Research Output

The first law of time travel: The Time Machine and thermodynamics.

  Critical analyses of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) have attended closely to themes of biology, such as evolutionary degeneration, but those of physics have not been treated with comparable depth. While many accounts of The Time Machine do consider late-Victorian energy physics and readily identify a narrative of entropy with its origin in the second law of thermodynamics, they tend to overlook the full complexity of thermodynamics, which requires attention to the first law (the law of conservation) as well as to the second. This paper thus explores the significance of the first law of thermodynamics to The Time Machine and to the social project of Wells’s fiction, by examining how both laws work together both to produce the poetic power of the novel and to express Wells’s warning to his contemporaries. I suggest that the pessimism of The Time Machine is produced as a result of extrapolation not of the second law of thermodynamics, but of the first law. Although the apparently positive narrative of energy conservation was appropriated for Victorian progressionism and optimism about the future, this is precisely what Wells subverts in order to reinforce his social critique of the 1890s.

  • Type:

    Conference Paper (unpublished)

  • Date:

    01 April 2013

  • Publication Status:


  • Library of Congress:

    PR English literature


Alder, E. (2013, April). The first law of time travel: The Time Machine and thermodynamics. Paper presented at British Society for Literature and Science Annual Conference, University of Cardiff



H.G.Wells; The Time Machine; thermodynamics; Victorian literature; law of conservation;

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