When was time travel invented?

I know that Wells’ “The Time Machine” was not the first description of time travel, but what was? Did Jules Verne speculate about that?

I suppose Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has time travel elements.

How far back does the concept go? Surely not much farther back, not to da Vinci’s time or anything.

Does A Christmas Carol really count? Scrooge wasn’t actually in another time – it was more like a series of visions.

At any rate, Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court a decade before Wells’ The Time Machine was published.

I’m pretty sure that there are no time travellers in any of Jules Verne’s writings.


I’m positive you meant to post this in Cafe Society.

Let me go back in time and move it for you.

There, much better.


Rip Van Winkle is about a type of time travel.

A while ago, I read a story in a collection of SF of the 1800s, titled “The Clock that Ran Backwards”. I seem to recall the introduction billing it as the first time machine story, that is to say, where the time travel is achieved through use of a machine (though admittedly a somewhat “magical” one, in this case). Unfortunately, I can’t remember the author nor the year of publication. It was a pretty good story, though (and a better time-travel story than Wells’).

One can also argue that the concept goes back to the ancient Greeks. Though the Greek myths did not have time travel per se, they did often feature reliable prophecy, which from a scientific point of view amounts to the same thing, and Greek prophecy myths often featured many of the same elements distinctive of time-travel stories.

Eh, not in the same way as* The Time Machine* is. He’s more like a version of Sleeping Beauty than anything else (to the best of my recollection).

When was time travel invented?


Both Rip Van Winkle and Sleeping Beauty feature travelling forward in time, at least from one character’s point of view. These people find themselves many years in the future with no sense of those years having passed. True, you can’t go backwards in time this way…

It could be argued that the Bible contains a description of a form of time travel, in that parts of it detail individuals being whisked off to witness future events.

Not really.

Rip Van Winkle “travelled in time” the way everyone does: One day at a time. Washington Irving used the technique of the “unreliable narrator” to tell a humourous story. We aren’t meant to think that Rip Van Winkle really slept through the American Revolution. It’s quite clear that he was a singularly idle man, who simply “went out for a pack of smokes” to get away from a harrassing wife who kept pressuring him to work and support his family.

He came back when he was old enough to “get away with doing nothing,” and took up where he left off, passing the days in idle chatter at his club – something that his wife wouldn’t tolerate while she was alive. Irving has his narrator remark that the old man’s story was inconsistent at first, and only settled down into an “official” version after many retellings. (The narrator is credulous enough to attribute this to confusion owing to Rip’s decades-long nap, but it’s a pretty obvious tip to the reader that old Rip was just yanking everyone’s chain, rather than admit that he was just a lazy bum who walked out on his wife and family.)

Sleeping Beauty doesn’t really qualify as a “time travel,” story either. Although a long time is supposed to have passed while she (and her entire kingdom, originally) was in an enchanted sleep, the entire story takes place in the no-time of “Once upon a time.” The world isn’t noticibly different for her when she wakes up, and she doesn’t strike the rescuing prince as a product of another time.

SciFan, a remarkable site, lists one book as a possible time travel machine book before Wells. It’s Tourmalin’s Time Cheques, by F. Anstey. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction only says that it is a time-paradox story.

This site has the following, which makes it out to be another fantasy variant:

I can’t find any mention of a story called “The Clock That Ran Backward,” but it’s easy to make small slips in titles that make searching impossible. And there it is, after more searching. It’s “The Clock That Went Backwards,” by Edward Page Mitchell from September 1881. The full story (now in the public domain) is reprinted there. A clock does run backwards and moves the people in time. But it acts upon them rather than their controlling it; it is merely a mechanized fantasy device, even though the cause and effect speculation is far ahead of its time.

Wells may really be the one who created a true time machine as we understand it today, but various fantasy devices - the Encyclopedia calls them timeslips - had been around for most of the 19th century and mechanized devices were being used before him. I’ll still give him the credit, though.

Ah, thank you, Exapno. That is indeed the story I was remembering. But there’s at least some degree of human control, since the clock needs to be wound before it will work. It’s still perhaps not a true time machine, though, since there’s no indication it works through mechanistic, as opposed to mystic, means.

On the other hand, I’m still reluctant to give Wells credit, either. His was undoubtedly an invented mechanistic contrivance, but there’s not much of “time travel” about it. It’s simply a device to transport the protagonist to a world like and yet unlike our own. Had such ideas been in vogue at the time, it could just as easily have been a device for travelling to another dimension.

I am myself reluctant to challenge Chronos’ definition of time travel, but if Wells’ time traveller’s adventure wasn’t proper time travel, what is?

I don’t understand the objection. The lack of paradox?

Wells looked at trends he saw in the development of human history, projected them into the far future, and imagined the consequences of continuing them. He imagined a time when science had met all the goals he could conceive of for it – eradication of disease, mechanization of all labour. It was a pessimistic future that he described, but it was a logical one for someone of his views to imagine. His protagonist even went forward to witness the very end of geologic time – and then disappeared, presumably into the historical period that held the most appeal for him.

Got to agree there. And Well’s story did have paradox. The future was changed when he got back. And there is a thorough discussion of the problems of ending up in “the same place” long ago when that place wasn’t there yet, but still below ground as mountains slowly eroded him. In fact, in that portion, many of the modern works aren’t time travel at all, since the go directly to another time. A “portal” story doesn’t travel along the dimension of time at all, but devolves into a Parallel Universes story.

If we’re giving credit to H.G. Wells, then we must give prior credit to . . . H.G. Wells. He wrote the story “The Chronic Argonauts” before The Time Machine. (Note: if you get into Wells, I highly recommend reading The Time Machine and then reading Stephen Baxter’s excellent sequel, The Time Ships.)