H.G. Wells's Technological Forecast

When the Sleeper Wakes


Inside the pages of his novel, When the Sleeper Wakes, H.G. Wells brings the then and the now into apparent contrast through the eyes of his Victorian protagonist, Graham: an inquisitive visitor whose despondence over his inability to fall asleep conceivably causes him to enter into a mesmeric trance and awake in a new dystopic world 203 years into the future. Wells utilizes Graham’s astonishment to the advancements in technology to do a nearly accurate job forecasting the technological advancements that would occur along with the baggage they may carry in the dystopic society. Wells addresses numerous instances of shocking new technology though Graham’s journey in the future as he discovers the technologies that eerily resemble many modern technologies today such as the radio, the moving sidewalk, the television, airplanes, vending machines, automatic doors and a networked world, to simply name a few—a prediction which many readers find wild considering the time of the novel’s composition: 1899.

The Radio ("Babble Machines")

While printed books are still in existence, the descriptions of the babble machines are parallel to what is now called “the radio” even with its audio projections known as "live paper". Interestingly enough, Gugliemo Marconi invented the wireless telegraph in 1895 (4 years before Well’s novel was finished); however, it was not until 1910 (11 years after the completion of Well’s novel) that Lee De Forest succeeded in combining Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone with Marconi’s invention of the wireless telegraph.

"As a transmission device for the spoken word, the Audion was just powerful enough to transmit intelligible signals. In 1910, De Forest used an Audion-equipped radio device to make the first ever ship-to-shore broadcast of the human voice. But De Forest had much more ambitious plans for his device. He had imagined a world in which his wireless technology was used not just for military and business communications but also for mass enjoyment—and in particular, to make his great passion, opera, available to everyone" (Johnson).

Excitingly, Wells saw 11 years into the future with the invention of the radio.

  • What could Wells be cautioning us of?
Perceivably, Wells is cautioning us of the dangers of a society where printed books are not in existence. Instead, everything is filtered through the government and at the risk of being manipulated by the government as well. Print is the only way of ensuring that whatever is published is not manipulated by whomever.

The Television ("reality viewed through an inverted opera glass")

Graham encounters a technology with “…voices and music, and [he] noticed a play of colour on the smooth front face…On the flat surface was now a little picture, very vividly coloured, and in this picture were figures that moved. Not only did they move, but they were conversing in clear small voices. It was exactly like reality viewed through an inverted opera glass and heard through a long tube” (130, Wells).

Now adding sight to sound, in 1927 a rather stripped down, black and white version of modern television was invented. Furthermore, “Color television was [not] introduced to the public [until] 1954” (Streissguth).

However, as can be seen in Well’s description of this technology that Graham is observing, this technology is “vividly coloured”, a technology that was not brought to life until 55 years after the publication of his novel.

  • What could Wells be cautioning us of?

While it has neglected to come true yet, Wells also predicted that, perhaps in part due to the invention of the superficial invention that is the television, makeup becomes the only art form. All other forms of art such as paint and canvas are no more, similar to printed books. Feasibly, the television is integral in creating a society where the human appearance is of the utmost important and the only art form, perhaps a caution from Wells to his audience.

A Networked World

Not only did Wells forecast numerous technologies, but he forecasted the result of such technology: substantial societal dependence on such technology, a commonly discussed topic in modern society.

While this opinion on technological dependency seems like an obvious point of view to anyone living in the 21st century, to come from someone at the end of the 19th century, this was an original observation.

Graham, unlike much of the current population, sees the dependence of technology as he was born in the Victorian period where technology was not in existence yet:

And as the standard of comfort rose, as the complexity of the mechanism of living increased life in the country had become more and more costly, or narrow and impossible. The disappearance of vicar and squire, the extinction of the general practitioner by the city specialist, had robbed the village of its last touch of culture. After telephone, kinematograph and phonograph had replaced newspaper, book, schoolmaster, and letter, to live outside the range of the electric cables was to live an isolated savage. In the country were neither means of being clothed nor fed (according to the refined conceptions of the time), no efficient doctors for an emergency, no company and no pursuits (164, Wells).

  • What could Wells be cautioning us of?

Not only did Wells predict numerous widespread advancements in technology, but he correctly predicted the baggage that has the ability to come with it: a world increasingly dependent on such technology. This dependency can come to life (and as the majority, including Hannay, would argue that it already has) if society does not change the way they nearly cannot carry out daily activities without their technological advancements.