Recently, I finished another sci-fi book with time travel elements in its story (I won’t tell the title, it would be a bit spoiler). It kind of became a theme for me this year as I read “Time and Again” by Jack Finney, “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis, “Wanderers of Time” (short stories) by John Wyndham, and a few more.
Time Travel stories are pretty common. In fact, there really are a lot of them. It clearly fascinates writers and readers alike. Naturally, researching the topic, it led me to explore an obvious question:
Who Invented Time Travel?
First of all, we are speaking about the idea of time travel, like in my article: Who invented teleportation?, it’s purely a fictional topic. For real, concrete science facts on the subjects, I’m not interested in that today.
At first, time travel stories were not really about traveling in time, but about waking up in a speculative future. Like in Washington Irving’s 1819 short-story “Rip Van Winkle” about a Dutch-American villager in colonial America who drank a bit much, and fell asleep in the Catskill Mountains before waking up 20 years later in quite a different America.
Even before that, in the 1771 novel “L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais” (titled “Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred” in English) by French author Louis-Sébastien Mercier, a man fell asleep after a heated discussion with a philosopher friend and finds himself in a Paris several centuries into the future.
A few years before, in 1733, Samuel Madden’s “Memoirs of the Twentieth Century” introduced the idea of the time-traveling guardian angel who brought letters from the future to the narrator. Dreams were also used to explore time in a different way—but effective in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (1843).
The First Time Traveling Machines
Other writers used other magical beings, but as far as science fiction goes, time machines are what cemented the idea of time travel. And when we are talking about time machines, it’s hard not to start with the story that popularized it: H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel “The Time Machine.”
It’s the classic story, the inspiration for so many time-traveling stories. It’s about a Victorian English Time Traveler who built a time machine and went far into the future where he becomes a witness to the downfall of humanity. He then finds a way back home to tell his story.
As I said, it was the story that popularized the idea of traveling into the future (or the past), but it was not the first time Wells used a time machine in one of his stories. He already wrote a short story titled “The Chronic Argonauts” (in 1888) about Dr. Moses Nebogipfel, an “Anachronic Man” searching for a time where he would belong—and he built his time machine to achieve that.
“The Chronic Argonauts” is still not the first story to use an inventor-built machine to travel in time. A year before, Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau’s “El anacronópete” was published in Barcelona. It is considered the first story involving time travel using a machine. The “anacronópete” in question is a cast iron box that uses electricity to send travelers through tubes. The author even introduced a special fluid to protect travelers against the effect of time—they don’t age!