Interview with James Gleick about his new book on the history of Time Travel


Originally published at:


The problem with writing a book on the history of time travel is that it keeps changing.


The article (and I presume the book also) says “H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, published in 1895, was the first mention of time travel.” But Mark Twain beat H.G. Wells to the punch six years earlier, with the 1889 publication of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” in which an engineer accidentally travels back in time.


Eh, I read this book years from now. It won’t have been great, in what will be my opinion.


Now there’s an oxymoron.


Fröhliche Käsenachten!


You’re quite right. It should be called History Travel, and it’s time there was a book about it.


A pedant writes:

“Wells’”, not “Well’s”

“It’s” not “Its”



There are lots of books about it.
I have a time machine; it’s built out of spacetime and it travels into the future at the rate of one second per second. There’s just a few bugs with the accelerator and the reverse gear, but if the universe does turn out to be a simulation they may be fixable.


I’m sure that post used to say “There is no problem with writing a book on the history of time travel, as history doesn’t alter.”


Everything has a history, of course.


Wouldn’t that be all history books?


Even the future has a history.


Well. Yes. My point, actually.


It may have been published in 1895 but he actually wrote it in 1937.


Yep. The means of time travel in that book was the Engineer getting hit in the head by a guy with a crowbar. And, since crowbars are used as levers, which meets the definition of a “simple machine,” the first time machine described in print was a crowbar.


Gleick’s The Information had a massive impression on my overall worldview, on pretty much every level of my being. I really do now look at everything in terms of information theory. Crazy stuff! I might have to give this new one a look… at some point in time.


And Wells wrote The Chronic Argonauts before Twain wrote Connecticut Yankee…

(and there are older stories than that…)

Did Voltaire invent SF when he wrote Micromegas?

What about Rip Van Winkle? Did Washington Irving write a time travel novel?


If so, then all books in which time passes are time travel novels.

There are very old examples; the Irish story of Oisin who travels to Tír na nÓg with Niamh, the fairy daughter of Angus* and Edain, and returns to discover that three centuries have passed in the outside world and Ireland has been taken over by Christianity; and True Thomas, who serves the Queen of the Fairies and finds when he returns that seven years have passed (though in some accounts he spends seven years in fairyland, but in others he is only there a short time.)
John Masefield also wrote about time travel in his books for children, The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights. Possibly too slow for modern children though mine really liked them.

What is new is the idea of going into the past.

I wrote this post mainly because I like any opportunity to conjure with those Irish names.

Alternatively, the daughter of the sea god Mananaan mac Lir*.
Who may be the original of King Lear*.
***Who said mythology had to make sense? Trump is President-elect. If reality is uncertain, what can we expect of mythology?


Only if you take them with you