The Time Machine question





If you had a time travel machine, which period (time and country) in history would you visit first?

Carrying on from last week’s post about time, this is the sort of question I daydream about on long drives, or standing in long lines, or when my body is stuck in a dull situation and my mind wants escape.

The easy (and painfully trite) answer would be “Jane Austen’s England.” Except that’s not quite true. The first rule of using a time machine, at least in the stories I’ve read, is that one must not interfere with history.

So my going back armed with antibiotics and medical advice in order to first save Jane’s life, and then catch John Keats before he set sail so miserably for Italy, would of course change history. For the better, surely, I’d argue. And the inexorable scientist would probably answer back, yes, But the new history might not include you, and with a Don Martinish *paff* I’d vanish.

So that makes me think, Would I willingly trade my life for Jane Austen’s and John Keats’?

Except I’ve always loathed that sort of question. (I once took an F when a teacher forced on us that horrible “Which would you save, the drowning dog or the drowning child?” conundrum in a history class. He refused to take “Both” because he was determined to make his point that we are morally obligated to save the child and let the dog drown, but I took the F because I know if I had any fight left in me I’d try to save both.)

Back again to the time machine. The question becomes, which time and place would I want to visit knowing that I must lurk in the background and not interfere?

It’s easy enough to pick out moments of triumph since I don’t really want the spectacle of tragedy (imagination is vivid enough), but which?

Even sitting in the gallery to see Olympe de Gouges address the National Assembly in Paris wouldn’t be very exhilarating despite the atmosphere of newness and change and even greatness, because I know what happens to her. Soon, and not after a life of passion and contribution to civilization, as she deserved.

My inclinations are toward people, and not catastrophic or significant events. I think I might end up picking a quiet moment from someone’s life, maybe the coming down from a triumph, or the day of inspiration.

Like Elizabeth Tudor’s first day as queen, when she’s walking around Hampton Court just reveling in the fact that Mary won’t be sending the axe men now.

Or maybe the day Siddhartha Gautama walked out of the palace.

Or how about the premier of a beloved piece of music, to hear its first performance, then take in the stunned audience’s frenzied reaction, and the artist’s triumph?

Or the day the artist got hit with the idea, and turned gleefully to creation? Which one? Hmmm.

If anyone wants to play, jump in!


 Sherwood Smith’s e-books (some of which deal with time) at Book View Cafe



The Time Machine question — 38 Comments

  1. Oh god, right now, I’m so desperately wishing I had this time machine, and what I would do is take a tape recorder and a camera, and go to Ireland c. 600 CE and get some GOOD DATA for my Old Irish project. I would record bards telling stories and poems. I’d copy any texts I got my hands on. I’d roll film on battles and hide in trees to record any remaining druidic rites.

    And then no one would ever have to read the frigging Wurzburg Glosses on the epistles of St. Paul again.

  2. Are we only allowed to travel backwards in time? Or might we satisfy our curiosity as to what our world will be centuries from now?

  3. Too many to pick. One of my problems is that the most interesting history often involves the most painful situations. I’m too wimpy to want to watch in person. I’m rather tempted by the exciting times in the Seventeenth Century all over Europe if I could avoid the actual violence.

  4. At the top of my personal list would be booking a trip on the second to last voyage of the Hindenburg. I’d also like to go to the Hamburg Reeperbahn in 1960 to see the Beatles performing before they were famous (though it would be hard to resist warning John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliff of what was to come). With appropriate vaccination I’d like to go to Elizabethan London and see Shakespeare performing live at the Globe. I’d like to go to Bath in the early 19th century to take a stroll through the gardens and assembly rooms and maybe have a chat with Jane Austen (though again it would be hard to resist warning her and providing antibiotics). I’d like to go to 18th century Vienna and meet Mozart and hear him play (again it would be hard not to warn him). I’d like to go to Blackpool around 1960 to see Freddie Frinton and May Warden performing “Dinner for One” live on stage. I’d like to go to Woodstock armed with wellington boots and a raincoat. I’d like to see the premiere of Aida. I’d like to go to New York in 1978 and dance the night away at Studio 54 (though once again it would be hard not to walk around and tell people never to have sex without condoms).

      • Yes, Lennon would probably not have listened, but maybe there would have been a chance to persuade Stuart Sutcliffe to get his head checked out and do something about the aneurysm (if it could be treated by 1960s medical technology at all) before it could kill him.

  5. I think I’ll go to seventh century Malmesbury, and listen to the acclaimed Anglo-Saxon poetry of Aldhelm, none of which has survived…

    Can I stop on the way.. in around 1936 … and pick up JRR Tolkien to take with me? I think he’d enjoy it. 😀

  6. i’d like to “be” in on the BIG BANG, but where would i stand? so i’d opt for market day in any time/culture except our own: something would come over me there, i’m sure.

  7. Go back to Shakespeare’s time and put bugs in the theaters where his plays were performed. If feasible to get my hands on them, take photographs of original scripts.

    Then, all over the place, identify locations where folktales are being told and bug them. Get lots of original folk fairy tales — well, not “uncontaminated” because literary and folk fairy tales have influenced each other for millennia. But at any rate before the Grimms. Great though the collection was, it also influenced the telling of fairy tales in Japan. We could see a lot more if we had the tales from before then.

  8. I’d be very tempted to bug the Old Globe myself, but one of my pet projects would be to go back to a handful of specific locations in 19th century America with an eye to resolving the mystery surrounding the death of Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who traveled with the Lewis & Clark Expedition. (There are two conflicting accounts: according to one, she died in 1826 at a place called Fort Manuel; according to the other, she lived a very long life and eventually died on the Wind River Reservation in 1884. The question is somewhat complicated by the fact that Charbonneau, her French husband, is known to have had multiple Indian wives; those who favor the 1884 date suggest that it was one of these other wives that died in 1826.)

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  10. Oh my.
    I’d like to go to the Cretaceous period and watch the Deccan flood basalts being erupted (from a safe distance). While I’m there, I’d like to see what colours the dinosaurs were and how many had feathers.
    I’d like to go to Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty, just to see what it was like (I’ve been to Xi’an and found it a fascinating place with so much history; I’d like a chance to see what it was like when it was the imperial capital, a huge trading hub, and one of the world’s most populous and multicultural cities).
    I’d like to go to the Library of Alexandria and read some of the books destroyed when it was burned down. I’d like to take Carl Sagan with me for that one, but that may count as meddling with history too much.
    I’d like to go to New Zealand before the 1886 Tarawera eruption and see the Pink and White Terraces that were buried and destroyed in the eruption. I’d have difficulty not warning people though. It might be better to combine that with my other New Zealand trip: visiting before the Maori arrived and seeing the giant moa and Haast’s eagle (the latter from a safe distance).

  11. Hmmm. After the workshop I just went to, and after a lot of the reading I’ve been doing, I’d like to visit some of the Native Americans pre-European invasion, mostly to see what the magic was like back then as well as the land before everything got torn down and built over.

  12. I’d like to go back to the late 16th century to find out whatever happened to the Roanoke Colony. Then I would travel to April 12th, 1981 to watch the first flight of the space shuttle Columbia (I wasn’t born then).

    • Great idea re Roanoke! (And I remember Columbia. I bet you would love that thrilling day.)

      Re solving mysteries, I suppose it would be considered duty to go to Texas and resolve the JFK assassination mystery once and for all?

  13. I’m going to say–the day that Stendhal arrived in Florence and experienced his illness in reaction to its beauty. After he settled, I would like to talk to him about the effects, how the city brought it about in him, and then wander off into conversations about writing while meandering down streets.

  14. I’ve got to agree with those who are naming off “mystery moments,” and also the recording of folklore. Really, in general, I would want to go back and play anthropologist: don’t just try to recreate what life was like in Amarna Egypt/Heian Japan/Roman Britain/whatever from documents and archaeological evidence, but observe it and take notes.

    (Though, ye gods. I thought I spent a lot of time on research before. Think of what would happen if I could go back and see the place and time with my own eyes.)

  15. The Incas. There are lots of things I would like to know about the Incas. And I could combine it with the trip to Machu Picchu that I’ve been intending since 9th grade.

  16. Alas! A number of basic tools have to be in your pocket, before any of these things can be achieved. In addition to the time machine, you had better have a portable Universal Translator, so that you can hack through the demotic Greek or Urdu. (Surely there is an app for this — I envision a program where you hold the Ipad up to the scroll and the screen shows the English translation.) Oh, and you had better bring along a permanent power supply for your tech. A must-have will be either a cloak of invisibility, so that nobody remarks upon you and your tablet computer, -or- another app that will cloak you in the guise of an ordinary Native American or Manchu Chinese peasant. If you don’t have this you will be forced into tiresome costuming, shoe shopping, and cosmetic work so that you don’t stand out like a light bulb in a pit mine. (And remember that if you are an American you are taller and plumper than most human beings who have ever lived. I am ethnic Chinese, and stand head and shoulders taller than nearly everybody in China, courtesy of American baby vitamins and nutrition.) You will of course get the full set of inoculations and vaccinations before you go — cholera, so overrated as a vacation experience! And bring antibiotics and water-purification tablets, just in case.
    Because we are just coming up onto the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, I would love to go back and see the original barge journeys down the Thames. Queen Anne Boleyn’s triumphant arrival in London after her wedding would be fun! I would stand on the shore, head and shoulders above the grubby English crowd, defiantly alien in my Lands End shell, Adidas and blue jeans, and repel inquiries by saying I was from China. With luck the jump from Elizabethan English to American is comprehensible, and everyone will be too caught up in the event to lynch me. Must remember the extra data card for my digital camera…

    • well, what do we have bugs for if not to plant them and get the languages? (We’d need that anyway to collect fairy tales. 0:)

    • Sooo true about the cholera! But I think the stealth approach, plant those vids and bugs and out, unless one was tempted to speak to a specific person, is the way to go . . .

  17. Without satellites to download data remotely — I suppose you could launch your own comsat to orbit the earth of 4 BC but this would be spendy — you will need to have your bug store the data. Then you need to go back and download it with your own devices. Remember to bring that power pack!
    I am still wrestling with a novel about the oracle at Delphi. My idea was that it was actually a stranded alien, hiding in the caves. Obviously this BEM forgot his power pack.

  18. All I would require is a digital tape recorder, a solar powered battery back (which you can find courtesy of the internet) and heaps of memory cards. Thusly armed I would head to all corners of the the human inhabited earth and collect as much linguistic data as possible. The possibility of finding out the history of Basque and Ainu makes my giddy. After I collected as much as I could I’d find a day where Tolkien was lecturing at a university, pose as a student and present him with all that glorious data. Though if I was limited to one trip…it would be pre-contact Haudenosaunee.

  19. Former students report that Tolkien was the worst possible lecturer, mumbling into his necktie and rattling his notes. It did not help that he was always talking about early Anglo Saxon; his better venue might well have been the tutorial. OTOH, C.S. Lewis was apparently boffo. His lectures were always packed, and he never failed to give full value, often beginning his talk the moment he burst through the doors and barreled down the aisle. He spoke at full volume, or bellow, as the less-kindly critics put it. Both gentlemen would have been far more entertaining at the bar with a beer in hand, but this is where our cloaking tech has to come in — ladies not admitted, and you can bet persons of ethnicity would not fit in. Adjust the settings so that you look like a callow young male undergrad, or a meek lecturer on tour from a provincial university.

  20. Ethnicity and gender settings aside, I don’t think I could manage callow and meek. I might be able to maintain that for the initial contact, but a maniacally affable and voluble student would soon replace the “harmless young’un” routine…nevermind the fact that giving a man a digital tape recorder in the 1930’s might cause some troubles.

    Observation is hard. I’m really not the kind of person who could be pleased with just being a bystander. Its the same kind of feeling I have about autographs – to have a piece of paper with a person’s name on it. Huzzah? If it isn’t personalized in some way, then it really has no meaning to me.

    Coincidentally a friend has been desperately trying to convert me into a Trekkie and had me watch the Deep Space 9 episode that traveled into the past, during the time of the original series Tribble episode. I had to laugh when Captain Sisko found an innocuous way to personally meet Captain Kirk, only to be able to say to him, “let me just say sir, that it was a pleasure to serve with you.”