The Time Machine – H.G Wells

Inner workings of a mechanical clock

“The Time Machine”, published in 1895,  is a highly influential work of early science fiction.  It was the first exploration of time travel in fiction and depicts the adventures of a gifted Victorian scientist who builds a time machine and travels far into the future – into the year 802,701 AD.  In this extract, the scientist describes his first journey through time ….

‘I am afraid I cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling. They are excessively unpleasant. There is a feeling exactly like that one has upon a switchback–of a helpless headlong motion! I felt the same horrible anticipation, too, of an imminent smash. As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. I supposed the laboratory had been destroyed and I had come into the open air. I had a dim impression of scaffolding, but I was already going too fast to be conscious of any moving things. The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me. The twinkling succession of darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars. Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness; the sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous color like that of early twilight; the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; the moon a fainter fluctuating band; and I could see nothing of the stars, save now and then a brighter circle flickering in the blue.

The landscape was misty and vague. I was still on the hill-side upon which this house now stands, and the shoulder rose above me grey and dim. I saw trees growing and changing like puffs of vapour, now brown, now green; they grew, spread, shivered, and passed away. I saw huge buildings rise up faint and fair, and pass like dreams. The whole surface of the earth seemed changed–melting and flowing under my eyes. The little hands upon the dials that registered my speed raced round faster and faster. Presently I noted that the sun belt swayed up and down, from solstice to solstice, in a minute or less, and that consequently my pace was over a year a minute; and minute by minute the white snow flashed across the world, and vanished, and was followed by the bright, brief green of spring.

The unpleasant sensations of the start were less poignant now. They merged at last into a kind of hysterical exhilaration. I remarked indeed a clumsy swaying of the machine, for which I was unable to account. But my mind was too confused to attend to it, so with a kind of madness growing upon me, I flung myself into futurity. At first I scarce thought of stopping, scarce thought of anything but these new sensations. But presently a fresh series of impressions grew up in my mind–a certain curiosity and therewith a certain dread–until at last they took complete possession of me. What strange developments of humanity, what wonderful advances upon our rudimentary civilization, I thought, might not appear when I came to look nearly into the dim elusive world that raced and fluctuated before my eyes! I saw great and splendid architecture rising about me, more massive than any buildings of our own time, and yet, as it seemed, built of glimmer and mist. I saw a richer green flow up the hill-side, and remain there, without any wintry intermission. Even through the veil of my confusion the earth seemed very fair. And so my mind came round to the business of stopping.

Some thinking points …

The writer chooses to present the time machine as fixed in the same place while, in contrast, the world around it changes over eons of time.  This journey through time begins with the rapid passing of days and speeds up so the scientist sees the movement of the moon and the stars in the sky, which represents the passing months, and the growth of trees, which represents years.  Finally, the machine is moving so quickly through time that the narrator sees changes in the lansdcape and the growth and decline of cities, representing many hundreds of years.

What do we learn about the experience of travelling in the time machine, and why does the writer chose to describe it in this way?

How do the scientist’s sensations and thoughts change through this journey?

Why do you think he decides to stop the machine?

Look at the ways in which the world outside the machine is described – “I saw trees growing and changing like puffs of vapour, now brown, now green; they grew, spread, shivered, and passed away. I saw huge buildings rise up faint and fair, and pass like dreams. The whole surface of the earth seemed changed–melting and flowing under my eyes.”  What do you notice about these descriptions and the narrator’s relationship with the world outside the machine?

Classic inspiration – ideas for writing based on this extract

  • Write a description of a journey – slowing down the action.
  • Write a description of travelling by car but write from the point of view of the dashboard mirror.
  • Write a description of time travel using the time machine where the narrator ages, or gets younger, while the outside world remains the same.