A brief, festive history of time travel

In this holiday season, let us take a moment to remember the first popular book that brought the idea of time travel to the readers of the world…A Christmas Carol.

Wait, Charles Dickens was the father of time travel? Well, yes. He wasn’t the first to write about it, of course, be he’s definitely the first whose work is still widely read. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, 50 years before the two works that are usually thought of as heralding the start of time travel in literature: Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895).

“But wait,” you may be saying, “what about Rip Van Winkel?” It’s true, Washington Irving did write Rip Van Winkel in 1819, but in some sense, it’s not really time travel. Rip Van Winkel just falls asleep and wakes up 20 years later. In A Christmas Carol, on the other hand, Ebenezer Scrooge visits the past and the future and then changes the future. If you can find an earlier story where that happens, tell me in the comments, because I’d like to read it.

To be sure, A Christmas Carol is not science fiction. It’s correctly billed as a ghost story, although even that sounds a little odd given the association of ghost stories with Halloween. Nor is it the first instance of backward time travel in fiction. In 1733, Samuel Madden wrote an obscure volume called Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, in which an angel brings state documents back to 1728 from the year 1998. But Madden’s work was suppressed by Sir Robert Walpole under King George II, while Dickens’s classic continues to be subject to endless reinterpretations every December.

Meanwhile, Rip Van Winkel’s forward version of time travel has occurred in folklore and religious literature for the past 2,000 years. The 18th chapter of the Qur’an reinterprets the earlier Christian tale of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who purportedly slept for 180 years to escape persecution. In the Jewish Talmud, Honi ha-M’agel is said to have slept for 70 years. And in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, a King Kakudmi goes on a short visit to Brahma and returns to Earth to find 116 million years have passed!

There is even one intriguing apparent manipulation of time in the Bible. Isaiah 38 records a miracle in which, “I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.” (Isaiah 38:8a, NIV). Most commonly, the stairway of Ahaz is interpreted as a sundial and the ten steps as marking a period of several hours. According to tradition, this passage was written by Isaiah himself around 700 BC. It’s tempting to call this the first example of time travel in literature, but given what was known of astronomy at the time, it seems much more likely that this would have been thought of as a change in the motion of the Sun, not of time itself.

As you’re watching some version or other of A Christmas Carol this week (which you’ll probably encounter if you have access to a TV), think about it’s unique place in history. It was truly a story ahead of its time.

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About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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