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It's no surprise that when time travel appears in a universe where going back in time can alter history, a group appears, (apparently) acting to preserve the continuum they know. But when did science fiction writers begin writing about them?

My most recent experience with the Time Police** is Jodi Taylor's Chronicles of St. Mary's series, but the author I associate this idea with the most is Poul Anderson. His story "Time Patrol" appeared in F&SF in May 1955.

SF Encyclopedia starts with "Delenda Est" by Poul Anderson (F&SF, December 1955) and Isaac Asimov's novel The End of Eternity, which appeared in August 1955.

Since these all appeared in 1955, and two authors happened on the same idea in the same year, it might be that the Time Police were already an established idea. So I'm curious if any Time Police stories preceded this, and what was the first.


** No, Herodotus got the idea that there were gold-mining ants in India all by himself, not from me. I deny it categorically.

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  • 1
    The end of eternity is really a great book, I didn't know it was written this early
    – Kaddath
    Apr 19, 2023 at 13:09
  • 3
    Probably the 19th century, but only before time changed
    – Machavity
    Apr 19, 2023 at 18:24
  • Well it used to be Poul Anderson, but then someone went messing with the timeline...
    – Tiercelet
    Apr 20, 2023 at 16:38
  • Another ambiguous example is "The Time Express" (1932), where in the year 2124 there are "time tours" that can go to future ages, with their cooperation. One age is in 4800, which has made powered technology illegal, and doesn't permit travel to the further future--and if anyone from the past tries to smuggle plans for technology, they will forbid further trips to their time. A member of the "Secret Service Division" of 2124 is investigating a smuggling plot, not to preserve history but just to preserve tourism.
    – Hypnosifl
    Apr 21, 2023 at 20:19
  • 1
    Just going to put up a non-toxic version of Machavity's link, it's a comic series worth reading. wondermark.com/c/1516
    – miken32
    Mar 1 at 2:24

3 Answers 3

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I would argue that the first work to depict an organized force (although not referred to as "police") dedicated to preserving their timeline is Williamson's The Legion of Time (May-July 1938, Astounding).

Quoting the blurb of the novel version:

As his plane hurtled down in flames, Denny Lanning knew he was dying - and then the ship appeared. Ghostly and shimmering, it came from nowhere, it travelled through time, and it was crewed by an army of dead men from every great war in history!

On board, Lanning soon learned of the phantom craft's desperate mission. In the far future, mankind was destined to choose between two paths. One would bring peace and wisdom, while the other would destroy the entire world. The odds were horrifying in favour of destruction - and only the ship of the Legion of Time could hope to save the human race!

The trope was already sufficiently established by 1955 for multiple works to have groups dedicated to the "preservation" of timelines: e.g. Anderson's "Time Patrol" and "Delenda Est," Asimov's The End of Eternity.

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  • Kornbluth's 1953 "Time Bum" may also be worth a mention. Were there any notable examples of Time Police between the Williamson and the Kornbluth?
    – user14111
    Apr 18, 2023 at 19:55
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    H. Beam Piper's Paratime stories began publication in 1948. Apr 18, 2023 at 20:18
  • @user14111 Ah, right. I'd forgotten about that one. I can't think of any others pre-1950, at least.
    – DavidW
    Apr 18, 2023 at 20:34
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    @DoscoJones Notably those were not time police; there was no time travel in those books.
    – DavidW
    Apr 18, 2023 at 20:34
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    There used to be earlier instances, but someone got to them. Will get to them. Will have gotten to them. (If this comment gets deleted, you'll know who did it.) Apr 19, 2023 at 15:20
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While not the earliest instance of the concept, this may be the earliest where they are actually referred to as "time-police".

1950: "Typewriter from the Future", a novelette by Rog Phillips, first published (as by "Peter Worth") in Amazing Stories, February 1950, available at the Internet Archive.

Even though they wore such bizarre suits they had the indefineable something that marks all law officers, whether police or some other enforcement agency.

"Surprised?" Mary asked demurely. "You invited me along, you know."

"Are you — " Phil began. "I see it all now. You're one of the time-police, and you got a job working for me so you could find out who was writing stories with a robot typewriter.

There was a light of regret and disappointment in his eyes that Mary saw and interpreted.

"That’s right, Phil," she said."

The zoot-suited men were disappearing one by one through thin air at the spot where Phil had found himself when he arrived. Each of them carried a queer looking blunt tube which Phil guessed to be some sort of weapon.

The last man to vanish paused and kissed Mary.

"I'll be seeing you soon, darling," he said. Then, with a friendly grin at Phil, he stepped out of sight into the time-warp.

Mary saw the look of utter dejection on Phil's face. She laughed delightedly.

"That’s my brother," she explained. "He's one of the time-police, and he got the special assignment for me to be your secretary."

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    This also might be the first story where the role of the police-like org is specifically about preventing time paradoxes/changes & maintaining a consistent timeline--the concept of the "temporal police" is introduced on p. 61 after a discussion of the grandfather paradox on p. 60, where the character says there is a "correcting" that would prevent killing one's own grandfather, and then adds "if I let you go back you will publish what you know, and the temporal police will track me down and arrest me. But they won't arrest me now. They will arrest me before I sold Peter Abbott his typewriter!"
    – Hypnosifl
    Apr 21, 2023 at 22:48
  • Another one with some similarities to later time police concepts is "The Search" by van Vogt from 1943--features an institutionalized group called "The Possessors" who have hegemonic control of the timeline, the main plot of the story is about stopping a plot to prevent the Possessors from ever existing, though the field notes on p. 53 suggest that unlike "Typewriter..." they don't just thwart changes but also make improvements to the timeline (more like Asimov's "End of Eternity" than Poul Anderson's Time Patrol)
    – Hypnosifl
    Apr 23, 2023 at 22:00
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H Beam Piper's first Paratime series in appeared in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine in 1948, starting with He Walked Around the Horses and also from the same year Parallel Time Tracks, which is an excerpt from He Walked.... Piper also published Police Operation in 1948.

These all involve a police force from a future Earth that is able to access different time periods in the past. The police investigate and solve crimes committed against peoples in the past (e.g. exploitation of the native inhabitants of the time period).

Edited to say (as pointed out by @DavidW) that in this series, the travel is not strictly time travel, but rather access to different parallel universes, which have different time-lines/alternate histories equivalent to different periods in Earth's history.

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  • This incorrectly characterizes paratime. It is not time travel.
    – DavidW
    Apr 19, 2023 at 3:02
  • @DavidW good point; I will edit.
    – bob1
    Apr 19, 2023 at 3:40
  • @DavidW True, it's not backwards or forwards time travel, it's sideways time travel. But the pace of development of politics, religion, and technology across the different time tracks makes some sectors more primitive and some more advanced. However, the Paratime Police are primarily concerned with maintaining the secrecy of paratime travel, and secondarily with preventing unfair exploitation of other timelines. They don't have a directive to preserve the integrity of the timelines, per se. So they are quite different to the time police of usual time travel stories.
    – PM 2Ring
    Apr 19, 2023 at 14:22

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