Science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells conjured some futuristic visions that haven't (yet) come true: a machine that travels back in time, a man who turns invisible, and a Martian invasion that destroys southern England.
But for a man born 150 years ago, many of Wells's other predictions about the modern world have proven amazingly prescient.
Wells, born in 1866, was trained as a scientist, a rarity among his literary contemporaries, and was perhaps the most important figure in the genre that would become science fiction.
Writers in this tradition have a history not just of imagining the future as is might be, but of inspiring others to make it a reality. In 2012, Smithsonian.com published a top ten list of inventions inspired by sci-fi, ranging from Robert H. Goddard's liquid-fuelled rocket to the cell phone.
“Wells's was an imagination in a hurry, he wanted to get to the future sooner than it was going to happen. That's why he's so predictive in his writing,” explains Simon James, head of the English Studies department at Durham University and the editor of the official journal of the H.G. Wells society .
Wells’s ideas have also endured because he was a standout storyteller, James adds. No less a writer than Joseph Conrad agreed. “I am always powerfully impressed by your work. Impressed is the word, O Realist of the Fantastic!” he wrote Wells after reading The Invisible Man.
Here are some of the incredible H.G. Wells predictions that have come true, as well as some that haven't—at least not yet.
Phones, Email, and Television
In Men Like Gods (1923), Wells invites readers to a futuristic utopia that's essentially Earth after thousands of years of progress. In this alternate reality, people communicate exclusively with wireless systems that employ a kind of co-mingling of voicemail and email-like properties.
“For in Utopia, except by previous arrangement, people do not talk together on the telephone,” he writes. “A message is sent to the station of the district in which the recipient is known to be, and there it waits until he chooses to tap his accumulated messages. And any that one wishes to repeat can be repeated. Then he talks back to the senders and dispatches any other messages he wishes. The transmission is wireless.”
Wells also imagined forms of future entertainment. In When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), the protagonist rouses from two centuries of slumber to a dystopian London in which citizens use wondrous forms of technology like the audio book, airplane and television—yet suffer systematic oppression and social injustice.
Visitors to The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) were confronted with a menagerie of bizarre creatures including Leopard-Man and Fox-Bear Witch, created by the titular madman doctor in human-animal hybrid experiments that may presage the age of genetic engineering.
Though Moreau created his Frankenbeasts through more crude techniques, like surgical transplants and blood transfusions, the theme of humans playing God by tinkering with nature has become a reality. Scientists are working towards the day when animal organs could serve as long-term transplants for human patients, though today human immune systems still ultimately reject such efforts. And controversial experiments known as chimera studies create human-animal hybrids by adding human stem cells to animal embryos.
Notably, the human-animal hybrids Moreau creates eventually do the doctor in, and that ending echoes another common Wells theme. “It's often a warning about the consequences of technology, in particular when you don't think them through properly,” explains James.
Lasers and Directed Energy Weapons
Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898) unleash what Wells called a Heat-Ray, a super weapon capable of incinerating helpless humans with a noiseless flash of light. It would be more than six decades before Theodore Maiman fired up the first operational laser at California's Hughes Research Laboratory on May 16, 1960, but military thinkers had been hoping to weaponize the conceptual laser even before it was even proven practical.
Wells's description isn't accurate enough to build a working laser, but it resembles both that device and other “directed energy” weapons, such as those using microwaves, electromagnetic radiation, and radio or sound waves, which the United States and other militaries have developed in recent years.
“Many think that in some way [the Martians] are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light,” Wells wrote.
Typically, Wells was more interested in what the effects of his future ideas might be, rather than working out the technical details, James stresses.
“He'll kind of take one element of scientific understanding of the world and tweak it. So in The Time Machine, if you think of time as the fourth dimension, what if you could travel in time as freely as in the other three? Or, in The First Men in the Moon, what if you could make a material [Wells called it Cavorite] as impervious to gravity as other materials are impervious to heat? You just take that one thing, and see what follows from it,” James explains.
(Today's leading science fiction authors still use this technique while at work shaping the future of tomorrow. In fact, some companies commission “design fiction” to see how innovative ideas might work if they become fact in the future. “There is nothing weird about a company doing this—commissioning a story about people using a technology to decide if the technology is worth following through on,” says novelist Cory Doctorow, whose clients have included Disney and Tesco. “It’s like an architect creating a virtual fly-through of a building.” )
Atomic Bombs & Nuclear Proliferation
Wells reveled in the potential benefits of technology but also feared their dark side. “H.G. Wells was probably the writer who saw most clearly in the early 20th century the possibility of total war,” says Eleanor Courtemanche of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (A new physical and online exhibition there shows off an extensive Wells collection.)
Wells recognized the world-changing destructive power that might be harnessed by splitting the atom. The atomic bombs he introduces in The World Set Free (1913) fuel a war so devastating that its survivors are moved to create a unified world government to avoid future conflicts.
Wells's bombs differed from those actually developed by scientists with the Manhattan Project. They exploded continually, for days, weeks or months depending upon their size, as the elements in them furiously radiated energy during their degeneration and in the process created mini-volcanoes of death and destruction.
Wells also clearly saw the dangers of nuclear proliferation, and the doomsday scenarios that might arise both when nations were capable of “mutually assured destruction” and when non-state actors or terrorists got into the fray.
“Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of malcontents could use it; it was revolutionizing the problems of police and internal rule. Before the last war began it was a matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city,” he wrote.
Where Wells Was Wrong—At Least So Far
Wells rejected the idea that the future is unknowable, writes esteemed science fiction writer James Gunn, who also helped to pioneer university study of science fiction.
“He believed that it was possible, through the use of what he first called "inductive history" and later "Human Ecology" (defined as the working out of "biological, intellectual, and economic consequences"), to chart the possibilities of the future and to push people into making sensible use of those possibilities. He was the first futurologist, the man who invented tomorrow,” wrote Gunn in The Science of Science-Fiction Writing, published in 2000.
But Wells did have other big ideas that haven't come to fruition, though of course there's always the chance that his vision extended farther into the future than our own time. As of this writing we've not been invaded by Martians. Human invisibility also remains elusive—though science is making progress in that direction. The time machine, an invention introduced in a 1895 novella, hasn't been worked out either.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment to Wells was the failure of his idealized political vision, a world government, which he described in A Modern Utopia (1905)
Wells was a committed socialist who hoped that a global “New Republic” would assure peace in perpetuity. Wells, who died in 1946, lived long enough to learn that this imagined future wasn't likely to ever come true, so he took a very active role in fostering international cooperation wherever he could.
“After World War II broke out, it was another slap in the face to the idea of a world state ever coming off,” James says, “so Wells started a campaign for universal human rights. I believe it was Wells writing letters to The Times that started the process that eventually led to the United Nations declaration of world rights in 1947.” Wells also laid out his vision in The Rights of Man (1940), and his draft declarations on the topic were used to help write the formal UN document.
Courtemanche adds that Wells's idea of world government, while never reaching his Utopian ideal, actually did come to fruition in at least some small ways.
“Think of all the international agencies that sprang up after WWII in hopes that some kind of international framework would keep world war from happening again,” she notes. “Bretton Woods, the IMF, NATO, the European Union -- none of these were truly global, but they were definitely steps toward the more peaceful and organized world society that Wells envisioned.”