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Time Travel to the Past
"What is the first example of a story in which people travel in time to the past?"

This question came up in a seminar today, and I was embarrassed not to be able to give a better answer. I couldn't think of any example from folklore. There are plenty of people who have an enchanted sleep and wake at some point in the far future - something that resembles time travel - but of course they never travel into the past that way. The only way of seeing (and perhaps conversing with) figures from the past is to summon their ghosts, or to visit the underworld.

H. G. Wells came to mind, of course, but neither in the "The Chronic Argonauts" (1888) nor in The Time Machine (1895) does the protagonist travel into the past of his own world. The most he does is to return to the present from his future travels.

It's been said that the first time-travel stories for children are Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill and Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet, both published in 1906. I'm inclined to award Nesbit the bays here, since Kipling's is really just a particularly fancy and extended example of ghost-summoning. But when Nesbit invented travel into the past for children, no doubt taking a hint from her friend Wells, whom she credits with a name-check, was she also inventing it tout court? I find it hard to believe.

I'm sure the SF buffs here will be able to put me straight.
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I'm aware of two examples from the late 19th century, as follows:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) by Mark Twain.

Tourmalin's Time Cheques (1891) by Thomas Anstey Guthrie (which is apparently the first story to play with the paradoxes that time travel could cause).

But the very fact that the first of those is comedy and the second has got as far as thinking about paradoxes tells me that they can't possibly be the earliest examples. There must be earlier, simpler forays before these.

Connecticut Yankee I should of course have thought of immediately! I'd not come across the other. Thank you.

It does seem strange to me that it's such a modern phenomenon (if it is). Did something happen to the way people conceptualized time around then? (I agree about the simpler forays, though.)

Edited at 2014-03-25 05:03 pm (UTC)

(no subject) - strange_complex, 2014-03-25 05:28 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-25 05:34 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - strange_complex, 2014-03-25 05:43 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - owlfish, 2014-03-25 11:05 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - strange_complex, 2014-03-25 11:18 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - owlfish, 2014-03-25 07:38 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-25 07:43 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - nancylebov, 2014-03-26 08:46 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-26 09:00 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - beamjockey, 2014-03-26 09:10 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2014-03-25 08:42 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-25 09:26 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - harvey_rrit, 2014-03-27 09:30 am (UTC)(Expand)
Oh my gosh, what an interesting question. I was thinking that maybe when times were still (relatively) hard, people didn't write about going back to when they were harder still. Although I can't imagine a world where there's no nostalgia for the past. And then I thought about "Land of the Lost" and thought I'd better stop thinking about this :)


I think nostalgia must be pretty universal. Thomas Browne notes the tendency to think that past times were better as one of the general foibles of the human mind in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, and there's plenty of evidence for it: look at the idea of historical decline embedded in such notions as the Golden Age, for example. In fact, I'd go out on a limb and suggest that the nineteenth century was relatively innovative in its Enlightenment-fuelled optimism about the future.

This seems like the kind of question that someone - probably everyone - should just know the answer to!

(no subject) - shewhomust, 2014-03-25 06:16 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - owlfish, 2014-03-25 10:58 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-25 11:05 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ashkitty, 2014-03-25 09:33 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-25 09:35 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ashkitty, 2014-03-25 09:45 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - beamjockey, 2014-03-26 09:13 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-26 10:48 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - philmophlegm, 2014-03-27 11:41 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-27 11:45 am (UTC)(Expand)
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Thank you. I'd come across Herla as part of the Wild Hunt tradition, but missed the fact that he had made one of those pesky Otherworld excursions.

(no subject) - beamjockey, 2014-03-26 06:31 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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Does Odysseus's descent to the underworld to see famous people of the past count?

I don't think so, because he doesn't move back in time to do it - he just goes to where those famous people are now.

Herla moves forward in time, though, not backwards. Like Rip Van Winkle, or Oisin, he has been in the fairy world and lost track of time. No one from fairyland moves back in time, in folklore at least.

Nice question, though. I've cheated and wikied backward time travel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_travel#Backward_time_travel

I suppose I should have guessed that Wiki would have an entry on it. It's more fun this way, though. :)

(no subject) - Katherine Langrish, 2014-03-25 10:38 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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I *think* that it is The Pickwick Papers (1836-7) in which one chapter features a Victorian character who finds himself back in the 18th century. Certainly Dickens, however.

"The Story of the Bagman's Uncle."

(no subject) - heloise1415, 2014-03-25 09:48 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-25 09:37 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - heloise1415, 2014-03-25 09:51 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2014-03-26 12:37 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-26 05:03 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Would Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733) count? Most of the book is satirical alternate history, but the bookend device is an angel coming back from 1998 to 1728 to drop off some future letters. Angels I suppose can go where and when they please.

My first suggestion was going to be The Blazing World, (1666) but that's travelling between worlds, not times.

I've never heard of Memoirs of the Twentieth Century - how fascinating! I'd love to read it - though it sounds as if it doesn't quite fit the bill, since (like The Time Machine) it's really about imagining the future and has someone coming back to the present only to give reports of what's to come.

(no subject) - ashkitty, 2014-03-25 09:40 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I was wondering if the Spanish precursor to the Wells story featured traveling to the past via time machine - and it does! It only pushes it back by one year though.

Enreque Gaspar, El anacronopéte. 1887.

I am so pleased by the wikipedia summary of their travel, that I shall repost it:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enrique_Gaspar_y_Rimbau
In the first act, don Sindulfo explains his theory of time: it is the atmosphere that causes time as demonstrated by the conservation of food in hermetic cans. By flying fast against the rotation of Earth, the machine can "undo" the passing of days (a device often mistakenly thought to be used in the film Superman). They leave Paris, from the World's Fair of 1878, and travel to the Battle of Tetuán in 1860. Luis's troop of hussars, that Clarita expected would protect her against Sindulfo, has become children and disappear since they were not protected by the "fluid of inalterability". The machine departs, returning to Paris the day before they left, whereupon several 'rejuvenated' French girls disembark.
In the second act, they again travel into the past, seeking the secret of immortality, stopping at various moments in history, such as the Granada in 1492, where they recommend Queen Isabella to listen to a Genovese and Ravenna in 690 (to obtain provisions). They end up in Ho-nan, China in 220, where Sindulfo expected that he could force Clarita to marry him. The emperor Hien-ti shows the travellers that many inventions such as the printing press and iron ships were already known. Since his empress Sun-Che has just died, he offers to exchange Clarita for the secret of immortality. The empress had actually been buried alive by his husband and happens to be the original of a Chinese mummy Sindulfo had bought and brought into the machine. Thus, she becomes free and wants to marry Sindulfo. The characters have evolved, with Benjamín becoming obsessed with eternal life, don Sindulfo crazy with jealousy over Clarita, and Clarita in love with Captain Luis. Benjamín discovers that the disappearing hussars had reappeared again because their immortal spirits had not left the anacronópete and that Sindulfo's first wife was the same as the empress through metempsychosis. While they leave, Tsao Pi founds the Ouei dynasty.
In the third act, after a stop in Pompeii at the time of Vesuvius' eruption in the year 79, they arrive in the 30th century BCE, the time of Noah. There they discover the secret of eternal life is God. Finally, don Sindulfo in his madness speeds up the anacronopede, which explodes upon arriving at the Day of Creation.


Edited at 2014-03-25 11:03 pm (UTC)

That is indeed very pleasing.

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(no subject) - beamjockey, 2014-03-26 06:41 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-26 06:53 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - heliopausa, 2016-08-31 11:33 am (UTC)(Expand)
I, for one, am glad you couldn't think of a better answer, because it means we got this long conversation in the comments about all sorts of interesting things I haven't read yet, and now know about. :-)

I quite agree!

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Thank you. I don't think anyone had mentioned the Poe or the Edward Page Mitchell.

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(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-27 07:02 am (UTC)(Expand)
Christmas Carol?

It's definitely a contender. I suppose it depends on whether you see what the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge as involving travel to the past, or merely a vision of the past. Then again, I'm undecided as to how sharp a distinction that is!

Good question -- list here might be useful.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_time_travel_science_fiction
Christmas Carol as someone just said.

Thank you.

This was enormous fun - and has given me lots of things to chase up - the Spanish story especially, but also the Russian one - and the 1830s "Paris before Man". I'm very grateful to have been directed here to find such wonders! :)

One time travel story that seems to have been missed, even in that terrific story-pilot link, is the 1888 story by Catherine Helen Spence, A Week in the Future. The protagonist, with a weak heart and only year or two to live, expresses to her doctor her desire to see the future. Ah-ha!
"How far in the future should you like to spend your solid week--twenty years, fifty years, a hundred years hence?" said Dr. Brown, with a curious expression on his intelligent countenance.

Which leads fairly quickly to "our great experiment" - the time travel, powered by "strength of volition" and the contents of "a small phial containing a colorless liquid", and possibly some hypnotic passes by the doctor. There's "a singular calm", then "a mighty spasm", and there she is in the future.


Thanks for pointing me to that - what an interesting story! I'm always impressed at the knowledgeability and eloquence of the people one meets in the future: they seem to have an encyclopaedic grasp of history, economics, manufacturing, etc. I'm sure I'd be useless if some Tudor time traveller turned up and asked me to explain the internal combustion engine.

(no subject) - heliopausa, 2016-09-01 08:10 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-09-01 09:41 am (UTC)(Expand)
Wow, glad you linked to this in heliopausa's recent post. What a fascinating discussion! Not only are the examples people turn up interesting, but your thoughts on what fits with in the rubric you're setting up. I agree that stories like The Time Machine are more about imagining the future, or critiquing the present from the future (Bellamy's Looking Backward is an example too, from 1888.) And then--I haven't read all the threads and subthreads, so maybe you've talked about this in one but--there's whether a person actually goes to the past, or merely has a dream or vision. Those sorts of stories seem, to my mind, to sit between time travel and historical fiction (i.e., a story that takes place in the past).

I'm glad you enjoyed the discussion!

I tend to agree about the dream/vision thing, which is why I'm little chary of describing Puck of Pook's Hill as a time-travel story. It seems ambiguous at most.

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