When Did Time Travel Come From?


*clock ticking* Who was the first person to ever have the idea of travelling through time? If I had to guess, I’d say it was probably an early human tens of thousands of years ago who stubbed his toe or tripped or lit his hair on fire, and in searing pain had the thought: “I wish I would’ve not done that”. In this really limited way, time travel as an idea is probably as old as regret, which is to say, as old as humanity itself. Human beings have an instinctive sense for cause and effect and a particular skill for manipulating causes to get the effects that they want. It makes sense that our wandering minds would look at the effects of what’s already happened and wonder what things might look like if the causes had been different somehow. Which makes it kind of weird that time travel as a device to tell stories is a relatively recent phenomenon. It might not seem that way, since travelling through time is such a staple of modern science fiction and really the modern imagination. We’ve been so saturated with time-travelling novels and TV shows and movies that the average person pretty much understands all the basic concepts and paradoxes. But the time travel genre is only about a hundred years old, and change, depending on where you mark the beginning. Many people see H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” in 1895 as the start of the genre. Others look to Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, from a few years later. Some even cite Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, with it’s Ghosts of Christmas past and future, from 1843. The truth is, you can’t really pinpoint a specific novel as the genesis of time-travel fiction, because the genre doesn’t pop into existence out of nowhere like a cyborg from the future. It grew slowly from the ashes of a genre that no one really knows about any more. But to understand that, there is one specific book you can mention. In more ways than one, Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” triggered a sea change in science and culture. After “Origin” was published in 1859, the idea of evolution, not necessarily the idea of natural selection, was adopted fast – really fast. Just a decade later, evolution was ‘assumed’ at several top universities, and it filtered down into the popular consciousness. It coloured the way people thought, not just about biology, but about sociology too. If species were getting fitter and fitter, better and better, why not societies? It’s in this period that a certain kind of novel becomes really popular. It’s called the “utopian romance” and it culminates in Edward Bellamy’s 1888 book “Looking Backward”. In Bellamy’s book, the hero Julian West falls into a deep hypnotic sleep and wakes up one hundred and thirteen (113) years later in the year 2000. The world is totally changed into a socialist utopia, essentially, Bellamy’s version of the perfect society, evolved out of the society of his own day. The book was a huge success. The second novel in all of American literature to sell over a million copies. Like successful things do, it exploded the genre, resulting in dozens and dozens of utopian stories written along a very similar structure. And with evolution as the guiding principle, utopias were no longer on a lost island or a different world… they were in the future. In his extraordinary book on time travel fiction, David Wittenberg shows that, over time, utopian romance became really preoccupied with how its heroes got the the future. A lot of the time people fell asleep and woke up years later, other times peoples minds were sent forward and were able to come back. People traveled to the future in hot air balloons, by lightning storms, even once with the use of a special shampoo. In fact, when H.G. Wells solves the problem with the mechanical “time machine”, he’s doing it for the same reason as everybody else: to create a realistic frame for his own utopian story. Or, in this case, his criticism and satire of that genre. Eventually, the utopian craze fell under the weight of its own propaganda, today barely anyone reads or writes that kind of fiction and nobody knows the name of the author or the book that sold a million copies a hundred years ago. But as Utopian Fiction collapsed, it left us with a framing device that grew into its own genre. That’s where, or rather, when, time travel fiction as we know it, comes from. In the following decades, the genre would be transformed by the discoveries of Einstein, it would use a popular understanding of space time to probe the paradoxes of causality that we’ve all become so familiar with. But as Wittenberg notes, time travel fiction is essentially the child of narrative itself. Examining the nature of causality is the same thing as examining the nature of story because… that’s what a story is: cause and effect. It’s why time travel books and movies are obsessed with rules. They’re like laboratories of storytelling. Just create a world, establish its rules, and ask… [Gunshot and yell.] “whats possible?” *clock ticking* Hey everybody, thank you so much for watching. This episode was sponsored by the new Youtube Red original series “Lifeline”. It’s the first, the very first, scifi narrative series that Red has produced, about a company called Lifeline sends its agents into the future to save clients that they know are going to die. It’s a really great concept and, personally, I’m super excited that Red is actually green-lighting shows like this, I hope the future brings more by talented creators. In this case, Sam and Niko from Corridor Digital are directing the entire series and I’ve been a fan of theirs for a while. You can watch the first episode for free right now by clicking the link right here or the first link in the description. Thanks guys, I’ll see ya next time.

23 Replies to “When Did Time Travel Come From?

  1. Nerdwrite1 / COLDFUSION / TECHALTAIR / LEMINO are best youtuber and they also have good narrating technique and voice also. love from Nepal 🙂

  2. 1:53 Does anyone notice the random little details Nerdwriter adds to videos? No one would have blinked if he hadn't added a faded shadow to that text, but he works for that quality anyway. It's awesome.

  3. The same premise of every time travel movie. Morals Don t fuck up , then you do not have to go back.

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