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The Time Machine | Context

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Technology and Social Classes

The Time Machine was published just five years before the turn of the 20th century. H.G. Wells's story of an amazing invention—a machine that can travel through time—was appropriate to its era, a period of innovation such as the telegraph (1837), telephone (1876), electric light (1879), automobile (1885), gramophone (1887), and airplane (1903).

The Victorian era of the 19th century in which Wells wrote was also a time of growing social consciousness, especially with respect to class differences. The Industrial Revolution led to the growth of massive factories, and with them long working hours and the exploitation of workers, especially child laborers. Charles Dickens wrote about them in A Christmas Carol (1843), Hard Times (1854), and other books. In 1848, the philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published their Communist Manifesto, calling for a social revolution to raise up the working class, or proletariat, to become the ruling class, and replace the private ownership model of capitalism with communal public ownership.

Wells suffered poverty and hunger himself growing up in a working-class family that fell on hard times when his father, a professional cricketer, became injured and could not work. His mother sought a position as a maid, but the family she worked for would not allow her to live with her family. This sort of class insensitivity to the needs of others led to a violent revolution in Russia in 1917 (and in other countries), the effects of which have lasted to the present day. The promises of science and technology, and the comforts they brought to the lives and homes of the upper class, only emphasized the division between rich and poor. Wells takes on both topics in his writings.

"The Chronic Argonauts"

The theme and outline of The Time Machine originated in a short story, "The Chronic Argonauts," published by Wells in 1888 when he was in college. This narrative was also about time travel, as suggested by the word chronic, which comes from the Greek khronos, meaning "time," and appears in the word chronometer, a highly accurate clock used in oceanic navigation. The Argonauts were a group of exploring seafarers who, in ancient Greek myth, sailed with the hero Jason in his quest for the golden fleece. In "The Chronic Argonauts," two Englishmen, Dr. Moses Nebogipfel and Rev. Elijah Ulysses Cook, escape in a time machine from angry villagers who accuse them of witchcraft. Originally, Wells meant to write just a series of articles on the concept of time travel for a London magazine called The Pall Mall Gazette. However, its publisher persuaded him to turn his material into a story. The Time Machine's very first appearance was as a serial in The New Review magazine, and it became a huge success. Henry Holt & Co. subsequently published it in book form.

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