Humanity had conquered time…
Artwork from the poster of The Time Machine, Metro Goldwyn Meyer, 1960
Wells was onto something. The Victorians had already been thinking about the mathematical qualities of extra dimensions, but with the discoveries of Einstein, first published in 1905, a new conception of time became central to contemporary physics. Wells didn’t just strike a chord, he accidentally hit on one of the fundamental principles of modern science. “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it,” says the Traveller. That turned out, amazingly and counterintuitively, to be true. “In surprisingly short order this notion would become part of the orthodoxy of theoretical physics,” says Gleick.
Time travel has been an object of fascination ever since—and one of the reasons must surely be that Wells’s fantasy turned out to rhyme so surprisingly with the new physics. One of the few people to resist the infatuation with the new idea was Wells himself. He knew perfectly well that time travel is impossible, and its increasing popularity irritated him. “The effect of reality is easily produced,” he said. “One jerks in one or two unexpected gadgets or so, and the trick is done. It is a trick.”
We should be precise about what Wells invented. Other writers had displaced fictional characters through time. Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle fell asleep and woke up twenty years later; Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee got a bump on the head in the late nineteenth century and woke up in King Arthur’s court. (“‘Bridgeport?’ said I, pointing. ‘Camelot,’ said he.”) In Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the main character dozes off for 113 years and wakes in 2000; in 1892 the Scots golfer J. McCullough, his given name no longer known, published Golf in the Year 2000; or, What Are We Coming To. Gleick, who has read it so we don’t have to, reports that “in the year 2000 women dress like men and do all the work, while men are freed to play golf every day.” No comment. The crucial thing about these trips through time is that they are inadvertent. The hero (always a man) has no agency. Wells’s Traveller was different because he built a machine to travel through time on purpose. In his story humanity had, through its ingenuity, conquered time. That was what was new.