There is a traditional trope in science fiction: an alien arrives in a backward world and tries to advance its scientific and technical progress.

I would like to know the first novel or story in which this kind of relationship exists. I'd like to make some clarifications:

  • The alien may be an alien but he may also be a time traveler. He does not have to be from a different race or species than the people he is trying to help evolve.

  • Development aid must be conscious and an important task for him, not just a side effect of his contacts with the natives.

  • The identity of the world to be developed is not important. It can be the Earth or it can be another planet.

  • It doesn't have to be interplanetary travel. A fantastic story about a major journey made by some kind of advanced "Atlantean" refugees would be admissible.

I would like to exclude stories inspired by some historical precedents of Western colonialism, in which a traveller or shipwrecked person has a strong impact on the tribe that receive him thanks to his more advanced medicine or weaponry.

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    So, your last paragraph would seem to exclude Robinson Crusoe and most or all of its imitators.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 14:01
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    @ZeissIkon Well, Robinson Crusoe at least is out because he didn't try to raise anyone else's technology level.
    – DavidW
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 14:08
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    I'd read the last paragraph as excluding stories where there is a transfer of artifacts (e.g. guns, axes, liquor) without an intent to transfer the knowledge required to make them.
    – DavidW
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 14:12
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    @DavidW I chose that as an example mainly because it's considerably older than Connecticut Yankee, but I agree with that point as well.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 14:15
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    If you want to dig around on TVTropes, check out Giving Radio to the Romans and Technology Uplift. A quick perusal didn't yield anything older than Connecticut Yankee, though. Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 16:07

4 Answers 4


I think a good first upper bound would be 1889: Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

It doesn't work in the end, but as noted in the Wikipedia entry

Hank, who had an image of that time that had been colored over the years by romantic myths, takes on the task of analyzing the problems and sharing his knowledge from 1300 years in the future to try to modernize, Americanize, and improve the lives of the people.

(You didn't require the attempt to succeed.)

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    I think that "Connecticut Yankee" is a paradigmatic example. The task of developing his society was fundamental for him and, of course, a success of this kind in time traveller stories is very uncommon because of the paradoxes.
    – Ginasius
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 15:02
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    Another example of a time traveler helping those in the past is L Sprague DeCamp's story "Lest Darkness Fall" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lest_Darkness_Fall) from 1941. In this story a many is transported to late Roman times by a lightning strike,and works to prevent the fall of the Roman empire by introducing such innovations as Arabic numerals, double entry bookkeeping and the printing press. (Included as a comment since this is later than the answers already provided.) Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 0:10
  • @BarryHaworth There's Piper's Lord Kalvin of Otherwhen, Frankowski's Cross-time Engineer, Flint's 1632, Turtledove's Guns of the South...
    – DavidW
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 1:08
  • A strong(er) bound in English would have been Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733), except the question was specifically about technology transfer. Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 15:42
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    For many years, I have been calling such tales "Connecticut Yankee stories." I've applied that label to several already mentioned -- by Piper, Frankowski, de Camp, etc. Also Sword of the Bright Lady by M.C. Planck and Island on the Seas of Time by S.M Stirling. (Each of which was the start of a series.)
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 17:29

How about Prometheus, a Celestial being who came to Earth and transformed humanity by introducing fire? Stories of Prometheus in written form are known from 2800 years ago, and there must be older undocumented versions. The best known is the trilogy by Aeschylus, of which only "Prometheus Bound" survives (date uncertain bur prior to 430 BCE).

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    Traditionally, we steer away from answers involving mythology or religious texts because it could imply that we find someone's beliefs to be fantasy.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 1:55
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    Surely a stage play by Aeschylus is something different from a religious text?
    – Ethan
    Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 2:54
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    {raises his hands on surrender} It's something that comes up occasionally. I didn't downvote on this one but I figured it was worth mentioning.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 10:41
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    And after rereading the meta discussion on the topic, you have my upvote for citing the piece of fiction based off of the mythology.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 11:31
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    @FuzzyBoots, the problem is that many "first of" questions turn out to have a first example in religion or mythology. I see nothing wrong with pointing out that a common science-fiction or fantasy trope has roots somewhere else.
    – Mark
    Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 23:34

This may be a bit of a stretch, but 1843's 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens involves a ghost from the future transporting the main character forward in time to observe the outcome of his decisions, then returns him to present for the explicit purpose of improving his social and emotional progress (and as a result, the betterment of the society around him via his newfound generosity). It is a stretch because it doesn't involve (hard) science, however it definitely exhibits a very sci-fi notion of using lessons of the future to improve the past within a context of an industrializing society. The core concept that technological and economic progress may ignore or worsen social problems if human compassion is excluded, has been a running theme in the sci-fi genre.


You may want to consider Philip Nowlan's books Armageddon 2419 A.D. and The Air Lords of Han. It is the Buck Rogers story where he travels forward in time to help after an apocalypse.

  • 1
    Hi, welcome to SF&F! While it's possible this might satisfy the criteria (though I don't recall Rogers providing any advanced knowledge, just a bit of leadership), it's also much later (1928) than the other answers.
    – DavidW
    Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 19:12
  • Oops, missed the criteria of first story. Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 2:30

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