Somewhere between 1980 and 1985, I checked out a hardback SF anthology from a library. English language, with stories by many different authors. Today the memory of one of those stories popped into my head. I remember nothing about the author or title. But I vaguely remember the general plot, and the surprise twist at the end.

  1. The main character (hereafter called "Protagonist" since I can't recall his name) is a teenager as we first meet him, who turns out to have a rare genius for inventing things. I believe he's your stereotypical farm boy, somewhere in a rural area of the USA. Anyway, Protagonist invents something . . . makes some money . . . uses this to finance other Research & Development projects . . . and ends up making a great deal of money over the next umpteen years. So far, so good!

  2. In his old age, after a long life, Protagonist is dissatisfied by thoughts about what he accomplished, on the one hand, and what opportunities he now sees he missed, on the other. To his way of thinking, the answer is obvious! He uses his inventive genius to build a time machine, and travels back several decades to have a talk with his juvenile self.

  3. We are told the general outline of this long talk. I believe much of this story was written as if a narrator were telling us the story long after the fact, summarizing major events for our benefit, instead of giving us word-for-word accounts of entire conversations. I don't remember exactly what Old Protagonist advised Young Protagonist to do differently, but I do remember that Young Protagonist took this advice to heart to guide his life.

  4. Result: Once again, we get a quick summary of the next several decades of Protagonist's life, as he invents even better things than before, and makes a lot of money (and perhaps accomplished other stuff I can't recall now). Until . . . in his old age, after a long life, Protagonist is dissatisfied by thoughts about what he accomplished, on the one hand, and what opportunities he now sees he missed, on the other. To his way of thinking, the answer is obvious! He uses his inventive genius to build a time machine, and travels back several decades to have a talk with his juvenile self.

  5. The cycle repeats itself again. Young Protagonist listens carefully to his elderly visitor, and subsequently improves upon his past performance (not that he directly remembers the "previous lives," but he does remember the advice he got from that weird old man when he was a teenager) and in some ways does even better than before. But this time around, as he gets old, he begins to regret not just the details of what he did or didn't accomplish, but the basic fact that he has not had enough time to do all the other stuff that he's sure he's still capable of doing . . . if only he had a much longer lifespan to play around with! So he builds a time machine (each time around, he has to invent it all over again from scratch, you understand) and goes back to give his teenage self yet another rousing pep talk on the subject of getting his priorities straight.

  6. This time around, Old Protagonist talks in very lofty terms about the importance of concentrating on discovering the secret of Eternal Life. Once Young Protagonist has that problem licked, he'll have all the time in the world to invent anything else that really needs to be invented for the greater benefit of the human race, and so forth.

  7. After Old Protagonist walks back to his time machine to return to his future timeline, Young Protagonist is left scratching his head and just thinking, "What a weird old coot -- what was he going on about?" (Not an exact quote.) In other words: the implication is that this cycle of endless second-guessing and time-traveling has finally been broken, because Old Protagonist had forgotten how wide the intellectual gap was between his very experienced self and his not-nearly-so-educated juvenile self, after something like 60 or 70 years (or however long it had been). So that Old Protagonist's Important Speech about the quest for eternal life was expressed in such a way that it just went right over Young Protagonist's head instead of inspiring him to direct his thoughts toward a fruitful line of research which he might actually pursue. I got the impression that now Young Protagonist was never going to even come close to inventing a time machine of his own when he became a crotchety old man (although I'm not sure if he would still end up owning any patents on useful inventions).

That was the general plot of the story. I have never run across it again. Does anyone recognize it?


2 Answers 2


"Rainbird", a short story by R. A. Lafferty; first published in Galaxy Magazine, December 1961, which is available at the Internet Archive (click here for download options); also the answer to the question "Looking for a story about a time traveller talking to his younger self". You can read reviews by Elton Gahr and Andrew Ferguson.

Editorial blurb from the original appearance in Galaxy:

Meet Higgston Rainbird, who invented steamboating and the nuclear pile—remember?

From the review by Elton Gahr:

One of the most obvious uses of a time machine is to go back to when you were younger and tell yourself of all the important things you should have done and all the mistakes you made. Almost as obvious is the idea of bringing back technology to invent. So it might seem on its surface that "Rainbird" by R. A. Lafferty is a simple story since it combines these two elements but this is a smart story that uses the ideas in a way that you might not expect.

The story begins with the story of an inventor who is almost unheard of though he invented nearly every great invention in human history. It then follows him through his life as he is quite successful, he creates inventions in the 1800's that we didn't see until our century, yet he also spent years and sometimes decades on inventions that turned out to be fruitless.

As an old man he creates his final best invention, a time machine and he goes back to when he was a young man, old enough to understand yet young enough to still have time. He tells him of all the mistakes he made, of which paths not to look for and what to focus on.

Again we follow the inventor's life, but this time he doesn't waste those decades and has a head start on nearly every invention. This allows him to become a far greater inventor than anyone in human history. He creates every invention you can think of from TV to flight all in the 1800's but again as he is nearing old age he realizes that he should have focused first on immortality, then he would have had all the time in the world for the other inventions.

This time when he goes back though something else happens, he finds himself on a hill training a falcon. The man tries to explain things but it is simply too difficult for the young man to understand who is too interested in what he is doing.

From the beginning of the story:

Were scientific firsts truly tabulated the name of the Yankee inventor, Higgston Rainbird, would surely be without peer. Yet today he is known (and only to a few specialists, at that) for an improved blacksmith’s bellows in the year 1785, for a certain modification (not fundamental) in the moldboard plow about 1805, for a better (but not good) method of reefing the lateen sail, for a chestnut roaster, for the Devil’s Claw Wedge for splitting logs, and for a nutmeg grater embodying a new safety feature; this last was either in the year 1816 or 1817. He is known for such, and for no more.

Were this all that he had achieved his name would still be secure. And it is secure, in a limited way, and to those who hobby in technological history.

But the glory of which history has cheated him, or of which he cheated himself, is otherwise. In a different sense, it is without parallel, absolutely unique.

For he pioneered the dynamo, the steam automobile, the steel industry, ferro-concrete construction, the internal combustion engine, electric illumination and power, the wireless, the televox, the petroleum and petro-chemical industries, monorail transportation, air travel, world-wide monitoring, fissionable power, space travel, group telepathy, political and economic balance; he built a retrogressor; and he made great advances towards corporeal immortality and the apotheosis of mankind. It would seem unfair that all this is unknown of him.

As for the hardcover you read it in, that might be The Seventh Galaxy Reader, or the Lafferty collection Strange Doings, or (from Australia) the anthology Beyond Tomorrow.

  • 2
    Thank you; that sure ooks like it. Although I'm embarrassed to find that apparently Old Protagonist only made two time-travel trips, instead of three. I felt sure it happened thrice before failing, like the pattern in an old fairy tale where someone gets three wishes, or faces three challenges, or whatever. I'm almost sure I didn't read it in a single-author anthology, so I think it was The Seventh Galaxy Reader. (It helps that one of the other stories listed for it is one that I "rediscovered" a few years ago and thought, "Didn't I read this before, waaaaay back in the early 1980s?"
    – Lorendiac
    Jan 14, 2017 at 0:03

This question has already been answered so obviously not the story you are looking for, but the same storyline is used to humorous effect in the flash fiction story “Influx Capacitor” by Eric J Juneau in episode 87 of The Cast of Wonders podcast. The link contains the podcast episode with the audio version of the story as well as the full text online.

In this version the protagonist is a boy in high school who makes an entry in his diary inviting anyone from the future who reads it to come to his current location and time. He is then visited by a succession of future versions of himself all giving him contradictory advice.

  • 6
    A friendly word of advice: I sometimes want to say something similar in response to someone else's question. For instance, I might say: "Your description kinda reminds me of an old story by Larry Niven, but there are just enough differences in the plot you described that I'm sure it isn't the same story," and then I might explain a bit more about the plot of the Niven story. In such cases, it's considered best to just post a "Comment" attached to the original question, instead of posting it as a separate "Answer" when you already know it isn't the right answer.
    – Lorendiac
    Oct 27, 2019 at 23:31
  • 1
    Thanks for the advice. I'm still new (well, newish) to posting here and will remember to do that in future. Nov 27, 2019 at 4:07

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