Imagine that it’s 11872 HE and a novel has just been published. This is a novel that future generations may consider as defining the expectations of the age.
HE is the Holocene era, a calendar formed by adding 10,000 to the widely used Common Era calendar CE. The Holocene Calendar is intended to mark the time elapsed since the Neolithic Revolution. This revolution is arguably a reasonable turning point in mankind’s transition from hunting and gathering to the sessile, settlement based lifestyles that forced us to cooperate for food production. The competitive and risky gathering practices had become outmoded. I presume that hunters and gatherers never imagined the value of their imaginings to the world but is that presumptuous of me?
You might argue that 10,000 years is ambiguous, non-specific even arbitrary. Then again, the ‘common era’ is based on Julian and Gregorian calendar schemes that are themselves based on a date that a child is believed to have been born in Roman occupied Palestine to a carpenter and his wife. Or should I write, born after spontaneous conception to a woman whose husband was a carpenter.
The protagonist of the 1872 CE novel is Phileas Fogg who has taken a wager. An incentivised do-or-die wager, typical of the Victorian era. He hires a French valet Passepartout and they set out to circumnavigate the world in eighty days. To the Victorians, everything seemed possible. Rapid global circumnavigation of information was already happening with the wired telegraph cables that ran across the floors of oceans and over the floral carpets of continents. Before the first reliable transatlantic cable in 1865, Europe communicated with America by ship. Messages took weeks to arrive. It must have felt incredible when technology delivered a message and reply in the same day.
Indeed, such was the hubris of the era that some people began to believe that everything that could be invented had already been invented. Curiously, contrariwise, they still seemed to think that discoveries were there for the finding. And that it was OK to scramble competitively for colonies to subjugate and resources to expropriate.
Without Verne, science fiction writing might have emerged later and differently. Writing of romantic adventures in balloons, rockets and submersibles, he gave vision to the discoveries and achievements that were enabled by the engines of Victorian ingenuity. He foresaw aqualungs, televisions and space travel.
The serial publication of Around The World in 80 Days in Le Temps was a huge success leading to the publication of the whole as a book in 1873.
Then HG Wells came along with Time Machine in 1893. The bicycle had just started to transform the world and now, a mind is imagining a journey on a time bicycle to two futures, one million and thirty million years hence. Wells once said that ‘Civilisation is in a race between education and catastrophe’ and I’m not sure he’s been shown to be wrong. The end of this quote is that ‘truth is the greatest weapon we have’ and I know that’s wrong in the literal sense.
As a kid, movies of the Around The World in 80 Days and Time Machine had captured my imagination half a century later. Science fiction was in its heyday and had a huge influence in my education especially reinforcing my confidence in imagining how things could be different.
Marconi would soon change the world, making it ever so much smaller. Many scientists had presumed that his idea for radio transmission was impossible because of the curvature of the earth. They knew radio waves travelled in straight lines and proposed the distance limits for radio transmission were somewhere between 161 to 322 kilometres. Marconi bounced signal off the ionosphere to send the letter S in morse code some 3,200 kilometres from Poldhu in Cornwall across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. Conventional wisdom was very under-informed. The things they knew were verifiably true but there were other factors they didn’t know to consider. Their imaginations let them down.
By 1900, Marconi had British battleships in communication across 121 km distance. By 1910, his concept of a long radio wavelength had grown from hundreds of metres to 8 km. He used this new longwave technique to send messages between Buenos Aires in Argentina to Clifden in the west of Ireland. Then in 1916, he went the other way, so to speak. He started using short wavelengths, amplified and protected by massed reflectors around his antennae. In 1923 he received a short wave signal on his yacht Elettra from Cornwall over 2240 km distance. That signal was louder than another sent with very long wavelength with a transmitter one hundred times more powerful. Then, in 1932, he started to use parabolic reflectors with even shorter wavelengths. The radio telephone was born. Meanwhile, Marconi had picked up a Nobel for his physics in 1909.
Today, eighty days has become two or much, much less. You could chose to fly around the world on commercial aircraft in 45 hours or so. I saw the International Space Station pass overhead recently on its 90 minute circumnavigation. Or using the internet, circumnavigation is a virtual televisual with a journey time measured in milliseconds.
Full marks to Verne. He imagined the future. Fuller marks to Marconi, he brought us to it.
Now, please tell me why did Wells only imagine time travel to the future? And when will he be vindicated?