Popcorn Paradoxes – Steampunk Time Sleds

It’s time for another Watsonian investigation of Hollywood’s imaginary documentaries, this time we’re going to look at the trope namer, or at least two of it’s incarnations. They both follow our intrepid hero as he leaves the cosy Victorian age and goes gallivanting off into a future of beautiful Eloi and cannibalistic Morlocks.

I am of course referring to “The Time Machine”, or at least the two most famous examples George Pal’s 1960 classic and the slightly less classic 2002 version.

If you haven’t already seen these movies I’m afraid I have to question what you’re even doing on the Time Travel Nexus website.

I suppose it’s possible that you’ve only recently arrived in our Era, but otherwise…

Tell you what, if you go and watch the original here and the 2002 version here, I promise I won’t mention it to anyone else on the site.

While both movies appear to be very similar, they in fact have very different messages and subtly different concepts of how time-travel functions.

George begins his adventure in time
So without further ado, let’s begin

The 1960 version does little to explain itself, and avoids the potential impact of temporal paradoxes by never having the hero, George, cross his own time-line. In fact, the Time Machine itself is displayed as nothing more than a four-dimensional vehicle, designed to carry the pilot from one moment to another without any real impact on the plot. The Time Machine may as well be a Space-Machine taking the hero to a distant planet for all the difference it would make to the story.

The Time Sled

A model of the time-machine
Look, it’s a model of a model of the Time-machine

The original Time Machine model is of course an iconic device. It is made from a number of separate components.

  • The brass chassis. This resembles a sled (or more properly a sleigh) although it does have four feet.
  • The saddle. Which is really much more of a comfortable chair.
  • The controls. While in the book the time machine has two levers (one to start and one to stop) in the film this is sensibly reduced to a single lever that controls the rate of travel and direction.
    The time machine in operation
    blink and you’ll miss it

    The crystal-topped lever is removable as a safety feature, as it must be attached to the simple display (that displays the date, month and year) if the machine is to travel in time. The top of the console has three coloured lights that each light up when the time machine passes through a whole day (yellow),  month (blue-green) or  year (red). These controls and display are lit from within when the machine is travelling in time.

  • The engine. Behind the seat is a cylinder that glows red when the machine is moving in time. We can only assume that within this device is the power source for the machine. As it seems to generate power that is carried to the Time Wheel at the back by a number of coiled wires.
  • The Time Wheel. This large concave copper disc is decorated around it’s edge with raised dots. The implication is that the wheel somehow moves the Time-machine through the fourth dimension (while it continues to reside in the same geographical space —presumably locked by the frame-dragging gravity of the Earth, as it doesn’t fly off into space).

This version of the Time-machine (and the small model George presents at the beginning of the movie)  is visible when it first accelerates out of time, becoming blurred before it finally vanishes. This acceleration period also seems to create a vibration in the air, that shakes the room, far out of proportion to the size of the model.

The stop motion of the mannequin in the window
This was considered a special effect in 1960…

When the time machine is in motion the time traveller is able to see out and perceive the world around him as it changes rapidly (thanks to the stop motion photography that George Pal shot these scenes with).

George is able to hear things occurring outside the vehicle, but the sounds are pitch-shifted up slightly. He is also able to feel radiant heat from the surroundings as well.

These clues let us conclude the following about the machine:

  • The machine takes subjective time to accelerate and slow down when the time wheel is engaged or disengaged. This acceleration is proportional to the acceleration of the time wheel itself.
  • The time wheel and the machine defines a bubble that is effectively moving in time. The bubble is probably created by the spinning of the time wheel.
  • When the machine is moving in time it does not actually pass through every moment. Instead, rather like how a motion picture is created from a series of still images, the machine and traveller experience external time in a chain of brief instants (presumably of a length of around a single Planck time, with longer and longer gaps between these moments as the machine moves faster. The order these moments are arranged in defines whether the time machine moves forwards or backwards in time. To travel backwards you skip backwards, but time inside the bubble still always flows forwards.
  • This flickering existence allows matter and energy to enter and leave the volume the time machine for only the very briefest of moments. This allows George to see time running quickly (as he perceives a connected chain of instants) without the light being doppler-shifted (as we might expect if it was actually moving more rapidly through the fourth dimension). This same phenomena means outside observer would not be able to sense the machine from the outside, as it would exist for too short a time to be perceived. Modern rapid photography techniques may be capable of observing the time machine if it was travelling slowly. It is possible that you might catch a digital photograph, for example, that happened to show the machine, but it would be missing from the previous and next frames of the film. H.G.Wells used the analogy of not being able to see the spokes of a spinning wheel, as they move too fast for the eye to see, but this explanation was cut from the movie.
  • Mechanical collisions, such as sonic pressure waves on the edge of the bubble volume are attenuated by a slight doppler shift. The sirens that George hears are pitch shifted up, and appear to have been sounding for days. Presumably this is because the moments when the inner bubble and outer bubble were exchanging energy tended to coincide with the nightly air raids. The sonic energy once inside the sphere would echo and propagate normally, accounting for this effect. (Although, even I am at a loss to explain how he manages to hear the boards being nailed over the window since it appears as though it must have taken the workmen several months to board up the laboratory, perhaps nailing only one board a week).
  • Because the machine exists for such a brief moment in real time there is not a long enough period for any nuclear or chemical reactions to take place between the atoms within the machine and those in normal time. It is this lack of interaction time that allows the machine to exist within solid rock without reacting to it, and yet enables George feel the heat of the molten rock (as infrared photons could cross the threshold to the inside of the machine) and to feel the relative cold too (as the infrared photons within the machine are able to exit radiating that heat).

And that pretty much sums up the 1960 time machine and its operations.

George and Filby’s “Paradox”

There is only one apparent paradox that seems to occur in the 1960 movie.

George and James Filby
“My Father? Oh he’s been dead a year, old chap. Um, who are you, by the way?”

When George arrives in 1917 and meets Filby’s son, he remarks that the inventor across the street left around the turn of the century (which he clearly just did to our eyes), and tells George his father died the year before in the war.

It appears that by boarding the time machine George has removed himself from history. George certainly doesn’t question it. He has left that time period to explore the future after all. This is entirely consistent with what we would expect to happen within almost all models of time travel, whether a shifting history, branching multiverse or fixed timeline.

George explains everything to Filby.
“What do you mean, dead?”

However, later George returns, one week after he left, and talks with Filby then, telling him all this, as well as his adventures further in the future.

If the returned George had decided to stay, he might have altered his own past then, as he would still be resident in the house when his younger self arrived from 1899. Luckily for everyone, George decides after telling the story of his adventure, and gathering some books, that he is going back to the future to help the Eloi rebuild the world.

This essentially closes any potential paradoxes as long as George never returns again, and as long as Filby doesn’t ever tell his son, James, the story (since that could constitute a predestination paradox). Filby must also be trusted to not shoot himself in the foot so as to get invalided out of the trenches before he dies in 1916. As this too would create a paradox since how would he know to shoot himself in the foot if James Filby hadn’t told George he’d died.

So what about the slightly shinier and grittier 2002 version?

Glass and Brass

The rebooted time machine has a much more involved design. While somewhat similar to the original.

A slightly inaccurate time machine model
A CGI model of a CGI model of a Time machine (probably).
  • The brass chassis. This is much larger and chunkier than the original, having what appears to be a boiler mounted under the pilot area, an array of period accurate batteries, four telescoping feet, and a small folding step, for easy access.
  • The saddle. Which is really much more of a comfortable chair.
  • The controls. Again a single lever, but the displays are much more believably Victorian, looking rather like Babbage’s differential engine.
  • The weird light shafts that power the Time Machine
    Bright light!

    The engine. The engine of this machine appears to be a bright light that lights up two shafts that power (or at least light) the Time Wheels.

  • The Time Wheels. Rather than having one wheel at the back this Time Machine has a huge rotating assemblage of glass prisms and fresnel lenses at the back and a smaller, but similar assemblage at the front. The glass is arranged in a pair of rings which actually counter-rotate, and move, to alter how the light is focused.

And how does it work?

The fresnel lenses rotate
Turbines to power!

Well, the central light is bent by the rotating lenses, such that when it’s up to speed the light forms a rotating bubble around the Time Machine. This sphere of light seems to separate the Time Machine from the outside world, even allowing the legs to retract inside the bubble, leaving the machine hovering in space.

Unlike with the original there is no connection between the speed of the lenses rotations and the speed of the machine (at least, not that I noticed). Although, also unlike the original, there is at least a semblance of some science to the concept.

When this machine is appearing (which we see near the end of the movie) a series of lightning like flashes occur as well as a series of vortex like distortions in the air that merge to form the sphere of light with the Time-machine within.

It is possible that spinning light could ‘stir’ Space-Time in a way that may allow the creation of a vortex or bubble of separate space-time that would be able to move relatively to the outside (assuming some sort of negative energy existed to provide the necessary stability). A similar concept has been postulated by Dr. Ronald Mallett to create a ‘Time-Tunnel’ device.

His postulated device can only operate while it is turned on, as it stirs space-time within itself (both physically within the structure and also temporally within the machine’s operational time-line), whereas this Time-machine can obviously stir Space-Time outside of it’s own constraints, allowing it to stir time before it was activated to allow it to fall backwards in time. The idea of the stirring of Space-Time spreading beyond the Time-machine’s operation is not beyond the realms of physics, rather like how if you stir the surface of a fluid strongly enough, the vortex will transfer down to the bottom of the vessel.

Alexander travels to the distant future
So… I guess the sphere is locked to the same relative position on Earth…

Regardless of how the machine may look, it still seems to operate in the same way, with a view of the outside world, only with a hazy sphere of light between Alexander, the inventor, and the ‘stop motion’ (and CGI) real-world.

This Time-machine stirs time, allowing the instants that Hartdegen observes (and inhabits) to be stitched together skipping over the intervening time, whether it is falling backwards or forwards through time. Presumably the machine skips to the extreme instant of the vortex it is creating, and then stirs space there, extending the vortex and allowing it to move again.

Meddling With History

The plot of the reboot includes an interesting take on the Grandfather Paradox. Alexander  Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) is a professor who is driven by lost love to build his Time Machine. He succeeds and goes back in time to save his love (Emma, played by Sienna Guillory). He manages to alter history, but even though events are altered Emma still dies.

This creates all sorts of problems for us.

  • The fact that Alexander can alter the past (somewhat) suggests that this universe does not exactly conform to the Novikov self-consistency principle. This may be because there is a multiversal solution, with each travel to the past creating a new time-line.
  • The fact that Emma still dies is pointed to later as a necessity, because after her death Hartdegen went on to build the Time-machine. If he had saved her, he would have never have created the Time-machine that was necessary to save her. Which implies that there can’t be a multiversal solution, as once created a multiverse exploiting machine does not require the universe to preserve its causality.
  • It is not implied that Alexander remembers the altered time-line he has created. This can only be possible if his original causal path through Space-Time is somehow preserved. Normally this would point to a multiversal solution, but we’ve already had to discard that option. Instead we would have to assume that the machine must stabilize the causality of the traveller, except when the machine is destroyed Hartdegen isn’t affected in anyway…
  • So instead we are left with a single, but somewhat mutable time-line. However some external agency exists that preserves the chronology, reworking and nudging events such that they still act to preserve the key events of the time-line. Hartdegen can alter the circumstances of the past, the details, but the key events are locked — to borrow from Doctor Who, they are fixed points in time. That isn’t to say that this agency is actually a Chronology Protection Service, or Time Patrol, with agents setting up runaway horseless carriages, but rather it may be an emergent effect from Quantum events. Although, I admit that there is something a little too intelligent about how the universe fixes itself, it reeks of deus-ex-machina, and therefore bad writing.

Weaponized Time-Machine

There are three times that we see the Time-machine used as a weapon in the reboot.

The locket aging
I can’t help wondering what this looked like for the people outside the machine.

The first time is when Hartdegen is travelling forwards for the first time, he drops the locket that holds a picture of Emma, and reaches outside of the sphere of light to catch it. For a few seconds his hand is outside of the sphere, presumably still being dragged along through time, but technically outside of the field. Hartdegen seems to suffer some pain in the hand while it is outside, almost like it is burnt. In fact, a burn may be the most accurate description of what is happening.

That hand is experiencing time at its normal rate, while the rest of him skips along through the intervening seconds. The hand, even though it is presumably not actually visible, and isn’t cut off by the Time-machine jumping forwards, is still losing and accepting energy at an accelerated rate compared to the rest of his body. This intensity of energy would presumably feel similar to a burning sensation.

Later Hartdegen uses this technique to push the Morlock leader out of the Time-machine, but still drags him along. He dangles from his own hands that are wrapped around Hartdegen’s throat. We see the Morlock behaves strangely, still dragged through time, and reacting in Hartdegen’s time-frame, although clearly aging more rapidly. Which appears to make sense only in a cursory way.

The Uber-Morlock dangles out of time
This is the only time when the Time-machine tilts over, it does not appear to affect it in any way.

We have to assume that the Uber-Morlock is dragged along through time, as his proximity to Hartdegen still affects him in someway, but on a cellular level his body is exchanging energy with the universe on it’s time. He is literally burned away by the Space-Time outside the Time-machine’s vortex. Any similarity to normal decomposition must be purely coincidental.

Be glad I couldn’t find an animated GIF of this moment,

Finally, Alexander Hartdegen decides to alter the future by overloading the Time-machine causing a massive “explosion” that destroys the Morlock colony. This explosion sequence is one of the strangest aspects of the movie, and appears to show that the Time-machine is somehow set by Hartdegen to store up some sort of temporal energy and then unleashes it through the Morlock tunnels. The sphere the machine produces is visible although the Time-machine is not actually moving, it is locked to normal time. The sphere deforms and becomes erratic before finally exploding out, unleashing a temporal energy that appears to rapidly age everything that it engulfs.

Of course, this energy is not really temporal in nature, it doesn’t actually age Morlocks and their caves, but instead causes damage similar to the cellular burning that the Morlock leader and Hartdegen’s hand must have experienced. This burning energy destroys soft tissues first, before the skeleton, and oxidizes metals destabilising the metals’ and stones’ crystalline structures.

We can only assume that the explosion could spread through underground tunnels to all the Morlock territories, otherwise in a few months Alexander is going to face some very annoyed Morlocks from far away.


The original movie has it’s flaws but is essentially a classic time-travel movie. It doesn’t mess with paradoxes too much and avoids many traps that we know exist in the potential physics of time-travel. The 2002 remake, while superior in special effects and pacing is a flawed and pale copy of the original, that actually creates more paradoxes and problems than it tries to answer. The idea that Hartdegen cannot alter the past, when he clearly has done, is a flawed confusion of the Novikov Self-Consistency Theorem and Multiversal time, that conforms to neither. It also explicitly states that the Time-machine could only be created if Hartdegen was obsessed by Emma’s death (a character that never appeared in the original where ‘George’ was motivated by sheer scientific curiosity).


The Original Time Machine movie has it’s problems, but is actually somewhat scientifically superior to the 2002 remake.

The remake, while appearing to understand time travel better, actually is a demonstrably worse model of time-travel that doesn’t hold up too well to close scrutiny. The flawed plot and writing of the remake not only missed the point of the original, but attempts to answer questions that the original never asked, and doesn’t actually manage to answer them either.

Still that Time-machine really is pretty.

Guy Pierce as Alexander Hartdegen
And that’s about it…
CJ Moseley

CJ Moseley

Lead Reality and Aoristic Architect at CJMoseley.co.uk
CJ Moseley is currently an Indie SF author, specialising in humorous weirdness, but has been a web-developer, artist, professional gamer, juggler, magician, theatre manager and physicist. He firmly believes in writing what he knows, which is mostly English.
CJ Moseley
CJ Moseley

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