Nowadays, we take for granted the idea that if you go travel back in time and interact with your own past, you can create a huge crazy time paradox. But who first came up with this idea?
Who created the first time paradox? And can we go back and prevent him or her from doing it? We were curious, so we went and looked back into the mists of time. Here's our complete history of time paradoxes.
Top image: "Sound of Thunder" video game concept art.
Most experts seem to agree that Tourmalin's Time Cheques by Thomas Antsey Guthrie (under the pseudonym, F. Antsey) is considered to be the first novel to ever explore the idea of temporal paradoxes. In the 1891 story, Peter Tourmalin is having a difficult time adjusting to the shift in time zone on his voyage to Australia, but gets the opportunity to open an account at a "Time Bank" which, by presenting a special check to any clock, allows him to deposit spare time he can later withdraw at any point. Things get complicated, however, when he discovers that time withdrawn is not in consecutive installments, but actually mixed up at different points, often leaving him in the middle of conversations with multiple beautiful women – and never at the same time. The book has been out of print for ages, but it seems to have more in common with ribald modern-day SF comedies like The Change-Up, or Hot Tub Time Machine than the makings of a mind-bending subgenre. Heres a fan trailer from Youtube.
And then it was a long time until the next story about time tampering: 1933's Berkley Square, about a time traveler meeting his own ancestors at the time of the American Revolution. The film, which was based on a stage play, inspired H.P. Lovecraft to write "The Shadow Out of Time," about time travel via mind projection.
1937's Time and the Conways by J.B. Priestly played with multiple timelines in a roundabout way — by bringing up the idea that the passage of time is an illusion and all moments are happening simultaneously.
And then there's the first example of a "Groundhog Day" story: "Doubled and Redoubled", a short story by Malcolm Jameson that appeared in the February, 1941 issue of Unknown. Accidentally cursed by a witch, the protagonist endlessly repeats a "perfect" day, including a lucky bet, a promotion, a heroically foiled bank robbery, and a successful wedding proposal.
But for the most part, the time travel genre didn't really explore the idea of tampering with the past for the first fifty years, with most stories being more adventure-minded narratives such as H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and Armageddon 2419 A.D.. Or more Faustian representations, like Enoch Soames by Max Beerbohm, in which an obscure writer makes a deal with the Devil to be able to visit 1997 and read what history has written about him — which turns out not to be much.
And then, at last, Robert Henlein's story "By His Bootstraps" was published in 1941. It involves a man who meets various future versions of himself, only to find that he is inevitably playing out the future that led to those versions coming back and meeting him.
And then there seems to have been another long period of radio silence, until 1952's A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury popularized the butterfly effect — step on a butterfly and change the past totally — and things took off from there.
The following year saw the release of Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, in which a time traveller from an alternate history manipulates the events of the Battle of Gettysburg to transform our future into his, and the year after saw Fredric Brown's quarter-of-a-page-long classic short story, "Experiment," which can be read in full here.
1955 saw the release of Asimov's The End of Eternity, which deals with a group of "Eternals" who travel through time making changes and safeguarding the future of humanity — except that there are centuries in the future where they can't visit, and after those centuries humanity appears to have been wiped out. The Eternals are traveling back to the past, to try and make sure history happens in the right way to ensure their existence — but it turns out that other time-travelers have other ideas.
1955 also yielded William Tenn's The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway, about a historian who returns to the mid-20th century to study a fictitious artist, only to discover the he himself is forced to become that artist, and the future is a result of its interest in the past. Michael Moorcock repeated this premise with Jesus Christ in 1969's better-remembered Behold the Man. In 1956, Damon Knight published his short story "Extempore," about a New York dishwasher who learns to travel through time, only to discover that at a certain point, the universe loops back in on itself and repeats indefinitely.
Also in 1956, John Wyndham wrote the novella "Consider Her Ways," in which a woman wakes up in a dystopian future, 100 years after her time, thanks to a weird drug — and then she manages to find her way back to her own time. She vows to prevent the future she visited, but it's implied her actions may actually cause that future to come to pass. (And a similar notion, of a woman visiting a dystopian future through mysterious means, comes up in Marge Piercy's later novel Woman on the Edge of Time, although Piercy's protagonist also visits a utopian future.)
Fascinatingly, though somewhat unrelatedly, around this time, the Canadian incarnation of Howdy Doody introduced a character named Mr. X who travelled through time and space in his "Whatsis Box" to teach children about science and history. Sound familiar? The character was short-lived, however: The CBC received too many complaints from parents that he was frightening their children.
In 1957, Robert Heinlein wrote The Door Into Summer, where a man travels back in time to get revenge, thus altering his future. And that led directly to 1959's All You Zombies, the first story to incorporate the idea that tampering with the past could cause someone to become their own mother and father.
In Walter Tevis' The Other End of the Line, from 1963, a time traveller mistakenly calls his own phone number, causing him to talk to himself. 1966's The Man from When by Dannie Plachta involves a man accidentally destroying the planet when he travels backward eighteen minutes.
And then in 1973, Heinlein returned once again in Time Enough for Love to tell the story of man falling in love with his own mother. The same year, David Gerrold released The Man Who Folded Himself, about a man who uses a time belt for his own gain — and gets to know himself a lot better.
James P. Hogan's Thrice Upon a Time from 1980 wrote about the possibility of messages from the future deleting the timelines of the intended recipients – and 1981's classic X-Men story arc Days of Future's Past told the story of Rachel Summers, the biological daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey from another timeline who travels to the past to save her future, only to discover she cannot – the best she can do is create a new time line (a storyline repeated several years later on Dragon Ball Z).
This seems to be the end of trailblazing new concepts, at least in written fiction.
But starting in the 1960s, television started to explore more weird concepts of time travel, some of them written by great prose science fiction authors. In the Twilight Zone episode "No Time Like the Past," Dana Andrews realizes he is unable to change the past, with disastrous results.
Harlan Ellison gave us the Outer Limits episode "Soldier" about a fighter from a dystopian future — which he claimed helped inspire the movie Terminator. And he also gave us Star Trek's time travel classic "City on the Edge of Forever," in which saving the life of a woman whose pacifism delays the United States' entry into World War II results in Starfleet not existing in the future.
In Dark Shadows, there was a "warp in time" inside Collinwood's west wing, which would let you access one, or possibly many, parallel timelines.
In 1977's Fantastic Journey television show, which is essentially Lost, a mysterious island gathers people from the past, present and future with no escape.
On television, there was also The Time Tunnel, and of course several Doctor Who stories featured people meeting themselves or changing the past somehow. Land of the Lost also dealt with changing the past a lot –- especially the season one finale and this episode.
And of course, every single episode of Voyagers! involved the characters altering timelines. And 1972's The Amazing Mr. Blunden involved children changing the past. 1975's Picnic at Hanging Rock heavily implies a time slip was involved, but it's ambiguous.
The series finale of Mighty Max, the tie-in animated series to the boys' version of Polly Pocket, ended with Max realizing he'd never be able to defeat Tim Curry's Skullmaster, and so he causes a time anomaly that locks the show into a continuous moebius strip — ending the series with its pilot episode, forever repeating itself.
As for movies, this subgenre seemed largely untouched until the 1980's, which may be why the decade produced so many popular films that dealt with the subject.