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I'm a little astonished that this question hasn't been asked before, as far as I can tell, but...

I was thinking about the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (as one does) and I came to wonder: What's the first time travel story where someone meets their time-displaced other self?

The first such story I can remember reading personally as a young child is 1981's The Green Futures of Tycho by William Sleator. But then I recalled the 2014 film Predestination, which I later learned was based on Heinlein's 1959 story All You Zombies, which takes the idea to an extreme.

Is there anything earlier than that?

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  • Seems like many writers would have used this idea because people often muse about their future selves telling them something important. But I think the first time travel stories were the character goes to sleep and wakes up -- there is no future self, only the character. I have forgotten The Time Machine novel, but it seems like in the Pearce movie, he never meets himself when he goes back in time -- time is another dimension and you would not expect to meet your earlier self any more than someone who goes back to his hometown would expect to meet himself. Although, maybe such a story exists.
    – releseabe
    Apr 9, 2023 at 0:21
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    While not a contender for first, David Gerrold's novel The Man Who Folded Himself really take the idea to an extreme.
    – user14111
    Apr 9, 2023 at 22:40
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    Does "meet" require a personal face-to-face interaction? In "Via the Time Accelerator" from 1931, the main character is flying a plane which has been modified into a time machine, and is trying to decide whether to flip the switch to travel to the future, and then he sees the same plane materialize from the future, which makes up his mind to go--he never actually sees his future self inside the plane, just infers he's in there. And later when he does return to his own time, he glimpses the past version of the plane he had been flying in, remembering his younger self is inside.
    – Hypnosifl
    Apr 9, 2023 at 23:46
  • @Hypnosifl Hmm, that's close, but I'd say it's not actually "meeting."
    – Sean
    Apr 10, 2023 at 1:59
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    Similar to @Hypnosifl comment, if you relax the "meeting" requirement you could consider "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens from 1843. The ghosts show Scrooge scenes of his past and future.
    – James
    Apr 10, 2023 at 20:27

5 Answers 5

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1935: "The Man Who Met Himself", a short story by Ralph Milne Farley (pseudonym of Roger Sherman Hoar); first published in the August, 1935 issue of Top-Notch magazine; reprinted in Farley's 1950 time-travel collection The Omnibus of Time. (I previously cited this story to answer the questions What was the first Time-Travel story to involve gambling? and What was the first 'time loop' story featuring the bootstrap paradox?.)

The moment that Withrick came face to face with the black-bearded apparition, he gave the command to halt, and snatched out his automatic pistol from its shoulder-holster.

"Don't shoot!" cried the stranger, grinning wryly through his beard, and holding up one hand.

For a few moments the two men studied each other intently. They were about the same size and build; and, except for the beard on the one of them, would have resembled each other somewhat. But the bearded man was thinner and evidently much older than Withrick.

Finally the bearded man gave his head a vigorous shake, as though to clear the cobwebs from his brain; blinked his eyes several times, rubbed them tiredly with the knuckles of one hand, and then peered at Withrick incredulously again.

Withrick peered back. Where had he seen that man before? And what was an English-speaking white-man doing in priestly garb alone in the midst of the Cambodian jungle?

The silence became oppressive.

"Who are you?" Withrick demanded.

The stranger laughed a harsh mirthless laugh.

"I have the advantage," he said, "for I know you. You are Richard Withrick, the stockbroker, of Boston, Massachusetts, just setting out on a tiger-hunt, from which — unless you heed my warning — you will never return. And so —"

"But who are you?" Withrick demanded impatiently.

Again the stranger laughed his harsh laugh.

"I am yourself!" he declared. "I am the Dick Withrick that was, ten years ago. I have escaped from my captors to warn you. As you value your freedom, do not touch the machine—"

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  • 6
    Even the title suggests that this might have been a novel idea back then.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 9, 2023 at 7:20
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    I have trouble believing that there was a 40-year gap between The Time Machine and the first story of this kind. Science-fiction writers are always in search of gimmicks, and this seems like such an obvious one...
    – benrg
    Apr 9, 2023 at 21:51
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    The science fiction genre was invented in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback. Before that, stories like The Time Machine and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court were just fiction stories told by fiction writers. When time-travel happened in a work of "proto-SF" it was mainly as a device to get the hero to another era, where the real story took place. Of course there may well be examples before 1935 of a man meeting himself through time travel.
    – user14111
    Apr 9, 2023 at 22:28
  • On the influence of Gernsback, the letters/editorial column in Amazing Stories was a big influence on the types of science fiction stories that were written in the 20s and early 30s, and a slew of time travel paradox stories followed a series of letters Gernsback published on the subject (like this one from "T.J.D." in the July 1927 issue), see the discussion starting on p. 278 here with more discussion and examples starting on p. 191 of Nahin's book Time Machine Tales.
    – Hypnosifl
    Apr 10, 2023 at 0:56
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    @benrg I find it easily believable because of how time travel was used in early stories. It primarily focused around displacing characters from their native era as a way of framing the story. Characters meeting themselves require either multiple independent jumps to the same point in time, or short jumps, neither of which is generally useful with such a literary usage of time travel. There are also certain scientific concepts that are functionally required for this concept to be understood that were lacking or nonexistent among the general public early on. Apr 10, 2023 at 22:33
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I have no way of telling which was published first, this story or Ralph Milne Farley's "The Man Who Met Himself" cited in my previous answer.

1935: "The Branches of Time", a short story by David R. Daniels, first published in Wonder Stories, August 1935, available at the Internet Archive.

The main character, James H. Bell, has invented a time machine. Guided by a future-man, he has traveled to the distant past, where he shot and killed an ancestor of all mammals. After traveling futureward to view the resulting timeline, they return to the scene of the crime:

"Finally we went back to where the reptile-thing was hatching on the sands in the earth's childhood. There we waited for about a minute, then my time machine appeared in front of us.

"It's a fact! Though the future-man and I were standing together inside the transparent walls of the traveler, he and I and it all appeared in front of ourselves. I saw; it was like looking at the moving picture of one's self, though much weirder.

"My friend gave the other me the revolver. We were too far away to hear what we said, but the actions were all plain. The other me slipped out to shoot our ancestor.

"'Now stop yourself," the man told me.

"So, as though I were used to doing this every day, I walked over to my other self and said, 'Don't do it this time.' I took the revolver. I suppose the other Bell was too dumfounded to do more than gape as I threw it into the stream. After that my companion and I went off in the time-machine leaving ourselves by our traveler on the sand. I’ve often wondered what might have happened had we all got into the same machine and left the other one that was still it on the edge of that little stream. . . .

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  • Given two equally qualifying contenders for the answer, I suppose I have to accept the one that was posted first. Thanks for the link though!
    – Sean
    Apr 15, 2023 at 18:17
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It depends on what you mean by "meets", but:

1843: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, published in 1843. Ebenezer Scrooge sees his own younger self at boarding school:

At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.

His younger self can't see his older self, so it's not a bilateral meeting, but the older self is certainly seeing the younger self.

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  • Somehow I never thought of those ghostlyy visions as "time travel" in the science-fictional sense. Leaving the ghosts out of it, would you say that I'm "time-travelling" and "meeting myself" when I look at an old photograph or movie of myself or listen to an old recording of my voice?
    – user14111
    Apr 12, 2023 at 7:22
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    @user14111 The book is written to place Scrooge in the past location, not merely viewing it from afar. Quote: "They walked along the road, Scrooge recognising every gate, and post, and tree; until a little market-town appeared in the distance, with its bridge, its church, and winding river." He's walking along the road from the past, not just seeing the road from the past. He also travels to a possible future elsewhere in the book.
    – isaacg
    Apr 12, 2023 at 16:00
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Heinlein released an earlier version of the concept in "By His Bootstraps" (TV Tropes link), released in 1941.

This Science Fiction Novella, written by Robert A. Heinlein, was first published in 1941. It deals with Bob, a student and all-round terrible person, who suddenly finds himself faced with the idea of a time portal and several strange men in his bedroom. At the other end, 30000 years into the future, lies an Arcadia ripe for the taking, and a man named Diktor is willing to give him half of the future land.

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As I mentioned in a comment, Osbert Sitwell's novel The Man Who Lost Himself (1929) was referenced in the sf-encyclopedia.com article "Time Paradoxes" as an early story dealing with the idea of meeting one's older/younger self, and @user14111 also mentioned that the novel can be borrowed on the internet archive here. I went ahead and read it, I'd say it's a sort of ambiguous case since it might be said to fall into the literary tradition that Lovecraft labeled as the "weird tale", with a lot of mysterious and unexplained dream-like elements that make it unclear if this was physical time travel or something else, including some differences between the encounters described from both perspectives. (As noted at the end of the the June 1 2020 entry here, Lovecraft actually had the novel in his library and put it on his list of "Weird &c. Items in Library of H. P. Lovecraft".) But I'll describe the story with a focus on the details that seem most relevant to questions of whether this was time travel or a premonition or something else, you can judge for yourself whether it fits.

The story is written from the perspective of an unnamed narrator describing the life and death of a British writer, Tristram Orlander, who the narrator had once been friends with. They had known each other since their school days, and the narrator starts by describing his youth, at one point mentioning that Tristram seemed to have "an indubitable and curious power of intuition—or perhaps one should say, rather, of being aware of small happenings that would shortly take place without the necessity of being informed of them beforehand." (p. 13)

Then the narrator moves on to the main narrative which will take up most of the novel, with some earlier comments on p. 9-10 suggesting this main narrative takes place in the late 1920s and Tristram is around 28. At this point he is a bit of a "starving artist" type whose poems and novels are judged to be great by a small audience with discriminating tastes, but not by the wider public. Tristram has a nervous breakdown after being rejected by a woman he fell in love with, so his doctor suggests a trip through Europe to recuperate, and the narrator volunteers to accompany him. Eventually they arrive in the Spanish city of Grenada, which they appreciate for its old world charm, and stay there for a long time during which Tristram seems to be recovering his health.

At one point in this section, there is some more significant discussion of premonitions of the future when Tristram and the narrator meet up with some other writers they know who are staying at a large hotel called the Hotel Boabdil (Tristram and the narrator are not staying there, but at a much smaller hotel with only a few guests). The discussion had turned to more serious or metaphysical topics, including "the distorted mirroring of the future that sometime occurs—or perhaps only seems to us in days after to have occurred—in a dream; a distortion similar to that evinced in one that follows certain events upon which obviously it is based, except that in these cases the order is reversed, and the dream precedes the happenings upon which it is founded. FitzMaurice held that if this predictive distortion could be proved and studied, much was to be deduced from it as to the nature of Time." (p. 164) Tristram recalls his childhood ability to predict minor events, and one of the other writers suggests that in cases like this one is not merely passively predicting things, but also subconsciously causing them in some sense: "if you either wanted or dreaded something sufficiently, you exercised on it, through the concentration that took place, an unconscious influence, equivalent to that of a magnet upon a nail, which would surely, though without your knowledge, draw it toward you out of the future." (p. 166) Tristram expands on this idea with some examples he's seen and speculates that "perhaps, if you ask a question of destiny, you will receive an answer in keeping with it; but the answer is in reality only the echo which the question calls forth." (p. 169)

After a while the narrator has to return to London, but thinks that Tristram seems sufficiently recovered that he will be OK staying on his own in Granada for a while longer. But once he no longer has company, the symptoms of his breakdown begin to return, including depressive thoughts about wasting his life pursuing an artistic career that has gotten him so little recognition or money, and disturbing dreams which cause him insomnia. There are some local personalities in Grenada who he finds vaguely disturbing and who keep reappearing in these dreams: a French woman who has become a beggar and goes around asking for money with her malnourished-looking child following everywhere, and the concierge at the hotel Boabdil, who had reminded both Tristram and the narrator of a puppet with his stiff motions and tendency to pop up from behind the counter when people entered. On one night he has a dream where the concierge points to the Frenchwoman and her child and says "It is the child, sir, to whom I want to call your attention." (p. 198) The concierge then leads him to a disturbing encounter with the woman he had fallen in love with, whose face has become a skull, and when he turns around he sees that "the child all at once grew up, and became the concierge, dressed in his uniform".

The next morning he decides he would be better off with company, so he has the plan to ask the concierge Hotel Boabdil if a certain made-up person is staying there, and then when the concierge says no, demand to inspect the guest book so he can see if anyone he might know is there. But when he gets there he is in a nervous state and blanks on the name he was going to ask about, so instead he just decides to use his own name, saying "I've come to see Mr. Tristram Orlander. Is he in?" (p. 218) While saying this he has a strange sense of deja vu, and then to his surprise the concierge says "Yes sir, I believe he's waiting for you", and takes him to a room. He knocks on the door and is invited to come in, where he sees "an elderly, bearded stranger" (p. 219) in an expensively-furnished room who rises from his chair and says "I was expecting you, but not yet: you, who always ruin yourself through being too late, are for once too early." As he stands Tristram has the sudden realization that the old man is "his own figure", but aged, and whose eyes seem to reveal a "bitter personal antagonism". He feels an urge to strike the old man, who raises his hands as if to shield his head, and says "We shall meet later". This is the last thing he remembers before waking up on the floor of the hall of the hotel, the concierge standing over him and saying "You were asking me for someone, sir, when you fainted. Shall I call a doctor?" (p. 220-221)

The next day he leaves Granada, and within a few days is back in London, where he tells the story to the narrator. Then he sees a "nerve-specialist" who reassures him the experience was a dream that happened after he fainted, and so he stops worrying about it. Soon after the narrator realizes that a change has come over Tristram—he basically becomes a sellout, dropping all his old artistic friends, and begins to churn out lower-quality writing that has great popular appeal, making him famous and wealthy (and also receiving a knighthood). The novel jumps ahead to the future period when the narrator is an old man and writing all these recollections, earlier established as "some forty odd years" after the main events of the story in the 1920s (p. 98), so set well in the future of when Sitwell was actually writing the novel (the future setting doesn't play much of a role though there is a brief reference on p. 233 to Tristram's writings being used for propaganda purposes during 'the World War of 1953-1957').

Tristram unexpectedly asks to meet with the narrator again, and seems to show some regret at the course his life his taken, saying that he wants to write a new book which will be his "best work" and re-establish himself as a serious writer. (p. 235) But later it's shown that he is suffering from writer's block, and sleeping badly again, so his doctors order "Rest, change of air, and change of scene" and he goes on another trip through Europe. (p. 260)

He ends up back in Granada, staying (of course) at the Hotel Boabdil. The new concierge seems familiar, but he can't place him. One night he is in his room re-reading one of his earliest novels, when he hears a knock, and the concierge appears, saying "The gentleman to see you, sir." He suddenly realizes that the concierge is a grown-up version of the "whining, piteous child" who always accompanied the Frenchwoman he always saw begging on his earlier trip to Granada. Then he sees the visitor, who seems to be a dead ringer for his own younger self, and the shock apparently kills him. (p. 281-282) None of the dialogue that was spoken in the earlier encounter (or dream) recurs here.

The narrator then discusses the inquest that followed Sir Tristram Orlander's death, noting that multiple witnesses saw a young stranger being brought up to his room, and that the concierge swore under oath that when he asked for a name, the young man had said "Same name—Tristram Orlander—Mr. Tristram Orlander, though. He's expecting me, I believe." The narrator reports this gave rise to the rumor that he had been murdered by an illegitimate son, but the autopsy showed his death hadn't been caused by violence. But he also notes people thought it was odd that the stranger never came forward to "prove his innocence", and no one was able to locate him. (p. 281-282) He also adds that "as, day by day, I followed the evidence, I was even more struck by the likenesses than by the discrepancies between this and the earlier encounter there, which he had related to me (indeed the very existence of such discrepancies as there were, was, according to his theory, an essential part of any such occurrence)" (p. 282).

So, was this a time travel story? I think there are different possible interpretations, and Sitwell probably meant it to be ambiguous. It could be seen as a time slip story where Tristram physically traveled to the future, or one where he did faint but projected something like an astral body into the future (as I mentioned in this answer, astral projection was a popular plot device in weird tales from the late 19th and early 20th century). The discrepancies between the accounts of events from the younger and older Tristram's perspective could be chalked up to unreliable memories of him and other eyewitnesses, although the narrator noted that this seemed to support some ideas about earlier desires/expectations and later events being distorted echoes of one another, suggesting it was more than just a matter of people misremembering what happened. Maybe the young man who entered the old Tristram's room at the end wasn't his younger self at all, but an illegitimate son as the rumors had it, but the fact that something so much like the earlier vision took place supported the idea discussed earlier about drawing events from the future like a magnet if you "wanted or dreaded something sufficiently". In each of these interpretations there could at least be said to be something like a causal loop where the younger self and the older self were each influencing each other's sense of meeting the other, whether or not the younger self had really traveled (in body or spirit) to the future.

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