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Where was the first literary appearance of time travel? I know H.G. Wells coined the term "time machine", and according to wikipedia he popularized the concept of time travel.

Since they don't give him credit for inventing time travel, I assume that means someone else did, and I'm curious as to who it was.

To be clear, I'm leaving the definition of time travel deliberately broad. I don't require any specific device or technology. If you can think of a book/story where a person was thrown through time, either forward or backward, by a deity, technological marvel, random act of nature, or something else, that counts.

However, the subject must actually travel through time, not just have a misperception of the amount of time that passed. So "John slept for 1000 years but to him it felt like a single night" is not a time travel story because John's body continued to travel through time at the rate of one day per day, even if he was asleep and missed most of it.

By my rendering at any rate, don't take this as any sort of gospel.

  • They can't give him credit, as there is no definite proof he was the only one. This question is a bit too broad. And the wiki page gives lot of citations. – Stark07 Dec 15 '14 at 7:34
  • As @user14111 has noted in his comments on my answer, can you more closely define what you mean by "time travel"? Are you referring to the use of a device or is travel by means of a natural phenomenon (or divine intervention) sufficient? – Valorum Dec 15 '14 at 10:01
  • By Time travel, I meant a person travelling through time (at a non-normal rate - one day per day forward clearly isn't what I'm looking for). Since I didn't specify a specific means of time travel, assume that for the purposes of this question I don't care. – PopularIsn'tRight Dec 15 '14 at 13:49
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    The wikipedia "Time travel" article already has a pretty detailed rundown of the earliest stories that arguably feature forward or backward time travel, see the section History of the time travel concept. Are you looking for a different type of answer, or are you just hoping people here will know of candidates for the first forwards/backwards time travel story that predate any of the ones in the wiki article? – Hypnosifl Dec 15 '14 at 14:42
  • @Bachrach44 - In that case, I'll leave my answer standing. I doubt if you'll find anything prior to 400BC but let's see. – Valorum Dec 15 '14 at 15:26
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There are some truly ancient descriptions of time travel found in various cultures around the world.

If we exclude the "prophecy" elements of texts like the bible, then probably the oldest instance of someone physically traveling through time is found in the Mahabharata, written sometime around 400BC. In it we meet a king named Raivata. Part of the story includes a reference to him spending a day with the god Brahma and his nymph consort. When he returns to Earth, he learns that he has traveled "several hundred years" into the future.

Tell me the truth.' Pramlochá. answered, 'You say rightly,' venerable Brahman, 'that I came hither at morning dawn, but several hundred years have passed since the time of my arrival. This is the truth.' The Muni, on hearing this, was seized with astonishment, and asked her how long he had enjoyed her society: to which the nymph replied, that they had lived together nine hundred and seven years, six months, and three days. The Muni asked her if she spoke the truth, or if she was in jest; for it appeared to him that they had spent but one day together: to which Pramlochá replied, that she should not dare at any time to tell him who lived in the path of piety an untruth, but particularly when she had been enjoined by him to inform him what had passed.

  • They do love their sexy sex :) – Jamie Hutber Dec 15 '14 at 9:51
  • @JamieHutber - Not that kind of nymph. Well, actually kind of that kind of nymph but there's no smut. – Valorum Dec 15 '14 at 9:53
  • Ye ok, I didn't realise there was potential for smut inside the Hindu religion. But really I know nothing about it. Other than they really really like sex. – Jamie Hutber Dec 15 '14 at 9:55
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    This would be a much better question if the OP gave definite criteria for what counts as time travel. Your hero spent 900 years in heaven and it seemed to him like a day. How about this: "A man woke up, and thought he had only been asleep for a few minutes, but he looked at his watch and saw that he'd been sleeping for several hours." Is that a time travel story? – user14111 Dec 15 '14 at 9:55
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    There's multiple things wrong with this answer unfortunately. First of all, that quote in your answer is not from the Mahabharata, it's from another Hindu scripture called the Vishnu Purana: sacred-texts.com/hin/vp/vp050.htm Second of all, that Vishnu Purana chapter is not about the story of Raivata, it's about a completely different story about a sage named Kandu who was seduced by a nymph named Pramlochana. That story has nothing at all to do with Brahma; the word "Brahman" is just another spelling of Brahmin, the name of one of the four castes in Hinduism. – Keshav Srinivasan May 5 '16 at 22:02
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If the Rip van Winkle version does not count, then at least two contenders can be considered.

Memoirs of the Twentieth Century by Thomas Madden was published in 1733, and uses the idea that the author is given documents from 200 years in the future. While no person is shown travelling back in time, the documents may count.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1849) has Ebenezer Scrooge travelling both forward and backward in time, although he can only see and hear, not interact. And the forward travel suggests that the backward travel is not simply the presentation of a forgotten memory.

  • I'm intrigued by this Thomas Madden book but can't seem to find any reference to it- could you provide a link by any chance? I'd be fascinated to read it. – Broklynite Jan 24 '16 at 11:38
  • @Broklynite - Sorry but I miswrote the titile - I've edited. Portions of the book can be found on GoogleBooks books.google.ca/… – WhatRoughBeast Jan 25 '16 at 1:42
  • Well I've tried it. I got midway through the first letter before I put it down. Thank you for sharing nonetheless. – Broklynite Jan 25 '16 at 8:14
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The question required that we reference instances of time travel that are not simply "a misperception of the amount of time that passed". One could argue that King Raivata's story in the Mahabharata was such a misperception. Others might argue differently, but here's an alternative answer for the first group:

Although not 2000 years old, there are examples from before The Time Machine (1895) that involve actually jumping from one time to another.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) by Mark Twain

This is the first one I thought of. Partial summary from Wikipedia:

In the book, a Yankee engineer from Connecticut is accidentally transported back in time to the court of King Arthur, where he fools the inhabitants of that time into thinking he is a magician—and soon uses his knowledge of modern technology to become a "magician" in earnest, stunning the English of the Early Middle Ages with such feats as demolitions, fireworks and the shoring up of a holy well.

This is very clearly time travel. The Yankee was in modern times, then he was in the past.


"The Chronic Argonauts" (1888) by H.G. Wells

This is a short story precursor to the Time Machine. Partial summary from Wikipedia:

A third-person narrator describes the arrival of a mysterious inventor to the peaceful Welsh town of Llyddwdd. Dr. Moses Nebogipfel takes up residence in a house neglected after the deaths of its former inhabitants. The simple rural folk become apprehensive about Nebogipfel's activities in the house and suspect him of witchcraft. ... reveals that Nebogipfel is an "Anachronic Man" whose genius drives him to seek out a time more suited to his abilities.

I haven't read the story myself, but according to @Hypnosifl, the story describes the travel as "Locomotion along lines of duration". This might be some kind of continuous movement, but considering how it's going backwards it would be hard to characterize it as a misperception of the passage of time.


"The Clock that Went Backward" (1881) by Edward Page Mitchell

This is a short story that Wikipedia claims is "the first instance of using a time machine for time travel, and the first instance of a temporal paradox in fiction". The citation for this claim links to a book by Paul J. Nahin called Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction which contains a review of time travel in fiction. It describes the time travel device like so:

The mechanism of Mitchell's time machine, an eight-foot-high, sixteenth-century Dutch clock, is quite simplistic, even bordering on fantasy. It is simply stated that if the clock runs backward, then it travels backward in time - a rather disappointing explanation.

Like "The Chronic Argonauts", this appears to be a continuous motion backwards through time. According to @Hypnosifl, the story states that

The hands were whirling around the dial from right to left with inconceivable rapidity. In this whirl we ourselves seemed to be borne along. Eternities seemed to contract into minutes while lifetimes were thrown off at every tick.

Again, though, this is movement backwards. As this is movement through time in a different direction, rather than simply at a different speed, it seems to be a clear example of time travel.

That may be the earliest use of a device to travel in time, but in a Wikipedia article called Time Travel, there is a section on the history of the time travel concept, in which there are multiple possible examples earlier than 1881. The earliest of those examples which looks to me to be clearly not a dream or vision, and not someone simply sleeping into a later time Rip van Winkle style, is from 1836.


In The Forebears of Kalimeros: Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon (1836), by Alexander Veltman

the narrator rides to ancient Greece on a hippogriff, meets Aristotle, and goes on a voyage with Alexander the Great before returning to the 19th century (Wikipedia)

In my research, I ran across numerous blogs referring to this as the first Russian science fiction novel, and as the first novel using time travel. These aren't exactly authoritative sources, though.

  • The original question-asker indicated in a comment that he didn't see a need to limit answers to ones involving technological devices, though. And of course A Connecticut Yankee doesn't involve any device...as for jumps to the past, the wikipedia article mentions some other earlier examples of stories where people seem to be transported to past eras, like "Missing One's Coach: An Anachronism" from 1838 (though that one may just be a dream), and Paris avant les hommes from 1861. – Hypnosifl Jan 22 '16 at 23:27
  • I brought up devices just because you prefaced the mention of The Clock that Went Backwards by noting wikipedia's claim that it was the first to use a time machine, and then highlighted a quote about the device; and although you didn't mention it, The Chronic Argonauts also made use of a device, and was perhaps the first to use a more well-thought-out science fictional machine that's clearly non-magical. So I just thought it was worth mentioning that although the origin of the idea of the "time machine" is an interesting question on its own, it wasn't really what the OP was asking about. – Hypnosifl Jan 23 '16 at 1:07
  • OK, but then are you using any specific criteria to consider these as better candidates for an answer to the original question than the Mahbharata (even though that answer was accepted, indicating it did satisfy the OP's criteria), or is this answer just intended as something like a sampling of interesting pre-Time Machine time travel stories? – Hypnosifl Jan 23 '16 at 2:05
  • @Hypnosifl The whole first paragraph is about the criteria. These are not "a misperception of the amount of time that passed". This is referenced again in the body: "actually jumping from one time to another", "of those examples which looks to me to be clearly not a dream or vision, and not someone simply sleeping into a later time". I think that accepted answer is pretty borderline, so here are some other options. – DCShannon Jan 23 '16 at 2:18
  • OK, makes sense--when I first read your answer I got confused about the criteria because as I said you seemed to be highlighting the use of a device in Mitchell's story, but I probably should have re-read your answer after you clarified that wasn't one of your criteria. One other question--are you saying backwards time travel can never be "misperception of the amount of time that passed" even if it involves continuously passing backwards through all the times between departure date and destination (like a film played backwards), as opposed to a discontinuous "jump"? – Hypnosifl Jan 23 '16 at 2:38
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In ancient Hindu mythology, the Mahabharata, written around 700 B.C. mentions the story of the King Revaita, who travels to a different world to meet the creator Brahma. The King is shocked to learn that many ages have passed when he returns to Earth. It also mentions that speed of time is different on earth and heven (where he met the creator)

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    Welcome. Your answer appears to be the same as the accepted answer. – Wikis Aug 11 '15 at 10:01

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