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September/October 2012
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"The Clock That Went Backward," by Edward Page Mitchell (1881)

ON SUNDAY, September 18, 1881, President James A. Garfield lay dying from wounds inflicted in an assassination attempt two months earlier. The New York Sun reported on its front page that there had been "NO CHANGE FOR THE BETTER. THE PRESIDENT'S CONDITION MORE CRITICAL THAN EVER BEFORE." For nourishment he was given "five and a half ounces of defibrinated beef blood morning and evening by enema." He would die the next day.

The Sun's readers could then turn to page 2 and read "The Clock That Went Backward," a science fiction story in which three men travel back in time to ensure the outcome of a decisive battle. The device by which this is accomplished is an apparently nonfunctioning, eight-foot-high Dutch clock built in 1572 in Holland. The clock transports the narrator, his cousin, and Prof. Van Stopp (a "distinguished Hegelian") from nineteenth-century Leyden to war-torn 1574 Leyden as the city is besieged by the Spaniards. Van Stopp, it seems, is actually Jan Lipperdam, the maker of the clock.

The story was published with no byline. The author—Edward Page Mitchell, a writer and editor for the Sun—was later identified by Sam Moskowitz, who collected Mitchell's many proto-sf stories from the 1870s and 1880s in The Crystal Man: Landmark Science Fiction by Edward Page Mitchell (1973). The curiosity is that rather than establishing Mitchell as a foundational figure in the field, Moskowitz's book seems merely to have afforded Mitchell a status—not unlike the ill-fated President Garfield—of little more than a historical footnote.

—Chris DeVito

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