Archive for October, 2013

Early Modern Stories About Traveling to the Future

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Our last post was about stories about time travel from ancient literature. Time travel fiction as we know it is really a 19th century invention, but there are still some pieces of time travel fiction that predate it.

Some other precursors to H. G. Wells et al.:

In 1659, Jacques Guttin wrote Epigone, histoire du siècle future, a romance that takes place in the distant future. However, the future in this case is merely an exotic location, like some far-off land. This story doesn’t contain the hallmarks of what we would consider time travel fiction.

In 1733, Irish author Samuel Madden (anonymously) wrote Memoirs of the Twentieth Century. The book consists of a collection of letters written by British diplomats in the late 1990s, which, in the book, have somehow been sent back to the early 18th century. The letters describe a future world dominated by Jesuits and the Vatican. Otherwise the future is pretty much identical to Madden’s time; same nations, same technology, etc. The book can be interpreted as a piece of social satire in the vein of Gulliver’s Travels, but mostly it is intended to express a warning from Madden on the dangers of Catholic influence.

Louis-Sebastien Mercer’s L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais (“The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One”) from 1770, tells the story of a man who falls asleep and wakes up in a utopian future. According to the novel, life in 2440 Paris is pretty good. People are free. The justice system is excellent. The Bastille has been demolished. Clothing is practical and comfortable. The medical establishment follows the rules of science. There are no priests, prostitutes, armies, or slavery. This vision of the future presented such a strong contrast to 18th century France that the book was banned in that country and forbidden by the Inquisition. Nevertheless, it was wildly popular around the world, and copies were in the personal libraries of such 18th century luminaries as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

In 1785 came the play Anno 7603 from Danish/Norwegian poet Johan Hermann Wessel. It tells the story of two people who are brought to the year 7603 from Wessel’s time by a fairy. In Wessel’s vision of the future, gender roles have been reversed: women are in charge and have the right to bear weapons, serve as soldiers, and drink. Men are relegated to the “traditional” powerless women’s role.

There was little interest in what the actual future might be like in these stories. Arguably, these imaginings of the future were merely explorations of current affairs, but in a creative way since the authors weren’t really at liberty to openly challenge the status quo. It wouldn’t be until the next century that time travel literature started exploring the nature of time itself.

Ancient Stories About Traveling into the Future

Monday, October 28th, 2013

After last week’s post about time travel, we started thinking about the origins of time travel fiction.

Like most science fiction tropes, the idea of time travel has existed in literature far longer than you might think.

The oldest type of time travel story on record is of the kind of go-on-a-long-trip-and-return-only-to-discover-it’s-far-in-the-future-and-everyone-you-know-is-long-dead variety. The first we know of is the Hindu epic the Mahabharata written way back in 700BCE. In the Mahabharata, King Revaita travels to a different world and returns to Earth only to discover he’s returned thousands of years later.

The Talmud tells the story of Honi ha-M’agel, who goes to sleep and wakes up 70 years later, discovering that his grandchildren are now grandparents. Take that Washington Irving! Irving wouldn’t write Rip Van Winkle until more than 1,500 years later.

The Japanese legend Urashima Tarō tells the story of a fisherman who visits an undersea palace for three days, only to discover upon his return that he’s been gone for three centuries.

A very short animated version of Urashima Tarō from 1931 for those of you with short attention spans who can decipher obscure Japanese animation.

These accidental time travel stories aren’t quite the same as what we consider time travel – someone building a time machine or entering a wormhole to visit the past or future – but are rather stories about the fleeting nature of time. The protagonist stays still and the world passes him by. The stories are far less interested in what the future world is like than the Twilight Zone-type twist of a character discovering everyone he knows is long gone. Given that these stories were written in time periods in which things changed only very gradually or stayed completely static for centuries, completely alien to our modern idea of “progress,” there wasn’t a lot of curiosity about what the future would be like. Likewise, what was there to see in the past? It wouldn’t be until deep in the modern age until our current concept of time travel fiction arose.

Kind of Like Time Travel

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

We were feeling bad about not having posted a blog entry in a while, and then we remembered that time is relative. So the passing of time is ultimately meaningless.

On that subject, here are some links that are kind of like time traveling. Click the highlighted text or the images below to travel through time.

The Coelacanth – a fish thought to be extinct since 65 million years BCE is found alive in 1938!


Yes, that’s right: television footage from the 1950s of a man who witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s assassination!

A group on Flickr dedicated to looking into the past!


 A mammoth mummy!

10th President of the U.S. John Tyler (1790-1862) has two living grandsons! One of them even still lives in Tyler’s house.


Ötzi the Ice Man! (c. 3,300 BCE)


Smartass Response to a Philosopher #19

Friday, October 4th, 2013

“Now we are not merely to stick knowledge on to the soul: we must incorporate it into her; the soul should not be sprinkled with knowledge but steeped in it.” – Seneca

Much of Seneca’s work was influenced by his after-school job at the doughnut factory.

Old Time Medical Fads

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Obamacare takes a big step forward today, with insurance exchanges now going live.

Speaking of American medicine, here’s a few of the many medical fads Americans have fallen for over the years, none of which will likely be covered by Obamacare.


In 1834, Ohio physician Dr. John Cook Bennett declared that tomatoes could cure pretty much everything. Diarrhea, cholera, jaundice, indigestion, headaches, nausea, dyspepsia, you name it.

This led to a tomato craze. Dr. Bennett suggested to traveling merchant Archibald Miles, who was selling a medicine called the “American Hygiene Pill,” that he rename it “Extract of Tomato Pill” to boost sales. Miles launched “Dr. Miles’ Compound Extract of Tomato” and made a small fortune. Throughout the 1830s, tomato pills, tomato extract, and a novel new product known as “tomato ketchup,” were sold across the country. The competition was so fierce that this was known as the Tomato Pill War.

In 1840, investigations into tomato pills by the medical profession led to their unmasking as a false medicine. But the tomato pill craze led to the adoption of the tomato as an American food staple.


Minister Sylvester Graham was a temperance and anti-masturbation activist and dietary reformer in early 19th century America. He developed a diet (known as the Graham diet) that in its unprocessed blandness would prevent people from having impure thoughts. One of the key staples was the graham cracker, made, naturally, with graham flour. Although years later sugar and honey was added to the graham cracker, which Graham would have hated, maybe he had a point: try having an impure thought while eating one.

John Harvey Kellogg also actively campaigned against masturbation, and discouraged sexual activity in general. He believed that bland foods would dull the passions, and his invention of the corn flake cereal that bears his name was in this service. Kellogg argued with his brother (who co-invented the cereal) about addition of sugar to the otherwise bland cereal. Whether or not corn flakes – with or without sugar – has ever discouraged sexual activity among its eaters is unknown.


Electricity was a popular cure-all from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries. The practice of electropathy – administering electrical shocks to patients – was a widespread treatment for muscle problems and hysteria, among other ailments. Unlike other purported cures, a patient could feel electricity coursing through his or her body so it was convincing to some people. Who cares if the treatment occasionally left burns and had no basis in medicine?


In the 18th century, physician Franz Mesmer experimented with magnets to cure all sorts of medical problems, from nervous ailments to blindness. Magnetism became quite popular in 19th century America, and was used to, among other things, relieve pain, increase blood flow, heal broken bones, and cure cancer. Suffice it to say it never worked. That’s not to say that it wasn’t heavily marketed. At one point you could even buy electric corsets. The use of magnets to cure a variety of aches and pains persists to this day, without any medical evidence to indicate that magnets do anything to the body.