Showroom of the Future

Time Machines

In a rational, industrial age, the vanities of science fiction make it necessary that for every fantastic phenomenon, there must be a machine behind it. Time Travel fiction hasn’t always relied on a technology to make it possible, but increasingly all trans-temporal adventures begin with a Time Machine.

As concepts like teleporters, cyborgs and holodecks have become part of the common parlance, so has the Time Machine, and any joe on the street can name at least a couple of these devices from popular culture. Along those lines, in no particular order, here is a glimpse inside the Time Machine Showroom:

1.   The TARDIS

The Forty-Five year old veteran of the British Science Fiction scene has recently revitalized itself with a sexier, slicker image — a high budget spectacle with swelling orchestral themes seemingly in direct opposition to the masking-tape-and-rubber-gloves approach of its first thirty years. Appropriately enough for the show many might call the essential television time travel program, Doctor Who is getting younger and more vibrant as it gets older.

The renewed popularity of the Saturday afternoon staple has even sparked a conversation within the stodgy Church of England, forever looking for ways to put young butts in the pews. The topic: Christian themes in Doctor Who.

One doesn’t exactly need a degree in theology or comparative mythology to find within an eternally living hero beating back the forces of evil and bringing salvation to the feckless masses Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, much less a messianic figure of Apollo-like proportions.

If there are spiritual themes in Doctor Who — and surely there are in just about every lasting work of fiction — then they abound behind the seemingly humble exterior of the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space), the Doctor’s amazing time-travelling tesseract. Much like a church or a cathedral, the TARDIS — eternally (thanks to the limited BBC budget of BBC ca. 1963) taking the shape of an unremarkable and outdated emergency services telephone booth — is a seemingly ordinary object which contains within itself profound opportunities for transformation. The TARDIS, in its multitudes, is infinitely larger on the inside than it appears to be on the outside, may be alive, may be sentient, may be connected with the foundation of reality itself and, of course, travels through time and space with only an asthmatic grunt and a slow fade against the green screen.

As a lifelong fan, I sometimes wonder what would have become of the Doctor Who franchise had a Hollywood budget been available to the BBC production team from the git-go; the TARDIS would have been a massive structure of lights, whirring special effects, cutting edge blue-screen and later CGI effects and, for all its grandeur, so much less impressive than the simple blue box which held so much more possibility.

2.   The Cosmic Treadmill

Super-fast police scientist Barry Allen — a.k.a. The Flash — certainly isn’t alone in using speed to traverse the time barrier (his Justice League teammate Superman famously used a burst of super-speed to effect a dollop of time travel and an unconvincing end to his first motion picture back in 1978, among other occasions), but he may be the only one to employ super-speed time travel while standing stock still.

Introduced in late 1961, the Treadmill — brainchild of writer John Broome and editor Julius Schwarz — immediately became a fixture of the colorful but ultimately po-faced escapades of the very suburban superhero and his fellow super-speed allies. Naturally, a crew-cut straight arrow like Barry Allen — looking for suitable technology to cobble into a time machine on his civil service salary — would turn to the functional status symbol of early 60s American opulence. Undoubtedly, had there been a gasoline-powered lawnmower in Barry Allen’s garage, there might have been a very different exhibit on display at the Flash Museum.

The principle behind the Treadmill was an extrapolation — as are most time travel theories in post-Einsteinian fiction — of the Theory of Relativity. Mind you, where Albert Einstein had stressed that simply nothing could travel faster than light, science fiction authors took this to mean “or you would travel through time.” Science fiction authors are the same folks who took “Once you pass the event horizon of a black hole, you are squashed flat and sucked into its inescapable mass” and appended it with “Then you pop out the other side, somewhere else, utterly unharmed.”

Luckily for Physics, the Flash actually didn’t move faster than the speed of light when he was using the Treadmill; in fact, he remained in one place. He just ran as though he were breaking the time barrier, and since he was on a treadmill, it counted. See? Perfectly scientific.

3.   The Time Turner

All-too-human Hermione Granger — naturally of the Harry Potter series of books and movies — better embodies in modern fiction the over-achieving, success-driven female model of superwoman/businessperson than just about any other contemporary character, if just for her ubiquity in the public consciousness. Needing an edge to compete against would-be wizards born with a leg up owing to sorcerous bloodlines, Granger turns to the magical equivalent of a fistful of uppers — the Time Turner.

Rowling’s inordinately popular series did come under some criticism from persnickety types for the creation of a world full of consequence-free magic — why shouldn’t everyone, muggles and magicky types alike, be encouraged to start messing around with potions and spells, if they so easily make the impossible possible — and the Time Turner is certainly no different. The Fairy Tales and Heroic Myths from which Rowling drew the inspiration for the Potterverse definitely lay down the law that magical favors don’t come free, yet Hermione Granger walked away from her tampering amidst the space-time continuum with less than the coffee shakes of a caffeine bender.

The Time Turner answers easily the desire we’ve all had to have an extra few hours in the day. I know that I was actually left a little jealous of Hermione’s extra-heavy class schedule, even if I personally would probably use such a tool for an extra nap in the afternoon…

4.   The Time Tunnel

Project Tic Toc caps a near endless list of super-scientific secret government projects infiltrating every arm of fiction, particularly in the television of the mid-1960s when the government was an entity which was still — if only by the edges of its fingernails — completely trustworthy.

Threatened by the axe of budgetary cutbacks — NASA got all the good earmarks back in those days — scientists Doug Phillips and Tony Newman end up launching themselves up the runway and into the massive spinning hypno-disc of the Time Tunnel, finding themselves, inevitably as time travelers do, visiting key moments of history.

Besides foreshadowing a more familiar in-syndication time-and-space traversing device currently haunting the heavy rotation on the Sci Fi Channel (Stargate, and its spinoffs), the Time Tunnel scientists were unique if for the fact that they set out to actively change history — a task at which they’d ultimately fail, leaving the timestream intact as when they encountered it. In the single season run of the show, Doctors Tony and Doug failed to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the deaths incurred by the eruption at Krakatoa, and even more, making them probably the only time travelers in fiction to find that they neither helped preserve nor changed for the better the events of history in any fashion. If fiction exists to teach lessons to its audience, the lesson that one’s past is immutable and only the present can be defined makes up in certainty what it lacks in derring-do.

5.   El Anacronópete

H.G.Wells has credit for popularizing the concept of the Time Machine, but the first work of literature to feature a machine specifically engineered to break the time barrier was El Anacronópete, from the work of the same name by Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau.

In the context of the story, the invention and the adventures experienced by its inventor — don Sidulfo de Garcia — and its crew turn out to be the dreams of the would-be inventor experienced while napping at a production of a Jules Verne play (no slight meant to Monsieur Verne, to be sure). This is probably for the best, since the invention owes its efficacy to no greater a scientific principle than the one behind canned peaches.

The Anacronopete itself is a hermetically sealed container, pumped through with a viscous “Garcia Fluid” intended to keep the passengers from de-aging when travelling back in time (which is itself achieved when the vehicle spins against the rotation of the Earth, once again presaging Superman’s use of the same trick in his debut feature film).

The science of the matter is of little importance to the body of the text, excepting that it establishes a device by which the old become young, the young vanish, and noble, perished spirits hover in the archways of the time machine until called back. A metaphor for the folly of self-love and the inherent madness of going against the will of God, El Anacronópete observes its passengers given to any number of extremes, physical and mental, until madness leads its inventor to destroy himself and the machine (and thus waking from his dream at the end). Like Wells’ later book, the machine itself was a device for the folly of man, although Gaspar y Rimbau pointed his finger at the individual where the later Wells would target the society.

6.   The Wayback (WABAC) Machine

No one outside of Washington Irving has done more damage to the reputations of poor Christopher Columbus and the collective intelligence of 15th century Europe than bespectacled wunder-hund Mister Peabody (and his pet boy, Sherman) in their remarkable WAYBACK MACHINE.

A staple of The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, the polymath pooch and his pet boy Sherman made weekly excursions into the past by way of a room-filling computer console called the WABAC (Wavelength Acceleration Bidirectional Asynchronous Controller) — a play on the apocalyptic-sounding sobriquets of contemporary super-computers UNIVAC, CSIRAC, ENIAC and so on.

Their weekly mission: that old chestnut of setting history back to rights. The problem: their standard of “right” involved old wives’ tales, common misconceptions and outright fairy tales. For the record, despite what Mister Peabody tells us, it was accepted belief in the 15th century that the world was round, Benjamin Franklin probably never flew a kite with a key tied to it in a lightning storm, and I’m not even sure where to begin with that thing where Paul Revere tried to ride a fake horse. This is not to mention Peabody and Sherman blithely rubbing shoulders with outright popular and literary inventions as though they were legitimate historical figures, like King Arthur, Robin Hood, and an actual eponymous Robinson Crusoe among them.

If I sound bitter, let’s just say that with the purest intentions in my heart, my childhood self relied once too often on Mister Peabody’s trans-temporal antics when cribbing for elementary school history reports (Argh, curse you Mister Peabody, I didn’t deserve those Ds in third grade history!)

7.   The Time Pool

In the occasional parody, shrinking super-hero The Atom is usually given an understandable inferiority complex, being as he has the easily underestimated — and easily underfoot — power of shrinking. It probably further grates on the physics professor turned pint-sized crimefighter that costumed compatriot The Flash is considered, in DC Comics’ canon, to be one of the pioneers of twentieth and twenty-first century time travel while The Atom gets no credit at all.

An invention of a collegiate peer, the Time Pool featured in a handful of Atom adventures, wherein the inch-high hero dipped via what appeared to be a weighted fishing line into the colorful swirling miasma known to comic book readers as the indelible footprint of the timestream in full swing. From there, the Atom could dip into the past for whatever adventurous possibilities awaited. Unfortunately, lacking the dynamism of the Cosmic Treadmill or Time Bubble, the Time Pool — which, you have to admit, is a pretty amazing invention, seemingly worthy of scientific acknowledgement — eventually evaporated from continuity.

8.   The Omni

The image of the clock or watch as an integral element of the time machine is fairly common — if nothing else, some manner of chronometer helps to tell you where in the time-stream you may have landed. If just for portability’s sake, but not to diminish the importance of the intimate feel of a complicated mechanical device built specifically to be held and operated in the palm of the hand, the pocket watch bears an almost instinctive affinity as a time travel device.

There are all the buttons and switches, the pulsing feel in the hand of an operating — maybe even living — thing, the simultaneous sturdiness and delicateness of such a device. In an age of increasingly smaller phones, cameras and iPods, it’s certainly no surprise that a powerful device over which one can fold their fingers and carry possesses some powerful juju.

As a time travel device in fiction, the pocket watch also comes with a pedigree — there’s the made-for-television film starring Robert Hays and Pam Dawber (The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything), not to mention Harlan Ellison’s classic Paladin of the Lost Hour, and then there is, of course, Voyagers!

The single season adventure series imagined a secret society of time travelers (called, unsurprisingly, Voyagers) dedicated to (again, unsurprisingly) setting history to rights wherever it went wrong. Their method of travel was the Omni, a device resembling a pocket watch, helpfully fitted with a scale model of the Earth and red and green lights to indicate when history was properly on track.

As saviors of the time stream, Phineas Bogg (played by Jon Erik Hexum) was something of a feckless guardian to the pathways of time, but at least his sidekick Jeffrey Jones (played by Meeno Peluce) has his eye on the ball; the very first episode established that it was the younger of the two Voyagers(!) who sent the baby Moses on his river journey (!, indeed).

It may have only stuck around one season, but any time travel series which replaces the Old Testament God with Meeno Peluce has got, at the very least, balls.

9.   The Time Bubble

It’s only natural the eternally optimistic Legion of Super-Heroes, in their debut appearance in 1958, should make the thousand-year trip to the 20th century in a shiny, translucent plastic bubble by way of a rainbow colored timestream.

Hailing from a millennium in the future and seeking nothing more than to be a lonely Superboy’s best friends, the Legion — then only a trio consisting of the teen adventurers Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad and Cosmic Boy — established a visual shorthand of time travel in the DC Comics continuity which persisted for at least another thirty years.

The Time Bubble itself was no great shakes — the original model was simply a clear sphere of some material not unlike glass or Lucite, in which the Legionnaires stood as though in some sort of bizarre pinball-shaped elevator. Later models would get fancy, with seats and a navigation control panel built inside, sometimes even some sort of futuristic headers and thrush pipes attached to the exterior.

What was more interesting than the Bubble was the Time Stream itself — a swirling miasma of bright primary and secondary colors, the years floating in ghostly, marshmallow shaped numerals like phantom landmarks. In front of all of this, the time travelling Legionnaires would stand and observe as though positioned in front of a museum exhibit on a field trip, exhibiting no greater awe and wonder at the passing of the ages as they might at landmarks viewed through a bus window.

Other DC characters tripped these lights fantastic before the Legion, but the Legion codified it as THE time stream — an unknowable, unobservable mass of indistinct colors and lights rushing by like indistinct memories, all war and peace and art and humanity smeared into bubblegum colors through which a clean dollop of the future smoothly rolled.

10.   Doc Brown’s Time Machine

Excepting the TARDIS and Bill and Ted’s time-travelling phone booth, there is probably no better-known time travel machine than the gull-winged Edsel-of-the-80s modified by Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown in the Back To The Future films of the late Eighties and early Nineties.

As time travel devices go, the DeLorean was a choice waiting to be made — designed with a futuristic look in mind, it already looked dated by the time it first rolled off the assembly floor. With the flux capacitor attached, and a few knowing nods to those with a yen for time-travel jokes (an 88-mph requirement to break the time barrier, being not the least of which), the vehicle managed to traverse at least three time periods, complemented by the amazing future technology of a walkman, a skateboard and guitar lessons.

The continually evolving journey out of childhood that was Marty McFly’s trans-temporal trip to the 50s (and then the future, and then the Old West) actually transformed his time machine just as thoroughly. It’s probably unique in the annals of time travel fiction that the time travel device itself should end up improved, but then again, the only thing the DeLorean really had going for it in the first place was gull-wing doors.

11.   The Time Machine

H.G. Wells effectively invented the Time Machine in the novella of the same name, although he had used a similar machine as a plot device in the earlier short story, “The Chronic Argonauts” (and with all of this in mind, the previous creation of Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau notwithstanding, see above). Like the best science fiction, the technical froo-fraw behind the development of the technology itself is undisclosed, the meaning and purpose of the story taking precedence.

You might as well also give Wells credit for popularizing the apocalyptic future dystopia, because The Time Machine certainly does not end well. As a device, the Time Machine itself allows Wells to engage, via his Time Traveller, in a pessimistic survey of the future of labor relations; The idle rich have devolved into feckless simpletons amidst a garden of Earthly delights, the rough-hewn labor classes have transformed over the eons into savage tyrants, everyone’s as dumb as an ape and there’s never any escape from it.

The final journey of the Time Machine was originally considered too gruesome and shocking for the sensitive turn-of-the-century audience — Humanity is reduced to something not unlike a race of rabbits, a fate considered too grim to conceive. The book benefits in the long run for staying on message: the literal dimorphism among the body of humanity, repeating cruelties of humanity’s constructions preying upon itself.

12.   Bill and Ted’s Radical Telephone Booth

Originally, the Wild Stallyns founders from San Dimas, CA, were meant to have a bad-ass time travelling van, but film producers felt that it too closely resembled the DeLorean from the Back to the Future movies. To that end, and apparently not fearing similarities drawn between it and the TARDIS from British science fiction staple Doctor Who, a time-travelling phone booth was brought in.

The logistical dilemmas of travelling with any significant number of passengers inside a one-person booth were exploited for the sake of getting So-Crates, Napoleon, Billy the Kid and everyone else packed in like sardines, still giving just enough room to lift the activating receiver and punch the coordinates in on the keypad. Oddly, it’s a pretty functional model of a time machine, and nods seemingly to any number of other time travel motifs — the clear glass exterior, the swirling miasma of the time stream, the very practical application of time travelling as a means of preparing traps and tools the traveler might need in his journeys.

Bill and Ted’s time travelling phone booth also possesses one trait that is almost unique among the few devices used to achieve a definite conclusion to the time travelers’ journeys: utopia. Where time travel to the future is usually a vision of utter apocalypse and dystopia, Bill and Ted’s was the one future which was simply excellent.

13.   Doctor Doom’s Time Platform

Masked Marvel Comics’ megalomaniac Victor von Doom’s time machine is interesting for only two reasons; first, visually, it’s unique among time machines. Rather than stepping into some sort of vehicle, being transported through tunnels or zapped in displays of light, travelers using the Time Platform are seemingly “wiped out” as the white square upon which they stand rises the length of their boldies. As first rendered by Fantastic Four co-creator Jack Kirby, the Platform would define a white line splitting the comic panel, and the destination — whether past or future — would appear below the line, the point of departure above it.

The second most interesting feature of the Time Platform is the question of ownership; it’s the creation of the villainous but brilliant Doctor Doom, monarch of Latveria and sworn enemy of Reed Richards and his cosmic ray empowered family. It is — or at least an unauthorized copy of it — in possession of the Fantastic Four, in the lab of elastic super-genius Mister Fantastic. You’d think a bona fide superhero would be above the violation of international patents, but I suppose anything counts in the call of duty.

14. The Tipler Cylinder

What better place to end than on a real time machine — well, a theoretical real time machine with a foundation in the current understanding of quantum physics, anyway. I mean, all you’d need to build Frank J. Tipler’s proposed time travel device would be an infinitely long, hollow tube composed of neutron star matter, spinning upon its longitudinal axis, wide enough to accommodate a sufficiently accelerating manned spaceship moving through the spacetime warps caused by heavy gravity bodies moving in three-dimensional space.

In its way, it couldn’t be simpler in their works of fiction, in any case, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven and Terry Pratchett — except for the part where Larry Niven gets your world blown up if you try to use a Tipler Cylinder, of course. Surely a small price to pay to get your parents to hook up or to make sure Christopher Columbus doesn’t get to India as planned, right?