A brief history of time travel

Time travel began 100 years ago, with the publication of H G Wells' The Time Machine in January 1895. On film and television the genre has never looked back. But, says Robert Hanks, the future is not what it used to be

In this context, dates are possibly irrelevant, or even misleading. But if we stick for the moment with conventional calendars, then we can tentatively suggest that time travel began precisely 100 years ago, in January 1895, with the publication o f H G Wells's The Time Machine.

Before that - again, let's hang on to before and after for the purposes of argument - there had been a few fictional attempts at peering into the past or the future: Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, for instance, had its hero transported backwards through time after being hit on the head; in William Morris's News from Nowhere, the protagonist dreamt himself forward 100 years; and the Rip Van Winkle-type story, in which a sleeper awakes after the passage of years to see what's been happening to society, was common enough (Wells himself dabbled in the genre a few years later, in When the Sleeper Awakes). But the notion of moving freely backwards and forwards in time, in the same way that we can move about in space, that was something new.

Times change, though: these days, at least in terms of cinema and television, time travel is as common as stepping on the bus, or more so. After all, the bus movie is still an under represented genre (Speed is the only recent example that comes to mind),while time travel is burgeoning; Back to the Future Parts I, II and III, Terminator and Terminator 2, the television series Quantum Leap and the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Timecop. Each of these has its own idea of how time travel might work - the 88miles-an-hour DeLorean in Back to the Future, Sam Beckett's out-of-body jaunting in Quantum Leap - but they are all recognisably descended from Wells's central idea. This is, as his anonymous Time Traveller puts it: "There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of space except that our consciousness moves along it."

At the time, this view of time as the fourth dimension was novel - indeed, you could take it as prophetic, anticipating Einstein's concept of spacetime. Wells's Time Traveller explains his theory by flourishing portraits of a man at different stages in his life: "All these are evidently sections, as it were, Three-Dimensional representations of his Four-Dimensioned being . . ." Compare that with this summary of Einstein's picture of spacetime in Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield's book The A

r row of Time (1990): "Thus a human body would appear as a four-dimensional `worm' on the spacetime landscape, each three-dimensional slice of which corresponds to that body at a particular moment in time." In both cases, the idea is that a person at thep resent moment is just a cross-section of his entire being as it is extended through time.

But while Wells was in some respects ahead of his time, in other ways he was still rooted in the past. The kind of time he described was essentially Newtonian - in Newton's universe there is a fixed, unequivocal now which extends across creation, so tha

t it makes sense to talk of events separated by vast distances taking place simultaneously. The flow of time is as fixed and stable as a road; if you only knew how, you could drive up and down it as if it were a motorway. Einstein tore up that picture: in his universe, time is relative and now is a fluctuating concept, varying with the relative speed and position of observer and observed. Time travel is, in this world, theoretically possible; but it couldn't be as simple and direct as Wells envisaged.

Time has seen Einstein's model superseded by the dismayingly complex vision of quantum mechanics, but popular time-travelling fiction has still stuck with Wells's in-between world. Some aspects of Einstein's ideas have taken root: time dilation, a slowi

n g-down of time at high speeds, took Charlton Heston to the future in Planet of the Apes, and elsewhere time travel seems to have become vaguely associated with high acceleration (the Back to the Future series and Timecop both make use of this). But Well

s 's vision remains the culturally dominant one.

It has been altered over time. While Wells broke the mould of time-travelling fiction with his four- dimensional machine, he was still in thrall to some of its mores. The Time Machine is, just as much as News from Nowhere or Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward , a work of social criticism, using the future to comment on the present - the cannibalistic Morlocks of his future are clearly the last stage in the evolution of capitalism. Now is necessarily a fixed point which can be measured up against other eras. For the modern time traveller, though, the present is as malleable as the future; his constan

t preoccupation is messing around with history.

In Back to the Future this is seen as a good thing - Michael J Fox manages to turn his dad from downtrodden wimp into successful businessman; Quantum Leap treats the notion more seriously, but still makes time travel a philanthropic enterprise. Timecop is more ambivalent; Jean-Claude Van Damme's job is to stop villains messing with history, but it turns out that you can change history in positive ways too.

Time after time, physicists come up with new ideas about how time travel might work - the American Kip Thorne and his colleagues have recently publicised the idea of "wormholes" in space, through which we could observe past events. Most serious versions of time travel come with built-in disadvantages, though. Some of the more exotic forms of quantum mechanics would allow time travel, for instance, but journey's end would be in a different universe; more conventional ideas involve the traveller accelerating with an energy equivalent to the mass of the entire universe, which is hardly fuel-efficient.

But it's probably fair to say that most scientists regard this sort of hypothesising as a waste of time, if only because fiddling with history creates irresolvable paradoxes - the fundamental one being that if the time traveller changes the past, he changes the conditions that sent him back in time in the first place.

Popular fiction likes to have a good time with these contradictions - as when Michael J Fox flirts with his mother - but usually ends up by dodging them. In Terminator, for example, the time-travelling androids don't change history, they help to fulfil it. When efforts are made to sort out paradoxes, the results are generally unhappy: Timecop has many virtues, but as history gets switched backwards and forwards the plot becomes not just unfathomable but utterly impervious to logic. The usual

l y sensitive and intelligent Quantum Leap decended into tasteless bathos when it came up against real life - Sam failed to prevent the Kennedy assassination, but it turned out that the first time around Jackie was killed too, and we'd all forgotten.

Time travel doesn't have much to do with science or logic these days, it seems: instead, its mechanisms are determined by American ideals of self-determination and the pursuit of happiness. As Doc Brown tells Marty McFly at the end of Back to the Future Part III, "your future hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is whatever you make it". H G Wells and the decline of civilisation seem a very long time ago. You wonder, what would he make of it all if he were around today? It may y et happen.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum