From The New York Sun, September 8, 1881…

And it came before H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine…


On September 18, 1881 The New York Sun published ‘The Clock That Went Backward.’ Written anonymously, it is the story of two cousins who, with the aid of a mysterious, derelict clock, travel three hundred years into the past to become major players in a pivotal battle during the Eighty Years War.

Three days after the story’s printing, [another writer,] a young man named Herbert George (H. G.) Wells celebrated his 15th birthday.

It would be another seven years before the earliest drafts of what would become  [the famous time-travel novel,] The Time Machine, appeared serialized in The Science School Journal.

I’ve been reading the first “time travel” story ever published, a 19th-century story called “The Clock That Ran Backward” by Edward Page Mitchell. Mitchell is a great writer. I guess he’s a “forgotten early father” of sci-fi fiction from what I’ve read about him.

I like to look up things unfamiliar to me if I come across them in a story. Last night this story mentioned a 1572 Dutch weight-driven “longcase” clock with silver inlay and a big “Dutch moon” that showed its phases over a scene of windmills and “polders”…the weights were “governed by a Van Wyck escapement”… You think you know things. I had to look that shit up.


Not much out there in Google land. I found this photo of a Van Wyck longcase clock face, but it was ca. 1700s.


17th-Century longcase clock face designed by Johannes Van Wyck. (Christie’s)

Johannes Van Wyck was real in fact and lived in the 18th century not the 16th. The author took some liberties here that led me on a goose chase! But it was fun.

Below, are some other longcase clocks from the 1700s. They required a “long case” to accommodate the slow downward run of the weights that powered the movement of the clocks’ mechanisms. The early clocks had no pendulums; just the weights. And the bottom cases of the clocks were closed (no window of glass like modern grandfather clocks…the term grandfather clock wasn’t used until the 19th century when a song about “grandfather’s clock” helped coin the term for posterity).

Now I want one. But I think I’ll wait since the cheapest one at Sotheby’s recently auctioned for 17,000 USD!

“Time keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking, into the future…” (Steve Miller Band)

Mitchell’s collection of stories is free to read in the public domain here:

And here’s a link to some information on Edward Page Mitchell…



(Clock photos: Pinterest)