Is Time Travel Possible? Only Since 1895

Author and Science Historian

The idea of progress — technological and moral — is inescapably familiar to us. For anyone born after the invention of the steam engine in the early 1700s, a steady series of mechanical and social changes (from the train and telegraph to the American and French revolutions) imbued each person with a sense of inexorable advancement. And it is these kinds of changes, James Gleick argues in his new book Time Travel: A History, that gave us the idea that we could literally travel to the future.

Humans have long prepared for the future (by storing grain for the winter, etc.), aware that we are gradually moving into it. The ability to make plans for different potential futures is partly what distinguishes us from other animals, but the idea of moving actively into a distant present — going forward a number of years in an instant — all begins with one book: H.G. Wells's The Time Machine.

Published in 1895, it proved a work of such imagination as to inspire all subsequent time travel stories, says Gleick. Before The Time Machine, there is simply no record of us thinking we might travel into the future at a faster pace than what occurs naturally. Without evidence of technological and social progress, there was simply no reason to think that the future would be different from the present in any substantial way.

Read any book set in the future, or watch any sci-fi film that imagines the future. There are always imaginative technological changes to account for, as well as social differences. More frequently than not, they are imagined as dystopias: Brave New World, 1984, Bladerunner, AI, etc. But the original account of a society drastically different from its own — Thomas Moore's Utopia, published in 1516 before the Enlightenment's myriad advances — is not located in the future. It is located on a faraway island, so far that is is impossible to reach, at least presently.

It is fascinating that just ten years after Wells's The Time Machine is published, Einstein publishes his theory of special relativity, beginning a paradigm shift that provides mathematical justification for the fanciful notion of time travel. Wells's book had no influence on Einstein, but it speaks to the power of the imagination that fictional ideas, like that of a time machine, can presage fundamental changes in how we view reality.

James Gleick's most recent book is Time Travel: A History.

  • Transcript


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.