The Time Machine

By H G Wells

Scientists and Gentlemen

As discussed, Wells' and other Victorians' future projections had much to do with their present (indeed this is the basis of almost all speculative futures). A striking passage in The Time Machine concerns the Time Traveller's exploration of the Palace of Green Porcelain which turns out to be a museum: "Clearly we stood among the ruins of some latter-day South Kensington!" But most of the exhibits, despite the retardation of the process of decay, are little but rubble and dust. The educational heart of London, the symbol of Wells' own education and values of his teachers and fellow-socialists is rendered empty and meaningless to future-man. John Lawton picks up on the Time Traveller's recounting that, "Here and there I found traces of the little people in the shape of rare fossils broken to pieces or threaded in strings upon reads." Lawton writes that '[no] 'child' of T.H. Huxley would have written such a sentence blithely. The gaps in the fossil record were huge; the opposition to Darwin and Huxley would exploit the holes in the evidence in the effort to demolish the theory. Precious fossils threaded into necklaces is contrivedly primitivistic, invoking notions of savagery, and in a single image striking at the heart of the intellectual life of the age.' As if to emphasis this, the Time Traveller then performs a dance on the ruins of all this knowledge. And his dance is in part based on established steps, and "in part original. For I am naturally inventive, as you know."

The Time Traveller is clearly inventive, and whilst the idea of someone knocking up a time machine in their garden shed today seems absurdly comical, the late nineteenth century was the time of the gentleman scientist, and if a Time Machine were to be found anywhere it would as likely be in a workshop of a gentleman-scientist as in a government laboratory. Whilst not travelling through time or discovering the fate of the world, the likes of Darwin's cousin Francis Galton (1822 - 1911) were off travelling in Africa and conducting investigations into topics as diverse as meteorology, criminology and the efficacy of prayer. Most notoriously was Galton's devoted championing of Eugenics (the selective control of human reproduction), another political creed to spring from Darwinism, and a doctrine with which Wells toyed but was ultimately critical of.

To return to the Time Traveller, his scientific expertise is evident: he takes the trouble in the Palace of Green Porcelain to mention his "own seventeen papers upon physical optics" in the Philosophical Transactions, a leading scientific journal of the time. Indeed it is a major innovation of The Time Machine that it uses a physical machine to travel in time at all. Previous attempts to view the past and future had been achieved through Rip van Winkle-esque long sleeps (Looking Backward), blows to the head (Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, 1889), or simply magic. Whilst Wells wisely gives little description of the machine itself he does engage the theory of time travel, though as he himself remarked, before Einstein's theorising, the vocabulary to properly discuss the problem of time travel simply did not exist. One element of the theory of time travel is the propensity for generating paradoxes, something that continues to dog the topic. Incidentally, whilst early drafts of The Time Machine included travel back in time, the final version avoids both backwards time travel and travel into the near future - in part, no doubt to push any problem of any paradox into the background of the story. It remains more as an expression of the scepticism of the Time Traveller's audience: when he returns, filthy from his adventures, the Editor remarks, "What was this time travelling? A man couldn't cover himself with dust by rolling in a paradox, could he?" It is also this incredulity of the assembled gentlemen that (paradoxically) works to add the appearance of credibility to the Time Traveller's tale, as if he is appealing above their sceptical heads to the open- minded reader. At the same time, Wells uses the device to acknowledge his own artifice: after relating his story, the Time Traveller says to his unbelieving colleagues, "No, I cannot expect you to believe it. Take it as a lie - or a prophecy. Say I dreamed it in the workshop. Consider I have been speculating upon the destinies of our race until I have hatched this fiction. Treat my assertion of its truth as a mere stroke of art to enhance its interest." To which the Editor replies, "What a pity it is you're not a writer of stories!"

Whilst the late nineteen hundreds may have been the era of the gentleman scientist, the other gentlemen were not necessarily so open minded. But Wells saw their presence in the story as vital. In 1934, he wrote that, "I had realized that the more impossible the story I had to tell, the more ordinary must be the setting, and the circumstances in which I now set the Time Traveller were all that I could imagine of solid upper-class comforts." The opening of the book brings its Victorian luxury to the foreground in part as a contrast to the fantastical nature of the story about to be told, and in part to highlight the comfort of the upper classes from which man's future evolution begins. The Time Traveller journeys to the future not in a safari suit and pith-helmet, but in a tail-coat. And he goes ill-equipped, surmising that "the men of the Future would certainly be infinitely ahead of ourselves in all their appliances. I had come without arms, without medicine, without anything to smoke... If only I had thought of a Kodak!" Respectability, along with progress, goes up in a puff of a paradox.