British writer H. G. Wells was born today in 1866. Dubbed “The Father of Science Fiction,” Wells was also “a prolific writer in many other genres.” But we know and love him best as the creator behind The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine. Time travel with us as we look back on 10 words and phrases Wells coined or popularized.
“His companion, a less imaginative type, sat with his legs spread wide over the long, coffin-shaped box which contained in its compartments the three atomic bombs, the new bombs that would continue to explode indefinitely and which no one so far had ever seen in action.”
The World Set Free, 1914
An atomic bomb is “a nuclear weapon in which enormous energy is released by nuclear fission.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase atomic bomb was first recorded in the above 1914 work of Wells.
“Really this is what is meant by the Fourth Dimension, though some people who talk about the Fourth Dimension do not know they mean it. It is only another way of looking at Time. There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space except that our consciousness moves along it.”
The Time Machine, 1895
The fourth dimension refers to “time regarded as a coordinate dimension and required by relativity theory, along with three spatial dimensions, to specify completely the location of any event.”
While the term had been in use since about 1875, says the OED, it was in Charles Howard Hinton’s 1880 article, “What Is the Fourth Dimension?” that the idea of time as the fourth dimension was first implied, and in Wells’s The Time Machine that an explicit connection was made between time and the fourth dimension.
“In the road lay a group of three charred bodies close together, struck dead by the Heat-Ray; and here and there were things that people had dropped–a clock, a slipper, a silver spoon, and the like poor valuables.”
War of the Worlds, 1898
Wells’s heat-ray weapon, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, was a precursor to the ray gun, a staple in science fiction which originated around 1923. X-rays, “relatively high-energy photon[s] having a wavelength in the approximate range from 0.01 to 10 nanometers,” were discovered in 1895.
“I have walked through Moscow’s snowy streets and felt that I must be an invisible man as the pedestrians passed me by with apparently unseeing eyes.”
W.W. Chaplin, “Russians Friendly, But Just Try to Get Any Military Secrets!” St. Petersburg Times, December 21, 1942
H.G. Wells’s novella, The Invisible Man, was published in 1897, and the term, invisible man, is now used literally and figuratively to mean someone who cannot be seen or is willingly unseen. Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, was published in 1952. From an article by Eugene Kane in The Milwaukee Journal, September 7, 1986:
After that experience, I tried to find other writings by Ellison, but was frustrated by the lack of his books at libraries or bookstores. In a way, he himself became an invisible man.
“I am pleading the cause of a woman, a woman I lurve, sorr—a noble woman—misunderstood.”
The War in the Air, 1908
While lurve, an alteration of love, may seem like a modern term, it has long been a British colloquialism, says the OED, first recorded as a verb in Wells’s writings in 1908, and as a noun in 1937.
Lurve may be based on the rhoticity – the pronunciation of “the letter r … after vowels,” says Dialect Blog – of some British accents.
“My professional gifts give me a kind of Rasputin hold on one or two exalted families.”
Rasputin, Russian for debauchee, is the “acquired name” of Grigory Yefimovich Novykh, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, “mystic and faith healer who held sway over court of Nicholas II of Russia.” Wells’s seems to be the earliest recorded example of Rasputin used figuratively for anyone “felt to have an insidious and corrupting influence.”
“In many respects it began in 1894, in two rooms at No 12 Mornington Road (now Terrace), Camden Town, where Wells, having ditched his first wife, lived in adultery with Jane, his second, and secured his first contract writing ‘scientific romance’ for the Pall Mall Budget.”
Gerald Isaaman, “Books: Review – HG Wells: Another Kind of Life,” Camden New Journal, May 27, 2010
Scientific romance refers to both science of a speculative nature and what is now know as science fiction. Wells didn’t coin the term scientific romance, but his writings, along with those of Jules Verne, were some of the earliest examples.
Romance in this context means “an invention; fiction; falsehood,” or “a tale or novel dealing not so much with real or familiar life as with extraordinary and often extravagant adventures.”
“He abbreviated every word he could; he would have considered himself the laughing-stock of Wood Street if he had chanced to spell socks in any way but ‘sox.’”
“Godfrey’s time machine – also known as The Baseball Card Shop in Hoover – has proved resilient, transporting fans back and forth through the game’s history, even as many of his competitors have closed their doors during the past decade.”
Tom Bassing, “The Time Machine: Sports Memorabilia Shopkeeper Transports His Customers,” Birmingham Business Journal, July 27, 2003
A time machine is “a fictional or hypothetical device by means of which one may travel into the future and the past,” and first appeared in Wells’s 1898 novel of the same name. The term may be used literally or figuratively, as above.
“I am afraid I cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling. They are excessively unpleasant. There is a feeling exactly like that one has upon a switchback—of a helpless headlong motion!”
The Time Machine, 1895
Time traveling is “hypothetical or fictional travel at will to the past or the future, typically by means of a machine. . .or a wormhole.” The term first appeared in Wells’s 1895 novel, The Time Machine. For more time traveling words, see this list.