’s hat into the Gate. It disappears.

Bob is reluctant. Joe plies him with drink, which Joe (a stranger, from Bob’s point of view) inexplicably retrieves from its hiding place in Bob’s apartment, and Bob becomes intoxicated. Finally, Joe is about to manhandle Bob through the Gate when another man appears, one who looks very much like Joe. The newcomer does not want Bob to go. During the ensuing fight, Bob gets punched, sending him through the Gate.

He recovers his senses in a strange place. A somewhat older-looking, bearded man explains that he is 30,000 years in the future. The man, calling himself Diktor, treats Bob to a sumptuous breakfast served by beautiful women. Diktor explains that humans in the future are handsome, cultured in a primitive fashion, but have none of the spunk of their ancestors. An alien race built the Gate and refashioned humanity into compliant slaves, but the aliens are gone now, leaving a world where a 20th-century go-getter can make himself king.

Diktor asks him to go back through the Gate and bring back the man he finds on the other side. Bob agrees. Stepping through, he finds himself back in his own room, watching himself typing his thesis. Without much memory of what happened before, he reenacts the scene, this time from the other point of view, and calling himself “Joe” so as not to confuse his earlier self. Just as he is about to shove Bob through the Gate, another version of himself shows up. The fight happens as before, and Bob goes through the Gate.

His future self claims that Diktor is just trying to tangle them up so badly that they can never get untangled, but Joe goes through and meets Diktor again. Diktor gives him a list of things to buy in his own time and bring back. A little annoyed by Diktor’s manner, Bob argues with him, but eventually returns to the past, back in his room once again.

He lives through the same scene for the third time, then realizes that he is now free. He collects the items on Diktor’s list, which seem to be things a 20th-century man could find useful in making himself king in the future. After returning to the future, he adjusts the Gate to send himself back to a point ten years earlier, to give himself time to establish himself as the local chieftain. Thus he hopes to preempt Diktor’s influence, charting his own course instead. While setting the Gate, he finds two things beside the controls: his hat, and a notebook containing translations between English words and the language of Diktor’s slaves.

He sets himself up as chief, taking precautions against the arrival of Diktor. He adopts the name, which is simply the local word for “chief” (the etymology is not explained – “Diktor” might be derived from “doctor”, “director” and/or “dictator”). He experiments with the Time Gate, hoping to see its makers. Once, he does catch a glimpse of one and has a brief mental contact with it. The experience is so traumatizing that he runs away screaming. He forces himself to return long enough to shut down the Gate, then stays away from it for more than two years. He does not notice that his hair has begun to whiten prematurely, as a result of the stress and shock. Having worn out the notebook through long use, he copies its text into a new, identical, one.

One day, upon setting the Gate to view his old room in the past, he sees three versions of himself in a familiar arrangement. Shortly, his earliest self comes through. The circle has closed. He is Diktor—the only Diktor there ever was. Wondering who actually compiled the notebook, Diktor prepares to brief Bob, who has to orchestrate events to ensure his own future.)


William Gibson’s The Peripheral

Gleick cites Gibson’s unique twist on the genre: “We can’t send people, but what if you could send information back to the past?” It’s a chilling new take. “It shows how our cultural conception of time is changing.”

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H/T: Wired