Life's Little Mysteries

Where Does the Concept of Time Travel Come From?

Wormholes have been proposed as one possible means of traveling through time.
Stories about time travel are, well, timeless. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The dream of traveling through time is both ancient and universal. But where did humanity's fascination with time travel begin, and why is the idea so appealing?

The concept of time travel — moving through time the way we move through three-dimensional space — may in fact be hardwired into our perception of time. Linguists have recognized that we are essentially incapable of talking about temporal matters without referencing spatial ones. "In language — any language — no two domains are more intimately linked than space and time," wrote Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher in his 2005 book "The Unfolding of Language." "Even if we are not always aware of it, we invariably speak of time in terms of space, and this reflects the fact that we think of time in terms of space."

Deutscher reminds us that when we plan to meet a friend "around" lunchtime, we are using a metaphor, since lunchtime doesn't have any physical sides. He similarly points out that time can not literally be "long" or "short" like a stick, nor "pass" like a train, or even go "forward" or "backward" any more than it goes sideways, diagonal or down.

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Perhaps because of this connection between space and time, the possibility that time can be experienced in different ways and traveled through has surprisingly early roots. One of the first known examples of time travel appears in the Mahabharata, an ancient Sanskrit epic poem compiled around 400 B.C., Lisa Yaszek, a professor of science fiction studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, told Live Science 

In the Mahabharata is a story about King Kakudmi, who lived millions of years ago and sought a suitable husband for his beautiful and accomplished daughter, Revati. The two travel to the home of the creator god Brahma to ask for advice. But while in Brahma's plane of existence, they must wait as the god listens to a 20-minute song, after which Brahma explains that time moves differently in the heavens than on Earth. It turned out that "27 chatur-yugas" had passed, or more than 116 million years, according to an online summary, and so everyone Kakudmi and Revati had ever known, including family members and potential suitors, was dead. After this shock, the story closes on a somewhat happy ending in that Revati is betrothed to Balarama, twin brother of the deity Krishna. 

Time is fleeting

To Yaszek, the tale provides an example of what we now call time dilation, in which different observers measure different lengths of time based on their relative frames of reference, a part of Einstein's theory of relativity.

Such time-slip stories are widespread throughout the world, Yaszek said, citing a Middle Eastern tale from the first century BCE about a Jewish miracle worker who sleeps beneath a newly-planted carob tree and wakes up 70 years later to find it has now matured and borne fruit (carob trees are notorious for how long they take to produce their first harvest). Another instance can be found in an eighth-century Japanese fable about a fisherman named Urashima Tarō who travels to an undersea palace and falls in love with a princess. Tarō finds that, when he returns home, 100 years have passed, according to a translation of the tale published online by the University of South Florida

In the early-modern era of the 1700 and 1800s, the sleep-story version of time travel grew more popular, Yaszek said. Examples include the classic tale of Rip Van Winkle, as well as books like Edward Belamy's utopian 1888 novel "Looking Backwards," in which a man wakes up in the year 2000, and the H.G. Wells 1899 novel "The Sleeper Awakes," about a man who slumbers for centuries and wakes to a completely transformed London. 

Related: Science Fiction or Fact: Is Time Travel Possible?

In other stories from this period, people also start to be able to move backward in time. In Mark Twain’s 1889 satire "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," a blow to the head propels an engineer back to the reign of the legendary British monarch. Objects that can send someone through time begin to appear as well, mainly clocks, such as in Edward Page Mitchell's 1881 story "The Clock that Went Backwards" or Lewis Carrol's 1889 children's fantasy "Sylvie and Bruno," where the characters possess a watch that is a type of time machine

The explosion of such stories during this era might come from the fact that people were "beginning to standardize time, and orient themselves to clocks more frequently," Yaszek said. 

Time after time

Wells provided one of the most enduring time-travel plots in his 1895 novella "The Time Machine," which included the innovation of a craft that can move forward and backward through long spans of time. "This is when we’re getting steam engines and trains and the first automobiles," Yaszek said. "I think it’s no surprise that Wells suddenly thinks: 'Hey, maybe we can use a vehicle to travel through time.'"

Because it is such a rich visual icon, many beloved time-travel stories written after this have included a striking time machine, Yaszek said, referencing The Doctor's blue police box — the TARDIS — in the long-running BBC series "Doctor Who," and "Back to the Future"'s silver luxury speedster, the DeLorean

More recently, time travel has been used to examine our relationship with the past, Yaszek said, in particular in pieces written by women and people of color. Octavia Butler's 1979 novel "Kindred" about a modern woman who visits her pre-Civil-War ancestors is "a marvelous story that really asks us to rethink black and white relations through history," she said. And a contemporary web series called "Send Me" involves an African-American psychic who can guide people back to antebellum times and witness slavery. 

"I'm really excited about stories like that," Yaszek said. "They help us re-see history from new perspectives."

Time travel has found a home in a wide variety of genres and media, including comedies such as "Groundhog Day" and "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" as well as video games like Nintendo's "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask" and the indie game "Braid." 

Yaszek suggested that this malleability and ubiquity speaks to time travel tales' ability to offer an escape from our normal reality. "They let us imagine that we can break free from the grip of linear time," she said. "And somehow get a new perspective on the human experience, either our own or humanity as a whole, and I think that feels so exciting to us." 

That modern people are often drawn to time-machine stories in particular might reflect the fact that we live in a technological world, she added. Yet time travel's appeal certainly has deeper roots, interwoven into the very fabric of our language and appearing in some of our earliest imaginings. 

"I think it's a way to make sense of the otherwise intangible and inexplicable, because it's hard to grasp time," Yaszek said. "But this is one of the final frontiers, the frontier of time, of life and death. And we're all moving forward, we're all traveling through time."

Originally published on Live Science.

Adam Mann
Live Science Contributor

Adam Mann is a freelance journalist with over a decade of experience, specializing in astronomy and physics stories. He has a bachelor's degree in astrophysics from UC Berkeley. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times, National Geographic, Wall Street Journal, Wired, Nature, Science, and many other places. He lives in Oakland, California, where he enjoys riding his bike.