It is hard to understand the Age of Progress without actually being here. The world is changing, like it never has before. 50 years ago, all the world was a frontier. Nature was certainly stronger than man. Hunger was the norm and there was a paucity of goods available to all but the very rich.
And then, suddenly, it all began to change. Trains opened up faraway places. Steam-driven factories enable productivity that can bring decent clothing to the poor. Science is beginning to unlock secrets of the universe. Not just theorems like Newtonian physics, but science with practical benefits. The Brooklyn bridge has been built – a testament to applied physics. The relationship between electricity and life is being explored. The use of X-rays, the first successful heart surgery, the germ theory of disease, blood transfusions and aseptic surgery are totally reinventing the possible when it comes to caring for the ill. And, of course, the internal combustion engine, the telegraph and telephone and even subways are changing every aspect of our lives. There is even talk amongst those in the know of horseless carriages eliminating a major source of pollution in our cities (I don’t need to tell you about the amount of horse manure the City of New York has to deal with on a daily basis).
It is an age of unbelievable progress. And I am one of its practitioners. No, I’m not some industrialist or widely recognized scientific genius. I’m a professor of applied physics at Columbia University. I’m one of the established professionals they call when they need a steady hand to help with a project. In a world of constant change, I am a man who represents the responsible.
If that was all there was to me, this would still make a fascinating story. I’ve worked on bridges and buildings. I’ve helped investors judge new technologies (I am truly excited by power transmission and electric motors). I’ve been involved in designing new neighborhoods to take in the masses of people from impoverished Europe and our own countryside. I have watched, first hand, as our world has changed. And I’ve played my small part.
But that is not all their is to me. Like a Dr. Jekyll, I have my other side. I, too, am pushing the frontiers of science. Of course, I don’t talk about my work with a soul. It would undermine my professional credentials. But I have been exploring the interaction of electricity, extreme physical forces – and time. And after many years of secret tinkering in the basement of the physics department, I have developed what I believe is going to be a successful time machine.
Of course, I am a man who has borne witness to many charlatans producing suspect theories in the hope of financial reward. I have also witnessed world-changing innovations that appear so limited in their ability. The successful experiments don’t necessarily wow – they do just enough to let you know the parameters of our world have once again been changed.
My machine will be no different. It has almost no controls for destination. I can only choose future or past – and I have chosen future because there is a greater likelihood that I can find the materials I need to build another machine from my notes.
Mine is just a simple device. Now I am here, and soon I will be in another time.
With tremors of excitement, I take my seat. Everything is ready. I have my passport and diploma packed into my jacket. I have my notes in a pocket. And, in front of me is a switch waiting to be thrown.
I close my eyes, says a rare prayer to God, and pull the lever.
And when I open my eyes, I am in a whole new world.
I recognize the buildings. At least the closest ones. I am in the Theater District. But it has changed. Electric lights shine out from every surface. I can see a massive panel showing moving objects. The buildings have gotten taller. The world has clearly gotten wealthier. There are unbelievable masses of people – but no smell. Everyone is wearing the finest in clothes. There are people of all races of colors interacting like it is almost irrelevant. And, for some reason, there is a massive ball being lowered to the ground.
The crowd is shouting. Perhaps this is a new religion, “3-2-1” and then a tremendous hooting of horns, blasting of fireworks, kissing and celebration.
A woman turns to me. She smiles, grabs my face and gives me a kiss. “WELCOME TO 2010!” she shouts, over the noise.
“HOW DO YOU KNOW I’M A TIME TRAVELER?” I ask. Perhaps, in this day, such things are commonplace.
“WE ALL ARE, BABY!” she shouts back, “ONE MOMENT, IT’S 2009, THE NEXT IT’S 2010. WOOOOOOO!”
A New Year’s celebration. Convenient.
I’m on Broadway and so I turn uptown and just start walking. I don’t talk about where I’m from. They’d stick me in a loony bin. I walk past buildings, ever taller than those I know. I see bottles everywhere, of some unusual material. There are unbelievable numbers of automobiles. Lights regulate their movement. There are beggars, but they are few in number. I see more panels of moving pictures lighting up the night. It is dozens of blocks before I lay eyes on a single horse. And then, finally, the world quiets down some. I am nearing Columbia.
I walk on to the campus and towards my old building. It is still there. After one hundred and fifteen years, it is still there. In fact, there is an electric light on in my old office. The building is locked, but I know my way through the tunnels that run under the campus and I am a decent lock pick. Before long, I am in the building, and standing in front of my old door.
I give it a knock.
A woman answers, “Come in?”
I open the door and see a Chinawoman, of all things.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
“This used to be my office,” I answer.
“Oh, really,” she says, “It is an odd time to visit, but feel free to have a look around.”
It hasn’t changed that much. There is paper everywhere. Technical drawings, reference books. And on the desk another one of those moving picture panels. But, instead of pictures, it has words and numbers. Of course, those in my profession would always use such things more constructively.
“What are you a Professor of?” I ask.
“Physics,” she says with a smile, “This is the physics department.”
“Any sub-specialty?” I ask. I am eager to learn about what has changed.
“I am a quantum physicist.”
It sounds fascinating, but I have no idea what she’s talking about. I just nod.
“You?” she asks, as she takes a drink of Coca Cola.
Perhaps, this woman has something in common with me. So I risk it.
“Time travel,” I answer.
She snorts. Puts her drink down, and says, “I’d call security, but you seem harmless. Time travel?”
I explain my theory to her and she listens. But there is no belief on her face.
When I finish, she pronounces her judgement.
“It is a good story, but a very strange one,” she says, “With all the advances in physics, I’d suggest you tell a tale that’d make some sense to somebody after Einstein. Your story seems to totally ignore the theories of relativity or quantum mechanics. And it certainly don’t play nicely with the conservation of energy and mass. If you’re going to pass off time travel, take some modern science into account.”
“But I’m here,” I say, cheerfully.
“So?” she says.
“I’ve traveled through time,” I say, “I’m here NOW.”
“You’re trying to tell me you don’t just study time travel, but you are an actual time traveller?” She hasn’t skipped a beat.
“Yes,” I answer, calmly. I reach into my pocket and pull out my diploma. “Unless,” I continue, “You’ve met somebody else who has a doctorate from this institution in 1890.”
“Well then,” she says, taking my diploma, “You tell a very good story indeed. Your scientific theory is spot on for the time period you say you come from. So you are a very well researched fake.”
She unrolls the diploma and looks it over. “Great photoshop,” she says, “And you did a superb job with the inks and the paper. But you’ll have to sell your tale to somebody who might believe you.”
She pauses, and then asks, “What do you want?”
“I’ve changed the world,” I say, “I want my innovation to be developed and used. I want to be seen at the forefront of science.”
She’s barely listening. Her hands are flying over her typewriter and things on her moving-picture are changing.
“Buddy,” she says as she types, “You aren’t anywhere near the forefront of science. Nothing you’ve told me has anything to do with anything studied in the last 100 years.”
She looks at my diploma, and then types some more.
It is amazing how quickly her hands move, considering she is not a secretary.
I just wait for her to finish.
“What’s your name, again?” she asks.
“Professor Frank Theodore,” I say.
She looks at the diploma and then her moving-picture frame.
“You’ve done your research,” she says, “A Professor Frank Theodore disappeared on April 6th, 1895. I’ve got the New York Times article here.”
She turns the screen to me and shows me. She does indeed have it there. The telegraph has advanced.
“Is there a picture?” I ask.
She taps a button on her keyboard and the image jumps. Now, there’s a picture.
She looks at it, and she sees me.
She turns white.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer.
I understand what she’s going through.
100 years of science and understanding are being displaced. It is a feeling, living in an Age of Progress, that I’ve grown used to.
Her brain is searching for tricks, for angles. For something to reassure her that what she’s seeing is a fraud.
But she doesn’t find it.
It isn’t there.
She turns to me and then says, uncertainty in her voice, “Tell me again, how’d you do it?”
I am only too happy to oblige.