‘The Father of Science Fiction’: 10 Facts About H. G. Wells | History Hit

‘The Father of Science Fiction’: 10 Facts About H. G. Wells

Amy Irvine

09 Feb 2023
Portrait of Herbert George Wells by George Charles Beresford. (cropped)
Image Credit: George Charles Beresford / National Portrait Gallery / Public Domain

Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) was a prolific novelist, as well as a writer, historian, teacher and journalist. He wrote more than 50 novels, dozens of short stories, and non-fiction work on a range of topics including social commentary, politics, history and popular science. Often deemed ‘The Father of Science Fiction’, it was this genre he was primarily famous for – notably his books The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.

His novels of social realism about lower-middle-class English life led some to suggest he was a worthy successor to Charles Dickens. An outspoken socialist, Wells often sympathised with pacifist views (except at World War One’s outbreak) and was a somewhat prophetic social critic with progressive global visions. As a futurist, he wrote many utopian works, foreseeing the advent of many inventions and imagining subjects we now commonly know of today – installing commonplace detail alongside a single extraordinary assumption.

Here are 10 facts about this iconic writer.

1. A broken leg inspired Wells’s imagination

In 1874, Wells broke his leg, leaving him bedridden. This became a defining incident in his life – to pass the time, he read books from the local library, brought to him by his father. Wells soon became devoted to the other worlds and lives the books contained, stimulating his desire to write.

His mother’s work as a lady’s maid at Uppark, a country house in Sussex, also had an impact. Uppark had a magnificent library which Wells immersed himself in, reading many classic works including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Left: A young Wells, “Bertie” as he was known, c. 1870s. Right: H. G. Wells, c.1890.

Image Credit: Both: Public Domain. Right: c/o Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

2. He was initially a teacher – A.A. Milne was one of his students

After a brief apprenticeship to a draper, Wells became a student-teacher, spending time at various schools including at the National School in Wookey, Midhurst Grammar School and the Holt Academy in Wales.

He eventually won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (now Imperial College) where his studied biology under famous zoologist T H Huxley. By now he was a socialist and a member of the Fabian Society, and had written textbooks, short stories and reviews.

From 1889-1890, Wells got a teaching post at Henley House School in London. The school had just 13 students and was run out of John Milne’s home. Among Wells’s science students was John’s son, A. A. Milne, the future author of Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne once said that Wells had not been a good schoolmaster because he “was too clever and too impatient”.

After leaving teaching, Wells became a journalist, writing a prolific amount of short humorous articles for journals.

3. He was the first to coin and use the term ‘time machine’

The success of Wells’s short stories encouraged him to write longer pieces, and he published his first novel, The Time Machine, in 1895 – launching his prolific literary career.

Wells is known to have first combined both these words, and paved the way for future inquiry and creativity in this now-infamous sub-genre. However, the base idea of a mechanical device with the ability to move through time was expanded from his own idea first used back in his 1888 short story, The Chronic Argonauts.

Like a few of H G Wells’ stories, ‘The Time Machine’ was later made into a film. This is the 1960 film poster.

Image Credit: Artwork by Reynold Brown / Public Domain

4. Wells accurately predicted the future in his novels

Throughout his novels, and in his book Anticipation of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought in particular, amazingly Wells happened to accurately predict many things. Amongst others, these included tanks, global warming, visible and invisible mass surveillance, modern chemical and germ warfare, radio, TV, video, laser beams and cosmetic surgery. Other key predictions included:

Aerial warfare and parachutes: Wells foretold the invention of the ‘airplane‘ and predicted that it would be deployed in warfare. He also came close to the invention of ‘parachutes’, which he regarded as humanity’s ‘one last chance of life’ out of a plummeting mass of airplane wreckage.

Improved transport: In his book, Anticipations (1901), Wells envisioned the rise of faster and cheaper motor transport that would enable people to live in suburbs and commute into cities.

The EU: Again in Anticipations, Wells wrote about ‘a Federal Europe’ centred on the Rhine, which might emerge by the start of the 21st century. As we know, this became a reality in 1993 with the formation of the European Union.

Writing in 1901, presciently he noted that German reluctance to join up might lead to a series of wars before the union could be achieved, and that Britain would be reluctant to enrol as the Federal Europe would be a French-dominated body whereas Britain saw themselves more as part of the English-speaking world, which by that time would be led by the USA.

The internet: In his 1937 essay Permanent World Encyclopaedia, amazingly Wells essentially described Wikipedia, stating: “A great number of workers would be engaged perpetually in perfecting this index of human knowledge and keeping it up to date”. It would be “accessible to every individual” and “reproduced exactly and fully” worldwide.

Illustrations by Henrique Alvim Corrêa, from the 1906 Belgium (French language) edition of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds”, 1906.

Image Credit: Henrique Alvim Corrêa / Public Domain

5. His novels foresaw and inspired real-life scientific advancement, including space travel and the atomic bomb

The first liquid-fuelled rocket was launched in 1926 by Robert H. Goddard, who had dedicated his life to making space travel a reality after reading Wells’s The War of the Worlds as a 16-year-old. Goddard sent Wells a letter in 1932 in which he declared that the novel had “made a deep impression”, and had encouraged him to literally aim for the stars.

In his scientific romance, The World Set Free (1914), Wells described a world war but added a new weapon that wouldn’t be invented for another 30 years – atomic bombs. Wells even coined the term ‘atomic bomb’ in the book, imagining it as a weapon “that would continue to explode indefinitely” and that it would be dropped from planes, cause fall-out and radioactive waste.

Wells’s atomic bombs inspired physicist Leo Szilard, who hypothesised the nuclear chain reaction which eventually made the real bombs possible, and who worked on the Manhattan Project. Apparently, reading the likely consequences from Wells’s book, Szilard kept his patent from public view, only activating it when he feared that the Nazis might produce the bomb first. Szilard later wrote that it was Wells’s idea that had showed him “what the liberation of atomic energy on a large scale would mean”.

Left: Physicist Léo Szilárd, circa 1960. Right: The Trinity test of the Manhattan Project on 16 July 1945 was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon.

Image Credit: Both: US Department of Energy / Public Domain. Right: Jack W. Aeby, 16 July 1945, civilian worker at Los Alamos laboratory, working under the aegis of the Manhattan Project / LIFE Photo Archive

6. He played a role in the formation of the UN

After World War One, Wells became an advocate of a world state dedicated to peaceful purposes, and wrote ambitious manifestos on this. Wells predicted the establishment of universal human rights and actively campaigned for these.

In 1940 he published The Rights of Man, and later that year was one of the most important contributors to the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was later used to help form the United Nations 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. (Needless to say, his hope this would lead to a utopian world government hasn’t happened, yet).

The search for Peace on Earth has spanned centuries, and involved the creation and dissolution of numerous treaties and organisations. So how does the United Nations fit into this story? Why was it created, and has it been successful in its task? Ian Johnson is a historian of war, technology and diplomacy at the University of Notre Dame. He returns to the podcast for a third time.
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7. His name was included in the SS’ Black Book

Wells was president of PEN International (‘Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists’), an association that promotes the cooperation of writers around the world. Publicly critical of the German government, in 1933, he oversaw the expulsion of German PEN for anti-Semitism and failing to protest the Nazi’s book burning.

During this period in Nazi Germany, Wells’s The Outline of History (1920) was burned, and his name included in the SS’ Black Book, a list of people to be arrested during the proposed invasion of Britain.

8. He features on the cover of The Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

Wells features on this iconic Beatles record cover near the top right, between Karl Marx and an Indian guru favoured by George Harrison.

Many of the iconic figures featured had been chosen by the cover designers, but in 2009, Yoko Ono told a magazine: “John and I felt that we were like people in an H.G. Wells story, two people who are walking so fast that nobody else can see them” – a reference to Wells’s 1901 short story The New Accelerator.

9. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times (but never won)

Wells received nominations in 1921, 1932, 1935 (when no prize was awarded, allegedly as ‘the Nobel Committee for Literature decided that none of the year’s nominations met the criteria as outlined in the will of Alfred Nobel’), and 1946 (the year he died), but was beaten by Anatole France, John Galsworthy, and Hermann Hesse.

10. He founded the UK’s leading diabetes charity

Wells was diagnosed with diabetes in 1931, and is now known to have been a mild type 2 diabetic. In 1934, he co-founded the British Diabetic Association (along with his physician R.D. Lawrence), now Diabetes UK. As its first president, he chaired meetings, drummed up support and raised money for a holiday home for deprived diabetic children.

Wells was also founding vice-president of the National Birth Control Council, now the Family Planning Association.

Amy Irvine