Time travel is a major staple is sci-fi. You just can't escape it. Sometimes the characters travel so far back, that if or when they tell locals that they are from the future, I'm skeptical that the story writers have the locals' reactions correct. I'm under the impression that the concept of time travel is relatively new. For example, would Socrates understand being told "I'm from the future"? What about George Washington? Maybe the answer is best found by finding who first talked about time travel. For the times before time travel was understood, how would you explain you're from the future, and not confuse that with some kind of declaration that you are a seer or prophet?

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    $\begingroup$ Socrates did not speak English. However, eimi apo ton loipon may work, or you may need to ask somebody who actually knows Attic. George Washington had excellent English, so he would understand without the need of translation. Seriously, what makes you believe that Socrates of G.W. would misunderstand I am from the future with I can predict the future? Those are very different statements with very different meanings. Or, if needed, you can clarify: I was born in the second year of the 683rd Olympiad. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 3, 2018 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, the O.P. is not talking about language difficulties but rather a conceptual gap. We think of time as past, present and future and we sometimes subdivide past and present into smaller realms such as recent and distant. Since the introduction of the idea of time travel, fans of that genre have started thinking of these realms as locations from which people can come and where people can go. I believe that the O.P. doubts that historic people raised before H.G. Wells could understand time as location. I don't agree, but I can't think of a good defense for why. $\endgroup$ Apr 3, 2018 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Henry Taylor while the concept of time travel (as well as technological progress) would be foreign to ancient people, understating it should be easy enough. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Apr 3, 2018 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor: How could Socrates possibly not understand I was born in the second year of the 683rd Olympiad? They did have calendars in Ancient Greece, Aristotle discusses whether statements about contingent future events have a truth value (they don't), they had multi-year planning, the Greek language has a future tense... In Lucian's True Story (Alêthê Diêgêmata), "the earliest known work of fiction to include travel to outer space, alien life-forms, and interplanetary warfare" (Wikipedia), a crew of 2nd century Greeks meet in real life with heroes and poets from the distant past. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 3, 2018 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting question. I think it probably depends, but I can imagine that an ancient people would not have a concept of far future and the future, generally, would be a place that did not exist and so, logically, no one could come from there, not from tomorrow, not from next year, and certainly not from 10,000 years hence. Maybe we are just more gullible today? $\endgroup$
    – Lee Leon
    Apr 3, 2018 at 17:59

4 Answers 4


The first known instance of knowledge of the future being transported to the past (rather than a figure in the present seeing the future through clairvoiance) is likely the 1733 Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, which depicts a man receiving a series of memos written by an ambassador from the far future year of 1997-1998! These letters were given to him by an angel who did not discuss the method the angel recieved the memos from.

Perhaps the most famous fictional example is that of the Charles Dickens Classic, "A Christmas Carol" (1843) in which Scrooge is transported to his early life and to his later life... or... well... no longer life.

While these are supernatural, the first physical machine created and controlled by a man to traverse time was H.G. Well's "The Time Machine" (1895) Though there is a Spanish story that is about 12 years older.

With all that said, the idea of a visitor from the future appearing in the past is not unheard of going far back, though if the locals find this idea to complex, one could try and tell them that you are seer blessed with the gift of future sight and have dressed in the manner of men in the coming ages? Then have someone say "like that story we had about the guy from 1997?" alluding to a oral traditional story that was lost to time... Though this seems to be a Dr. Who style gag more than anything.


Anyone with experience of the past and the future will intuitively understand the concept of being 'from the future.'

The answer will be yes. We experience and understand 'yesterday, today, tomorrow.' We sometimes dream about being in another place or time. We experience deja-vu. The idea of psychic ability, clairvoyance, and so on, is deeply attractive to many of us. Many religions have certain 'impossible' tenets.

Human cognition has no difficulty with the bizarre.

Also, only a very small percentage of people in our present are familiar with time travel stories. Very few people think about time travel, being more concerned with other more basic facts of living. Yet these people would be able to understand the idea, we presume. Each of us who are familiar with the concept was introduced the idea at some initial point, and probably thought, 'Whoa. Cool." Not "Wait, what? I don't get it." (although perhaps the response is a mix of those two things.)

In point of fact, the ability to believe in what is not logical (such as time travel) is evolutionarily selected. There is an entire field of study on pattern recognition, survivability, and illogic in humans. If the science is to be believed, we'd not be here without the evolutionarily selected ability to accept (and believe that we understand) the impossible.

Examples abound. Belief in deities is alive and well, for example, and believers will tell you how they know this to be true. Our ancients were made of the same stuff as we are, and it stretches belief to think that they'd not have the same proclivities.

Here is one link on the evolution of ready acceptance of the improbable, but a search in Google Scholar easily pulls up many, should that link cease to work.

From the link:

Our brains and nervous systems constitute a belief-generating machine, a system that evolved to assure not truth, logic, and reason, but survival. The belief engine has seven major components.

Now, it may well be that authors don't capture well the response of ancient peoples to a time traveller - but this is a writing problem. I suspect the ancient peoples themselves think about life in philosophical ways including how to escape place and time. Just as people today do...

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer, but it's only theoretical, as in, no links to back up your assertions. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Apr 3, 2018 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate your effort in the edit, but I think your are heading down a rabbit trail. My question is about a hypothetical ancient person who's never been exposed to the concept. I doubt that person would immediately connect the dots when told "I'm from the future". I think they're first reaction would indeed be "What does that mean?" The only presumption I'm making is that such an ancient person exists. Answering "how old is the idea of time travel" would go a long way in answering this question. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Apr 3, 2018 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ You and I have travelled in time since you posted the question. We experience forward and backward as soon as we move. It seems you are trying to create a scenario that to my view would never occur - a person who does not comprehend time or directionality. And perhaps who has poor imagination as well. But I'll up vote the question to get it more ... reputation or whatever. $\endgroup$
    – SFWriter
    Apr 3, 2018 at 18:24

Conceptually, they'd have no problem grasping the concept. After all, think of religions: "Do this/don't do this and you'll be punished/rewarded" depends on people understanding that doing things will have future consequences for them, which depends on understanding the concept that the future is a "real place" that will be experienced and have people there. If a place is real and has people there, that means, at least in theory, people from there can come here.

And time travel isn't a recent concept. Assorted myths have people traveling forward in time, being taken to a place where time runs differently before being returned to the normal world. Traveling backwards is a more recent invention, but then thinking of time as cyclic, as many cultures did, simply means you've traveled long into the future to arrive in the past.

  • $\begingroup$ "Assorted myths have people traveling forward in time, being taken to a place where time runs differently before being returned to the normal world." Can you cite a few? I'd be careful to not conflate visions with time travel. For example, someone else cited Dickens Christmas Carol, except that's a vision. He cannot interact with it. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Apr 4, 2018 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ None of those myths have people taken into the past from the future. Future consequences isn't the same thing as conceiving of the future as a place yet to be. It's a recent idea in thinking the future will be different. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Apr 4, 2018 at 4:16
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    $\begingroup$ @fredsbend Some stories about fairies, the Irish legends like the story of Ossian, about going to a fairyland and returning to find many years have passed. The Rip Van Winkle story is based on this notion. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Apr 4, 2018 at 4:18
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android, think about what you just wrote. If you believe in future consequences, you by definition think the future will be different from now, if for no one else than you personally. The whole basis of the spread of Christianity among lower classes in society was that "Hey, things suck for you now, but be a good Christian and everything will be different." $\endgroup$ Apr 4, 2018 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison I did think and know the difference between the two concepts. I can know the consequences of my actions , but that isn't the same as knowing the future will be a something. Particualrly, something that is distinctly different. Arguing by definition is merely playing word games. That's logical positivism, which is early 20th century & passe. The future of a Christian afterlife is rooted in the present. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Apr 5, 2018 at 7:57

The tale of Urashima Tarō could easily be the result of someone who has traveled at relativistic speeds such that he returns home 300 years later.

That would be an example of someone who travels "to the future".

"From the Future" would require a similar tale for the person to understand.

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    $\begingroup$ Hmm, that's more like Rip van Winkle. Not really time travel as we typically understand it. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Apr 3, 2018 at 17:00

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