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The idea that considering the galaxy is so large, let alone the universe meant that sci-fi stories involving traveling to various planets and star systems required a mechanism that involved faster-than-light travel. My question is what is the first technological mechanism proposed in the science fiction literature that allows for faster-than-light travel?

Bonus question: if the first reference to faster-than-light travel did not involve a mechanism, what is that reference?

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    Great question. The answer has to be something later than the 17th or 18th century, because until then, people thought light could travel any distance instantaneously. That is to say, they didn't think there was a speed of light. The concept only came into popular thought in the 18th or even 19th century. – Wad Cheber Jun 25 '15 at 3:26
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    @WadCheber good observation! However, it could be possible there was a FTL drive conceived, but the fact it was FTL was not known then... – Often Right Jun 25 '15 at 3:27
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    Wad Cheber - I think that you are wrong about about he speed of light. If I remember correctly, I think that Cassini, looking for something else, discovered that light had a finite speed and made the first rough measurement of it about 1670. and it was startling to discover that light had a finite speed. – M. A. Golding Jun 25 '15 at 4:39
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    No - Ole Romer in 1676 discovered the finite speed of light. – M. A. Golding Jun 25 '15 at 4:45
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    @WadCheber - Don't forget, that travelling faster than the speed of light and having an FTL-drive like mechanism are two different things. I mean before Einstein's general theory of relativity noone knew that FTL travel is seemingly impossible. It seemed like travelling faster than the speed of sound; something that can be achieved by constantly accelerating. – mg30rg Jun 25 '15 at 11:48
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Atomic motor in The Skylark of Space

In 1928, E.E. Smith published the novella The Skylark of Space in the periodical Amazing Stories. It features a vessel with an "atomic motor" capable of faster-than-light travel. This seems to be the first working proposal in science fiction for how to power a technology producing faster-than-light travel. There is, however, a caveat regarding the basis for the technology that I will mention below (which is why I include a better candidate — Islands of Space — further down).

enter image description here

Here is a passage from The Skylark of Space in which we see the atomic motor in action:

For forty-eight hours the uncontrolled atomic motor dragged the masterless vessel with its four unconscious passengers through the illimitable reaches of empty space, with an awful and constantly increasing velocity. When only a few traces of copper remained in the power-plant, the acceleration began to decrease and the powerful springs began to restore the floor and the seats to their normal positions. The last particle of copper having been transformed into energy, the speed of the vessel became constant. Apparently motionless to those inside it, it was in reality traversing space with a velocity thousands of times greater than that of light.

The actual technology for achieving this superluminal velocity is never explained. All that is explained is where the power for it comes from. This is the "atomic" in "atomic motor":

"Well, it's the force that exists between the ultimate component parts of matter, if you can understand that. A child ought to. Call in your chief chemist and ask him what would happen if somebody would liberate the intra-atomic energy of one hundred pounds of copper."

The main reason that the operation of the engine is not fleshed out is because the novella relieves itself of this burden by simply asserting that Einstein's theories are incorrect. In other words, there is no obstacle to travelling faster than light, and all one needs is enough power to accelerate to whichever speed one desires.

"But nothing can possibly go that fast, Mart, it's impossible. How about Einstein's theory?"

"That is a theory, this measurement of distance is a fact, as you know from our tests."

(Source)

Note: Many thanks to @Hypnosifl, @M.A.Golding, @user14111, and @RobertF for their input on this!

 


Space strain drive in Islands of Space

I believe that the first proposal for a technological mechanism for faster-than-light travel — one that describes its actual design and operation, not only its power source, and which accepts that the speed of light is something to be overcome — appeared in John W. Campbell Jr.'s Islands of Space, a novella first published only three years later (1931), also in Amazing Stories. The vessel in the novella features a "space strain drive", whose description anticipates some facets of Star Trek's famous warp drive.

Notably, this proposed drive also takes into account gravitational effects, in line with Einstein's general theory of relativity.

enter image description here

The novella's lead-in blurb:

As Earth's faster-than-light spaceship hung in the void between galaxies, Arcot, Wade, Morey and Fuller could see below them, like a vast shining horizon, the mass of stars that formed their own island universe.

Later in the novella:

"We might need an aerodynamically stable hull," Wade interjected. "It came in mighty handy on Venus. They're darned useful in emergencies. What do you think, Arcot?"

"I favor the torpedo shape. Okay, now we've got a hull. How about some engines to run it? Let's get those, too. I'll name the general things first; facts and figures can come later.

"First: We must have a powerful mass-energy converter. We could use the cavity radiator and use cosmic rays to warm it, and drive the individual power units that way, or we can have a main electrical power unit and warm them all electrically. Now, which one would be the better?"

Morey frowned. "I think we'd be safer if we didn't depend on any one plant, but had each as separate as possible. I'm for the individual cavity radiators."

"Question," interjected Fuller. "How do these cavity radiators work?"

"They're built like a thermos bottle," Arcot explained. "The inner shell will be of rough relux, which will absorb the heat efficiently, while the outer one will be of polished relux to keep the radiation inside. Between the two we'll run a flow of helium at two tons per square inch pressure to carry the heat to the molecular motion apparatus. The neck of the bottle will contain the atomic generator."

Fuller still looked puzzled. "See here; with this new space strain drive, why do we have to have the molecular drive at all?"

"To move around near a heavy mass—in the presence of a strong gravitational field," Arcot said. "A gravitational field tends to warp space in such a way that the velocity of light is lower in its presence. Our drive tries to warp or strain space in the opposite manner. The two would simply cancel each other out and we'd waste a lot of power going nowhere. As a matter of fact, the gravitational field of the sun is so intense that we'll have to go out beyond the orbit of Pluto before we can use the space strain drive effectively."

"I catch," said Fuller. "Now to get back to the generators. I think the power units would be simpler if they were controlled from one electrical power source, and just as reliable. Anyway, the molecular motion power is controlled, of necessity, from a single generator, so if one is apt to go bad, the other is, too."

(Source — extracted from the 1966 Ace paperback edition, which is based on an earlier 1956 version)

Although the above excerpt is from the heavily-revised 1956 version of the novella, the idea of straining space to achieve faster-than-light travel is intact in the original 1931 printing, as seen in this passage:

"Einstein found that the geometry of Euclid was all right here on Earth, where the curvature of space is almost zero, but when he came to consider Mercury, Euclid's geometry was all wrong. Space is curved, and there, near the terrific mass of the sun, it was so badly curved, that Euclid's planes didn't exist, and his geometry was wrong.

"Morey has a new system, and he applied it with amazing results. We have discovered a means for giving any one of the twenty coefficients of space any value we want.

"To do this, we are straining space out of its normal condition, and the usual condition of such strain creeps up. We have to use energy to do it, and in thus straining space, we are storing energy in it. Of course, we have stored energy as space strain for hundreds of years, the induction coil, the condenser and gravity all represent energy stored in space as a strain. The more we follow this mathematical discussion, the more it seems that all energy in the universe is but strain in space: that is, there is no matter, merely energy strain, in space; that there is energy only because space is strained there.

"But, be that as it may, we have a new means of storing energy, and that is more to our point, the means so affects space, that it changes the speed of light, changes the limiting speed of the universe. We can go as fast as we want, for the limit, about us, is changed, by our curving space in a new way.

"The system is fairly obvious. Remember a torus-shaped induction coil encloses all its magnetic field within it, the torus, or 'doughnut' coil, has a perfectly enclosed magnetic field. We built such an enclosed storage coil, and expected to store a few watts of energy in it to see how long it would hold it. We made the mistake of connecting it to the power lines, and it cost us a hundred and fifty dollars at a quarter of a cent per kilo-watt. After that we used the big relux plate electric generating method.

"But that is in the essentials what we have to offer. We give you the job of figuring out the stresses and strains and so forth--we want a ship to visit our neighbors--anywhere within one thousand million light-years."

(Many thanks to @user14111 for typing this out from a copy of the original 1931 periodical! The 1931 version is now available on archive.org here.)

Given the information above, I believe that Islands of Space best meets the requirements of the OP's question.

 


Regarding the "Bonus" question

As an addendum, if one is interested in faster-than-light travel in science fiction that is not necessarily technological in nature, we have the following.

Astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote a science fiction novel in 1608 called Somnium.

enter image description here

In it, there are demons that can move a human being from one point on Earth to any other possibly instantaneously, and these demons can be called upon to travel great distances whenever necessary.

The main character uses these demons to travel to the moon, for instance. (For some odd reason, travel-by-demon to the moon takes up to 4 hours, whereas travel from any point on Earth to another happens in the blink of an eye. In any case, at least some instances of demon-induced travel in the novel might occur at superluminal speeds.)

From the Wikipedia summary of Somnium:

One day, Fiolxhilde reveals to Duracotus how she learned of the heavens. She tells him about the daemons she can summon. These daemons can move her anywhere on Earth in an instant. If the place is too far away for them to take her, they describe it in great detail.

This précis seems to have been adapted from this passage of the original Latin text:

cujus ope non raro momento temporia in alias oras, quas ipsi dixero, transportor, aut si ab aliquibus longinquitate absterreor, quaerendo de iis tantum proficio, quantum si praesens ibi essem,

which translates as:

Often, in a split second, I was transported by its power to other shores which I selected for myself. If I were kept away from certain places on account of their distance, I gained ground by questioning about those places just as if we were present there.

"Split second" is vague, but Kepler was clearly imagining inhumanly fast travel.

Incidentally, Sagan and Asimov consider this to be the first work of science fiction in general. Since Somnium is the first true work of science fiction, Kepler's demons are also the first faster-than-light mechanism of travel in science fiction — if we assume the usage of "split second" is akin to "instantaneous".

Note: Thanks to @Hypnosifl for referring me to the original text and translation, and thanks to @algiogia for some supporting calculations regarding the demons' terrestrial speed.

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    One last point I'd make is that if you accept the translation's suggestion of very fast ('a split second') but not necessarily instantaneous travel on Earth, then this type of fast travel can't really be taken as proof of superluminal motion, since at light speed it would take only 0.04 seconds to get from one side of Earth to the other. And the passage is ambiguous since it says he was "kept away from certain places on account of their distance", we might imagine the "other shores which I selected for myself" that the daemon took him to were confined to some quasi-local area, like Europe. – Hypnosifl Jun 25 '15 at 16:43
  • @Hypnosifl : It certainly is ambiguous --- "split second" has no well-defined meaning, and could be longer or shorter than 0.04 seconds. I'll perhaps make the Somnium bit less assertive. :-) – Praxis Jun 25 '15 at 16:51
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    I also added a few possible categories of FTL to the end of my answer, and made an argument that The Skylark of Space isn't really a first in any of them, although Islands of Space seems to be--take a look and see what you think. – Hypnosifl Jun 25 '15 at 19:46
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    @Hypnosifl : Checked it out --- I think your reasoning is sound. Like I said to user14111 in the previous batch of comments before they were cleared up, I did recall Skylark but I seemed to remember that it didn't really propose a mechanism for FTL, which is one of the reasons why I excluded it in the first draft. The new section of your post confirms this, that they mention how to power the motor, but not how the motor works. I'm going to add a proviso to my answer about this. – Praxis Jun 25 '15 at 19:51
  • @user14111 : I didn't realize the Gutenberg version was from the 1956 paperback. Can you confirm whether the description of the strain drive is similar in the 1931 periodical version? (Also, I'll change the description of the lead-in paragraph --- thanks.) – Praxis Jun 25 '15 at 20:13
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Science Fiction: The Early Years by Everett F. Bleiler, a seemingly exhaustive reference book on early science fiction (outside of authors mainly known from the science fiction "genre magazines" that began in the 30s, like John Campbell and E. E. 'Doc' Smith--Bleiler has a separate book Science Fiction: The Gernsback Years for that), lists the following stories in the index under "Faster than light travel":

"Lumen" by Camille Flammarion (1872)

"The Key of Industrial Cooperative Government" by Pruning Knife (pseudonym of Henry Francis Allen) (1886)

"Romances of the Planets. No. 1. Journey to Mars. The Wonderful World: Its Beauty and Splendor; Its Mighty Races and Kingdoms; Its Final Doom" by Gustavus W. Pope (1894)

"Clever Tales" by Charlotte Porter and Helen Archibald Clarke (1897)

"To Venus in Five Seconds" by Fred Jane (1897)

"The Last Days of Earth. Being the Story of the Launching of the 'Red Sphere'" by George C. Wallis (1901)

"Around a Distant Star" by Jean Delaire (pseudonym of Mrs. Muirson Blake) (1904)

"An Excursion Into the Past" by Ernest Chapin (1922)

"Around the Universe. An Astronomical Comedy." by Ray Cummings (1923)

"A Trip to Polaris or 264 Trillion Miles in an Aeroplane" by Charles S. Muir (1923)

"What Hackensaw Found on the Moon" by Clement Fezandie (1923)

"A Suitor From the Stars" by Colin Craig (1928)

"Beyond the Stars" by Ray Cummings (1928)

"Crashing Suns" by Edmond Hamilton (1928)

"Green Fire" by John Taine (pseudonym of Eric Temple Bell) (1928)

"The Cosmic Cloud" by Edmond Hamilton (1930)

"Imagine a Man in a Box" by H. Russell Wakefield (1931)

"Distant Worlds. The Story of a Voyage to the Planets." by Friedrich W Mader (1932)

"The Ship From Nowhere" by Sidney Patzer (1932)

Looking at the plot descriptions from the pre-1928 stories:

  • "Lumen" by Camille Flammarion does not feature technological travel but rather travel by a disembodied spirit, but if the four hour transit time from Earth to Moon in Kepler's Somnium disqualifies that story, this one may be the answer to your bonus question about non-technological FTL travel. The plot description specifically notes that because the spirit is able to pass light rays moving away from Earth, he is able to observe any point in Earth's past history.

  • The next one, "The Key of Industrial Cooperative Government" from 1886, might just qualify as technologically assisted FTL travel, although it sounds pretty fanciful. The plot summary quotes a passage in verse saying:

Our vessel was a pleasing sight

Had bird-like wings for sails of curious make

Propelled by motors light, for rapid flight

Combining greatest skill with graceful shape.

Embarking soon upon our aerial flight,

With speed beyond all human power to count

Eclipsing even, rapid flow of light,

Away through endless space we mount.

  • The plot description for "Romances of the Planets" (1894) says "It seems magnetic currents run between the poles of all the planets, and it is possible for ether-volts (space-ships) to ride these currents from planet to planet." It also says "Mention is made of a faster-than-light drive that could reach Mars in a matter of minutes."

  • The description for "Clever Tales" from 1897 indicates that although the characters do travel faster than light in a "triangular apparatus", using this to view the past as in "Lumen", it turns out it was all a dream.

  • "To Venus in Five Seconds" from 1897 features a matter transmitter (developed by ancient Egyptians, and independently by natives of Venus) able to transport the characters to Venus in "a few seconds", but the fact that this is faster than the speed of light doesn't seem to figure in the story.

  • In "The Last Days of Earth" from 1901, the last two humans are leaving Earth, and "A charge of negative electricity propels their spaceship away from earth at twice the speed of light to a nearby star".

  • In "Around a Distant Star" from 1904, there is a genius named Royal Staunton of whom it is said that "After studying the work of Tesla and Roentgen, and other areas of modern science, he discovered that a very powerful dynamo could generate positive electricity of sufficient force to toss a ship off the earth at two thousand times the speed of light. This renders interstellar travel possible." Again the FTL speed is going to be used to observe Earth's past--in this case, the life of Jesus (the story had a religious message).

  • In "An Excursion Into the Past" from 1922--the first FTL story listed that postdates Einstein's theory of relativity, though the description indicates no attempt to deal with relativity theory--"an angelic being in a spaceship" picks up the narrator, who has just been killed in a car crash, and takes him on a trip faster than light which allows him to see Earth's past, but he awakens in a hospital to find "it was all delirium."

  • "Around the Universe" from 1923 is an educational kid's story, with the main character discovering he has the power to make wishes come true, and wishing "Professor Isaac Wells-Verne" to appear before him, along with a spaceship that takes can travel FTL.

  • "A Trip to Polaris" from 1923 is another educational story where the vehicle is completely fanciful, a "gasoline-driven aeroplane, the sides of which have been greased to minimize friction, and travels at the speed of light."

  • "What Hackensaw Found on the Moon" from 1923, aliens on the moon called Lunarians can observe the past by catching light from beyond our solar system, which "implies that the Lunarians can travel faster than light", but no details seem to be given.

So, I think we can come up with a few categories of FTL in stories:

Non-technological FTL -- I think the first clear example is "Lumen" from 1872.

FTL with a mechanical device, but no details on how it moves -- "The Key of Industrial Cooperative Government" from 1886 seems to qualify.

FTL teleportation technology -- "To Venus in Five Seconds" from 1897.

FTL by simply continuously accelerating under a propelling force, with the nature of this force given -- The first one where a propelling force is mentioned in the plot description is "The Last Days of Earth" from 1901, where the craft is propelled by "a charge of negative electricity", though one would have to read "Romances of the Planets" and "Clever Tales" to check if the force is mentioned in either of those earlier stories (since it's not mentioned in Bleiler's plot descriptions).

FTL by some more exotic mechanism than ordinary acceleration under some force, based on the recognition that Einstein's theory doesn't allow for reaching the speed of light by continuously accelerating -- Here I think Praxis' answer of the "space strain drive" in Islands of Space from 1930 is the first example, since the excerpt that Praxis posted mentions that it works by warping space in the opposite manner from gravitational fields, increasing the speed of light in the region of the ship. (This presumably means the ship never exceeds the speed of light rays in its local vicinity, a clever idea which is a pretty close anticipation of a real-life proposal in general relativity, the Krasnikov tube. The Krasnikov tube involves a region of space curved by negative energy so that it experiences a sort of "time contraction" relative to the outside universe, so that clocks inside the region tick faster than those outside, the opposite of the usual gravitational time dilation created when positive mass/energy curves spacetime, which causes clocks inside the region to tick slower relative to the outside. This means that light rays can cross the time-contracted region faster than expected relative to the outside universe, and ships in the region can travel any speed below that of light in the region.) The excerpt from the original 1931 version of the story posted by user14111 doesn't speak of warping space in a way opposite to normal gravitational fields, but it still has the idea of changing the curvature of space in a way that increases the local speed of light in the region, saying that the machine "changes the speed of light, changes the limiting speed of the universe. We can go as fast as we want, for the limit, about us, is changed, by our curving space in a new way."

As an aside, I don't think the "atomic motor" from The Skylark of Space (proposed as the first FTL drive in a comment by user14111) falls into this category, since it seems from the following three quotes that Smith made it "atomic" so that it could extract a very large amount of energy from a small amount of fuel (in this case, using a small amount of copper as a vast power source), not because he was imagining using this huge amount of energy to do anything more exotic than accelerate the ship continuously.

From Chapter I (in these quotes the bolding is mine):

Finally he jumped up. Crashing his hand down upon the desk, he exclaimed:

"I have liberated the intra-atomic energy of copper! Copper, 'X,' and electric current!

"I'm sure a fool for luck!" he continued as a new thought struck him. "Suppose it had been liberated all at once? Probably blown the whole world off its hinges. But it wasn't: it was given off slowly and in a straight line. Wonder why? Talk about power! Infinite!

From Chapter II:

A look of scornful unbelief passed over Brookings' face.

"Sneer if you like," DuQuesne continued evenly. "Your ignorance doesn't change the fact in any particular. Do you know what intra-atomic energy is?"

"I'm afraid that I don't, exactly."

"Well, it's the force that exists between the ultimate component parts of matter, if you can understand that. A child ought to. Call in your chief chemist and ask him what would happen if somebody would liberate the intra-atomic energy of one hundred pounds of copper."

"Pardon me, Doctor. I didn't presume to doubt you. I will call him in."

He telephoned a request and soon a man in white appeared. In response to the question he thought for a moment, then smiled slowly.

"If it were done instantaneously it would probably blow the entire world into a vapor, and might force it clear out of its orbit. If it could be controlled it would furnish millions of horsepower for a long time.

From Chapter IX:

For forty-eight hours the uncontrolled atomic motor dragged the masterless vessel with its four unconscious passengers through the illimitable reaches of empty space, with an awful and constantly increasing velocity. When only a few traces of copper remained in the power-plant, the acceleration began to decrease and the powerful springs began to restore the floor and the seats to their normal positions. The last particle of copper having been transformed into energy, the speed of the vessel became constant. Apparently motionless to those inside it, it was in reality traversing space with a velocity thousands of times greater than that of light.

Also, as Harry Johnston pointed out in a comment, the story dealt with relativity by just declaring Einstein wrong about the speed-of-light limit, rather than trying to find a form of FTL that wouldn't obviously contradict relativity as in Islands of Space. From chapter VIII of The Skylark of Space:

"About three hundred and fifty million miles," he stated. "Clear out of our solar system already, and from the distance covered he must have had a constant acceleration so as to approximate the velocity of light, and he is still going with full...."

"But nothing can possibly go that fast, Mart, it's impossible. How about Einstein's theory?"

"That is a theory, this measurement of distance is a fact, as you know from our tests."

  • 2
    Yes, Skylark simply asserted that Einstein's theory was wrong, and therefore no FTL mechanism was necessary. – Harry Johnston Jun 25 '15 at 22:36
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The devil takes a professor for a ride in a faster-than-light spaceship in the 1907 short story "Wie der Teufel den Professor holte" by Kurd Laßwitz. My answer is based on an English translation by Willy Ley, titled "When the Devil Took the Professor", which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1953, available at the Internet Archive. According to the editorial introduction to Willy Ley's translation, Lasswitz's story was originally written in 1895; the ISFDB says "First publication appears to be 1907".

Although the spacecraft is owned and operated by the devil, it seems to run on (unspecified) natural rather than supernatural principles; it contains machinery, and there is some talk about its energy source. Of course the story is about the ride and the observed phenomena, not the propulsion system.

"I was trying to stall some more," the Professor said, "but all of a sudden I found myself in a soft double seat, right next to the devil. My feet were on a foot rest and there was a kind of handrail to hold on to. But otherwise we were freely suspended in space. I decided that I would not let the devil impress me in any way. I felt certain that he had weak points and I have always maintained that Dr. Faustus, if only he had been a better mathematician, could have won his particular case without trouble. 'Well, Professor,' the devil said, 'how do you like my little spaceship? Made in one piece of the ideal material you once thought up, completely transparent and of infinite structural strength. You'll have a beautiful view.'

"I looked around. Behind us there was night, absolute blackness. Above and below, to the right and to the left, there were a number of stars which became more and more densely packed in front. Directly ahead they coalesced into a bright glow. I did not understand that phenomenon. Precisely where were we? I came to the conclusion that I had been unconscious for some time and asked how long we had been travelling. The devil told me that it had been for about half an hour and, as I had suspected, he had had to meke me unconscious to get me out of my study and into this vehicle. 'You have never seen a sight like that, have you?' he said maliciously. 'Oh,' I replied, 'I'm quite sure that this can be explained. Just tell me at what speed we are traveling.' 'Just about ten times the speed of light,' he answered."

[. . .]

". . . when the devil took the glass away from me and said, 'How do you explain this little instrument, my dear Professor?

"'I don't have to,' I replied. 'You can expect scientific explanations from me, but your glass is obviously an invention of the devil—that is to say, some devilish trick which has nothing in common with the natural sciences. You would have to prove first that it is a bona fide optical instrument before you could expect an exposition of theory.' The devil said something which sounded like 'damn you,' but I pretended not to hear. Then he continued: 'But the fact that we move with ten times the speed of light (I have just restored that rate), this is something you must be able to explain. I take that to be a technological problem and if you don't know the answer I don't have to waste any more time on you. After all I am not obliged to chauffeur you for 1017 kilometers; I can throw you out right now and then you'll be a meteorite.'

[. . .]

"'I mean,' I said, 'could you cause sudden changes in the distribution of matter and of energy which would be inexplicable?' He laughed. 'Inexplicable to you? That would be worth a lot! You don't know anything. You are finite spirits and helpless when it comes to the infinite. But I can reach into the infinite where there are endless world systems with endless varieties of energy and I could move things into your puny galaxy which would make your hairs stand on end.'

"'Ahem,' I said, 'So you simply took the energy you needed from an infinitely distant stellar system?'—'Not quite, but almost. It does not come from a very distant system but from a place which you cannot even imagine or comprehend.'

  • Did you type all of this out by hand?! I'm impressed! I decided to use the first part of the excerpt (p.151) in my answer (with credit to you for finding this). I see no reason why you shouldn't leave this excerpt, including p.152, in your answer. I'll leave it up to you. :-) – Praxis Jun 26 '15 at 4:04
  • Again, I'm highly impressed (and thankful), spare time or not! It has been a pleasure chatting with you and working on this with you. :-) – Praxis Jun 26 '15 at 4:40

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