for National Geographic News
H.G. Wells was born 143 years ago today, into the steam-powered, horse-driven England of 1866—the same year the easy-open tin can was patented and a year before dynamite.
Yet Wells, often called the father of science fiction, produced an explosive array of ideas and inventions that are now staples of the genre and, in some case, everyday items—including time travel, lasers, invisibility, interplanetary war, wireless communications, and answering machines.
H.G. Wells: Fiction's Father of Time Travel?
H.G. Wells "played with ideas that kind of defined the genre," said Jerry Oltion, a science fiction writer and telescope maker in Eugene, Oregon. "Mary Shelly beat him to the Frankenstein idea, but he got most of the others."
Many of Wells's biggest ideas came out in a book-a-year burst of productivity near the end of the 19th century, beginning with The Time Machine in 1895. In that book, the main character travels millions of years into the future, though it's not exactly clear how.
Even today scientists aren't sure whether we really might time-travel, H.G. Wells style. But some experts say we may someday do it Albert Einstein style.
"There are many physicists who will tell you it is proven impossible," said Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "But that is not the case."
"Einstein himself pointed out that time travel is possible in general relativity," added Gregory Benford, a science fiction writer and physicist at the University of California, Irvine.
Einstein's theory of relativity suggests that, if a person could safely travel at or near light speed—a big if—he or she would experience the alteration of time. In a staple scenario of post-Wells fiction, the traveler would arrive in the future not a day older than when he or she left.
Getting home—going backward in time—is a thornier problem but may be accomplished by harnessing theoretical particles called tachyons. The as-yet-unobserved particles travel backward in time, some physicists speculate.
Video: How H.G. Wells's Dream of Time Travel May Come True
Lasers and Gene Engineering in the World of H.G. Wells
Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898) is full of ideas that proved slightly less fanciful than century hopping.
The alien invaders, for example, kill people with a deadly heat ray that Wells described as "an almost noiseless and blinding flash of light."
It sounds amazingly like a laser or the U.S. military's so-called heat-ray gun. Unveiled in 2007, the Active Denial System's invisible beam of microwave radiation causes a burning sensation meant to help disperse crowds. Unlike with Wells's ray, however, there is no flash, fire, or physical harm.
Another now real H.G. Wells conceit is genetic engineering of animals—and humans.
The Island of Dr. Moreau involves the mad doctor's attempts to mold animals via vivisection—operating on a live animal.
H.G. Wells: Original Gear Head?
H.G. Wells was particularly interested in gadgetry, sometimes describing imaginary devices with excruciating precision.
Telescope maker Oltion sees it as almost a form of play for Wells. "It's a sign of somebody who enjoys their [imaginary] universe, when you get that kind of detail."
But such whiz-bang details are sometimes at odds with real-world practicality.
Take the now humble automatic door, which Wells envisioned decades before anyone built one. "Like most science fiction authors, he made it needlessly complicated," Oltion said.
For instance, the Wells door slid upward, into the ceiling. That "means you have to have room for the door to move into," Oltion said, "and it's not room you would normally have free in a house."
H.G. Wells as Social Commentator
Though in many ways ahead of his time, H.G. Wells was also a keen critic of his own place and era.
Co-starring the Morlocks—descendants of 19th-century working-class humans, who live literally under the childlike Eloi class, the descendant upper-crust Britons—"The Time Machine was a kind of cautionary tale of social stratification, and where that might ultimately lead," Oltion said.
The theme would have been especially resonant in turn-of-the-century Britain, where the industrial revolution was making ever plainer the strikingly different lifestyles of the workers and the middle and upper classes.
"One of the jobs of science fiction writers is not so much to predict the future as to prevent the future," Oltion added. "In that regard, Wells did a very good job."
More on H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells Birthday Quiz: The Man Behind the Fiction
H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds: Behind the 1938 Radio Show Panic
Are Neighborhood Aliens Listening to Earth Radio?
Honoring H.G. Wells: Crop Circles Go Worldwide Overnight
ON TV: Time Machine, Airing Thursday, September 24
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