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While reading a question here whose answer was Stephen Baxter's "Light of Other Days" book, it reminded me of a short story I read with a similar idea.

Probably read at least 30-40 years ago, in English.

The fact that the Government has invented a device that can view the past is made public (by a whistleblower, I believe). Historians go nuts besieging the government to look at their favorite time periods to reveal the truth about various historical "facts" and or "mysteries" (Who shot JFK? Who was Jack the Ripper? Was Helen of Troy really that beautiful? Did Jesus exist? etc, etc.)

And the government is stonewalls most of them and claims it's expensive to operate, hard to control to get exact time/location, etc.

So someone (maybe the whistleblower?), knowing it's possible, does math/construction and builds his own version, and realizes it's easy to make, cheap to operate, and easy to use. So he makes plans to stick it to the government by releasing the info.

Maybe he tries to force the government to release the info, or they realize he has made it, so they grab him and try to convince him to stop. But he is not convinced until they tell him, it can't see back very far (maybe just a few days/weeks, because it needs exponentially more power the further you look back.)

Finally the agents tell him: "Don't you see, you can use it to see what's happening just a few minutes ago, or even now. Your company can't make widgets? Zoom in on your competitors and see how they make them. Think your wife is fooling around on you? Zoom in on her and track her to see if she is. Your pretty neighbor is taking a bath now? Zoom in and watch her... These devices mean no one will have any privacy now."

At which point he tells them it's already too late. They kept him there so long that the letters he mailed will already be delivered to various newspapers, scientists, historians, etc.

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  • There's a short story called "Light of Other Days" written by Bob Shaw that has a similar theme. It's built around "slow glass" where light takes a long time to traverse the glass, so if you have the slow glass lying around you can see what it's seen.
    – DaveG
    Feb 21 at 21:41
  • I already have several devices that can view the past. One in my pocket right now... of course it only works if I remembered to use the device at that exact time in the past.
    – JK.
    Feb 23 at 5:10
47

The Dead Past by Isaac Asimov (1956)

http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?55741

The government has a time viewer, but is real stingy with allocating viewing time to historians. One becomes frustrated and hired a scientist to build a viewer. Turns out it cannot see back in time more than a few decades.

The government was trying to hide the fact that the past isn't a hundred years ago, an hour ago, or a microsecond ago. It is pretty much right now. The point is the time viewer is also a peeping tom machine, since it can see through walls.

The scientist had sent the plans for the viewer to other people, and realizes with horror that he has killed privacy

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  • 1
    Yes that's it!! Thanks!
    – NJohnny
    Feb 21 at 5:49
  • 1
    @tgdavies yes, there is. The Light of Other Days by Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke Feb 22 at 12:41
  • 1
    @tgdavies also I See You by Damon Knight Feb 22 at 13:27
  • 1
    @user253751 A device like this is more useful when investigating times that are long enough ago that you can't ask people who remember it first hand.
    – Barmar
    Feb 22 at 15:52
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    I was just getting ready to post a query for finding this story, Dead Past by Isaac Asimov (1956). I'm reading it now and it is the story I was seeking. Thanks to all who asked for and those who found this story.
    – Qosmonaut
    Apr 16 at 20:14

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