H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine contains the first use of the phrase “time machine.” Google’s N-gram viewer tracks the term coined by Wells, showing it as a small bump at the 1895 mark followed by an exponential growth in the use of the term. The increase in the use of “time machine” also coincides with that of the term “machine.”

Figure 1. Google n-gram of “time machine”

Figure 2. Google n-gram of “machine”

This is one of those cases of the chicken or the egg. Did Wells’ coining the phrase “time machine” influence the English language, or did the natural progression of language and thought coupled with the widespread use of machinery (some 50-plus years after the end of the Industrial Revolution) spur the author’s imagination to think up something as bizarre and paradoxical as a time machine? Or is a book a sort of time machine?

…Naturally, “time” and “machine” are two of the most frequent terms in The Time Machine. “Time” appears 199 times, and machine, 84 times. The two words appear together as one token, “time machine,” 39 times. And of time’s 199 instances, it occurs a total of 99 times immediately before either “traveller” or “machine.” This is to be expected given the Time Traveller and his Time Machine are the focus of the novel’s story.

It could also be said that the entire novel, its events and its characters, occur and exist within the bounds of time, which is, in a sense, the connecting thread that ties the whole novel together. In fact, Voyant-Tools’ trend module shows the term “time” permeates the entire text, peaking at 60 instances in the first segment, and appearing consistently at an average of around 12 times in the middle portion of the corpus. In every default segment of the text, “time” is never not used. Voyant’s textual arc tool best depicts the literal universe in which the text lives (Figure 3), while also highlighting the text’s “brokenness and its messiness [which] are part of its humanness” (Marche qtd. in Hammond 87).

Figure 3. Textual arc view of The Time Machine corpus

Further down the list of frequent terms, the terms “medical” (24), “psychologist” (23), and “laboratory” (19) carry empirical and clinical connotations. However, the appearance of these terms is short lived. The novel seems to deviate from a starting point grounded in science, to state of wild imagination and mysticism, perhaps as a manifestation of doubt cast on the Traveller and the prospect of time travel. The ebb of words associated with academia gives way to more superstitiously charged concepts like the “sphinx” and the “creatures” the narrator mentions (Figure 4). Though the novel seems to return to a state of empiricism in the end, the resurgence is concurrent with and underlies the rise of “machine,” some pun intended (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Comparison of medical, psychologist, sphinx, laboratory, creatures, creature, ghastly


Figure 5. Comparison of machine, medical, psychologist, laboratory

If it is the case that a novel functions as a cultural repository, it may be of importance that the terms “machine,” “man,” “medical,” “psychologist,” “laboratory,” and now “time,” occur in relatively neat layers, almost like a geological record of the state of human knowledge (Figure 6). Generally, these select terms could be related to the fields of psychology (psychologist), medicine (medical), sociology (man), chemistry (laboratory), mechanics/early computers (machine), and physics (time), with each field building on the groundwork lain by some prior field of knowledge. I believe this is either an irrelevant result of chance or a subtle insight into the value placed on various branches of the sciences and the humanities.

Figure 6. Comparison of time, machine, man, medical, psychologist, laboratory

Really, trying to draw conclusions from quantitative analysis of literature without either historical or textual context is like trying to do something that’s really hard to do without having everything you need.

In short, context is key.