Victorian Time Travel

It’s easy to understand why Robert Paul did not proceed with his 1895 patent for a ‘time machine’ experience, inspired by H. G. Wells’ hit story of that year. As he wrote near the end of his life, in 1943, ‘when I found early in 1896 that the public were attracted in large number to the first animated pictures of a simple character, I dropped my over-elaborate scheme and devoted myself to the production of projectors and cameras for the new art of cinematography’. In fact, this hardly does justice to his own experiments in time travel during the coming months. Apart from showing the finish of the Derby to London audiences the day after the race, in June of that first year of ‘animated photography’, Paul would soon be experimenting with bringing the imaginative past to life. His first studio productions in 1898 included a Dickens adaptation, Mr Bumble the Beadle, and two years later he was ready to tackle The Last Days of Pompeii, complete with Vesuvius erupting in the background.


A catalogue still (one of Paul’s innovations) is all that survives of his Last Days of Pompeii

But what about Wells, who had been intrigued enough by Paul’s project to call at Hatton Garden and leave behind some books on ‘extinct monsters’ – possibly illustrations of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs? Received opinion suggests that, after the barely remembered encounter with Paul in 1895, he then busied himself with ‘scientific romances’, and later autobiographical novels, paying little attention to the emergence of cinema until he began to sell adaptation rights to his fiction in the early ‘teens. However, close reading of the early scientific romances tells a very different story. In two extended time-travel stories of 1898-9, A Story of the Days to Come and the full-scale novel When the Sleeper Wakes, Wells incorporated into his furnishing of the future phonographs replacing print, and moving pictures providing both domestic and public entertainment.

In the Regent Street of ‘the days to come’, now ‘a street of moving platforms and nearly eight hundred feet wide’ known as Nineteenth Way, the Susannah Hat Syndicate projected a vast façade upon the outer way, sending out… an overlapping series of huge white glass screens, on which gigantic animated pictures of the faces of well-known beautiful living women were novelties in hats were thrown. A dense crowd was always collected in the stationary central way watching the kinematograph which displayed the changing fashion.

This was accompanied by ‘a broadside of giant phonographs’ that drowned all conversation with their exhortations to ‘buy the girl a hat’. Wells could conceivably have read Paul’s prospectus for the flotation of his Animatograph company in 1897, which predicted a dramatic expansion of advertising potential. But whether he did or not, he clearly foresaw a future of large illuminated displays that did indeed emerge, not in the era of film projection or neon signs, but in the modern phase of electronic displays.

28. Sleeper.Lanos.2

In his most comprehensive imagining of the world some two hundred years hence, the underappreciated When the Sleeper Wakes, the Rip Van Winkle protagonist, Graham, is visited by a tailor who shows him a range of dress options by means of ‘a little appliance the size of a keyless watch’, on which ‘a little figure in white appeared kinetoscope fashion on the dial, walking and turning’. The actual kinetoscope was a bulky apparatus, but this portable device bears an eerie similarity to the Filoscope that Paul’s friend and first cameraman Henry Short had patented in 1898, making use of Paul’s films for its contents. While there is no way of knowing how the illustrator of The Sleeper, the French artist Henri Lanos was briefed, the device he pictured beside Graham’s bed recalls the Phenakisticope used by Muybridge and Marey. One of the figures approaching Graham is also shown carrying a small device, which is presumably what will shortly be used to show him possible dress-styles. Here Wells’ confident prose conveys his conviction that such marvels will become commonplace, while their illustration can only gesture towards how they might look.

Sleeper.1  Wells’ Sleeper wakens after 200 years

Later, confined by the ruling Council, Graham discovers in his room a table-top apparatus near his bed with an electrical switch. When this is pressed

he became aware of voices and music, and noticed a play of colour on the smooth front face […] On the flat surface was now a little picture, very vividly coloured, and in this picture were figures that moved. Not only did they move, but they were conversing in small, clear voices. It was exactly like reality viewed through an inverted opera glass and heard through a long tube.

Graham soon realises he is watching a drama that refers to himself, with a joking reference to ‘when the Sleeper wakes’. He discovers how to change the cylinders in the apparatus, and realises he now has access to a library of dramatisations. Here Wells teases his readers of 1899 by citing ‘The Man who Mould be King’, Kipling’s 1888 story (‘he remembered reading a story of the title… one of the best stories in the world’), followed by The Heart of Darkness and The Madonna of the Future, stories by his new friends Joseph Conrad and Henry James, both of which appeared in the year when the Sleeper was first published. Graham also discoverers ‘an altered version of the story of Tannhauser’, in which the hero of Wagner’s opera ‘did not go to a Venusberg but to a Pleasure City’, which we are to understand is sufficiently pornographic to embarrass this time traveller, ‘who forgot the part played by the model in nineteenth-century art’.

As Graham experiences more of this future world, he discovers that recordings have entirely replaced printed texts, paintings and performances. And remarkably, Wells looks forward to the film and broadcasting studios of the near future

factories where feverishly competitive authors devised their phonograph discourses and advertisements and arranged the groupings and developments for their perpetually startling and novel kinematographic dramatic works.

The extraordinary prescience of Wells’ technological and social predictions was of course a major reason for his reputation as a seer, just as it would limit appreciation of his literary achievements. But what is of narrower interest here is how quickly he was incorporating not only projected pictures, then known by a wide variety of names, and also their immediate forerunner, the kinetoscope, into his imagined world of the future. This tends to confirm that he must have witnessed the kinetoscope in operation during its short-lived heyday in 1894-5, as Terry Ramsaye surmised from The Time Machine, possibly even due to his contacts with Paul in 1895. But it also suggests that he must have seen enough projected animated pictures by 1898, when The Sleeper Wakes began serial publication, to inspire this work’s bold extrapolations.

Far from being a dead end in 1895, the Paul-Wells ‘time machine’ idea should perhaps be seen as having inspired both young men to realise its wonders by more modern means, even before the end of that last Victorian decade.

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