Portugal – land of time travel?

Reverse archaeology where we’ve dug up a piece of ceramic from the Portuguese future?

I’ve noticed on several occasions that Holland has a bizarre relation with time. It’s featured in one of the first time travel pieces of fiction, there are the time travel trains, and don’t forget the extra day in June.

Now it seems that Portugal is putting in a bid to be the land of time travel. Here’s a discovery I found: one of my baking dishes…

Made in Portugal 18944

In case you missed it, here’s a zoom:

In case you missed it: MADE IN PORTUGAL 18944
In case you missed it: MADE IN PORTUGAL 18944

It seems to me like this is reverse archaeology where we’ve dug up a piece of ceramic from the future!


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Review: The Clock that went Backward by Edward Page Mitchell

The more I think about “The Clock that Went Backward” and the more times I reread it, the more frustrated I become with it. And yet at the same time – more impressed!

There’s something wrong with The Clock that Went Backward. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Turn the clock back 135 years to 18 September 1881, and you’ll find the publication of one of the first time travel stories – The Clock that Went Backward by Edward Page Mitchell.

Wikipedia informs us that it has the first instance of a temporal paradox (reference: wikipedia) as well as reminding us of the fact that it was published before H. G. Well’s more famous The Time Machine (1895) and even before Well’s (some consider, prequel ) The Chronic Argonauts (1888).



It seems bizarre to give a synposis of a short story, but here it is. And prepare yourself for a whanger of a spoiler: There’s a clock which goes backwards.

Two cousins are puzzled over a grandfather clock which belongs to their Dutch great Aunt Gertrude. It hasn’t worked since it was struck by lightning, and they are met with refusals when they offer to help with getting the clock fixed. One night they find Aunt Gertrude winding up the clock and note that it ran backwards. When it stops moving she falls to the floor and dies.

Later, when college professor Prof. van Stopp winds up the clock, time flows backwards until a ball of fire strikes the clock. The professor and the cousins find themselves in a critical period during Holland’s history in 1574; the siege of Leyden.

At this time, a breach has been made in the wall of Leyden and needs defending whilst most of the inhabitants count on good weather the following day to bring in ships with military help.

One of the cousins, Harry, saves the life of the mayor’s daughter; the other cousin returns back to his own time with Prof. van Stopp where the latter gives a lecture where he considers how the future affects the past.

Let down

On first reading I was so disappointed with The Clock that Went Backward that I had to read it again to see if I had missed anything.

I’m still not sure that I haven’t.

The title of course gives it away, so even before reading we know what’s going to happen. A clock is going to go backwards. There’s no sharing in the brothers’ mystery surrounding the clock.

And the clock’s strange behaviour causes something strange to happen – but what exactly?

No flow

The Clock that Went Backward is a short story so it needs to get the point across fairly quickly. But it doesn’t, and I blame this on the terrible way in which differing themes seem to have been crudely patched together like a dodgy cut and paste job. There’s no flow.

Each of the 5 chapters are almost stand-alone, and where one finishes on a building climax, the next drops us like sloppy jelly. For example, at the end of Chapter 3 the clock hands are spinning backwards, the house is shaking, there’s a ball of fire, dazzling light and…Chapter 4 goes straight on to describe the people of Leyden. It’s not a secondary plot line, there’s no continuity – just a jaw dropping hiatus.

So when the cousins find themselves back in 1574 we’re given a huge explanation over the siege of Leyden. Now, it’s true that I don’t like prolonged confusion of characters when they (unknowingly) travel in time, but here they just carry on and immediately start interacting with locals. It’s as if either they’re different people entirely, or that they’re the same people as in the previous chapter but are too thick to realise that things around them are different. Or that there’s a chapter missing. (Actually I checked: there isn’t).

At this stage then, there seems to be a loss of focus. What happened to the clock? Are we talking about time travel, or being in a new era with new problems?

Burgomaster van der Werf offers sword
Burgomaster van der Werf offers his sword to the people of Leiden, by Mattheus Ignatius van Bree. Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org.

Reasoning aside, we’re now in 1574 during a siege. Two events happen of note – the mayor who offers to sacrifice himself, and the battle / victory itself which hinges on a single person (as cousin Henry notes). There’s a lot of detail written in here; is this the author showcasing his research into real events during this time?

Perhaps I should be more lenient in my judgement of The Clock that Went Backward because after all, it is one of the early advocates of the time travel genre. And the time travel aspects which it incorporates are intriguing!

Time travel philosophy

As is fitting with the general writing style and theme flow of this story, time travel for the most part gets tacked on almost as an afterthought with random paragraphs wedged into the main text. But – they’re very interesting and open up the world of time travel philosophy!

This is made easier seeing as one of the characters, Professor van Stopp, is a professor of philosophy who poses many questions to the brothers.

For example, he asks why shouldn’t a clock go backwards, and goes on to ask why time itself shouldn’t also go backwards. My own question concerns that of the clock itself – is its backward movement symptomatic of time flowing backwards, or does time was flow backwards because of it?

The professor then goes on to suggest that the Earth’s rotation powers time because this is how the day is made (perhaps a precursor to Superman’s apparent ability to turn back time by causing the Earth to spin in the opposite direction?)

One of my favourite lines he gives is:

“Past, present, and future and future are woven together in one inextricable mesh.”

There are many more too, and really shouldn’t be missed!

A connection through time

The idea of bringing the past (or future) into experience as the present is brought here in its simplest form by linking the characters from one era to another. But there’s something not quite right.

It seems that – or we’re lead to believe that – some of the characters in 1574 are the same as some of those in the present; the story unravels to reveal that the heroic defender was the professor, but who was described as being the brother of the town’s mayor’s wife…and a clock maker – the same one who made the grandfather clock owned by Aunt Gertrude.

But it’s unclear, even perhaps inconsistent…

It doesn’t add up.

Professor van Stopp has “…a physical appearance similar to Aunt Gertrude”, and we’re strongly encouraged to consider that they are brother and sister. The prof points out a photo of the mayor who he considers could well be their father.

So do Gertude and van Stopp have a place in history?

Given the similarity of spelling of Gertude and Gertuyd, it seems that we’re being asked to consider that they are one and the same; a fact corroborated if we look at the dates given in Great Aunt Gertrude’s genealogy near the beginning of the novel (and drummed home to the cousins because it might be important).

Van Stopp owns one of the few houses which predates 1574 which already casts a loose net into history. Further, one of the cousins notes, when back in 1574, that the clock maker looks like van Stopp. The clock maker (note: also the maker of the clock that went backwards) is the husband of the mayor’s wife. Are van Stopp and the clock maker the same?

But here’s the problem. Is van Stopp the mayor’s brother-in-law (clock maker) – or his son (as derived from the photo)?

Likewise, is Gertrude the mayor’s daughter (Gertruyd / genealogy) or the mayor’s unnamed wife?

Gertuyd has a romantic interest with Henry (who remains behind in time). Assuming they stay together as a couple, there are more questions…

If Gertude is the mayor’s unnamed wife, then this makes Henry the Mayor (yikes – he married to his own daughter and present in time at 2 ages – sounds like something from Heinlein!). Actually, given the genealogy, he can’t be the father because Gertrude’s father was a Wiscasset shipper.

OK, so this points to Gertrude and Van Stopp not being brother and sister. Were they so in the present? There’s no mention of it.

In hindsight, the prof talking of a coincidence that the mayor looks like his father…if he was, he’d have known and not talked about it as a coincidence (or even pointed out the photo to the cousins.). This again, this is consistent with the idea that people are different in different times.

I can’t see how this hangs together…what have I misunderstood?

Open questions

There are other open questions:

  • Why does Aunt Gertrude die when the clock goes backward, but Prof van Stopp travels back in time (and back to the present again)?
  • Why were the cousins transported back in time only the second time that the clock went backwards, i.e. with the prof, and not with Gertrude?
  • Why didn’t Henry come back to the present?
  • If van Stopp is the clock maker, why didn’t he recognise the clock in the present time?
  • Summary

    The more I think about The Clock that Went Backward and the more times I reread it, the more frustrated I become with it. And yet at the same time – more impressed!

    The attention given over to the philosophical nature of time certainly places The Clock that went Backward firmly into the time travel genre and makes it worth a read to the time travel enthusiast. But I’d suggest that whilst philosophy demands open minds and thoughts, it should not be used as an excuse to not provide answers – and there are plenty of those in need in this short story.

    Indeed, I sense that many of the open questions have not been deliberately placed, but are there through inconsistency or even through error. They’re more “unanswered” than “open”.

    Despite multiple readings, I’ve still not come to understand the point of this short story. Is it the power of the clock, the siege of Leyden, the characters straddling time, or the philosophical nature of time?

    You can read it for yourself here (note: external content) – I’d be interested to know what you make of it!

    For the real version of events at the Siege of Leiden, why not take check out the webpage at Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden? Note that the museum itself it temporarily closed but will reopen in Spring 2019.


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    A tale of two Dutch cities and fractal time

    Dutch cities Zwolle and Deventer are similar in appearance but only because being removed from an age dims the fine detail. Time isn’t fractal – the pattern isn’t visible and identical at all scales.

    Take two Dutch cities…

    The Dutch cities of Zwolle and Deventer are fairly similar in appearance, having more or less the same kind of layout with the same kind of buildings and the same kind of houses. At least, they seem to be pretty much the same from this moment in time, and this is arguably down to their similar age and in part down to their shared history.

    Dutch cities 1: Deventer
    Map of Deventer by Willem and Joan Blaeu, 1652

    (Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deventer#History)

    Dutch cities 2: Zwolle
    Map of Zwolle by Joan Blaeu in Blaeu’s “Toonneel der Steden”, 1652

    (Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwolle#History)

    A lesson from history?

    But when all is said and done, who gives a monkey’s about their history? Is it fair to say that history has had it’s time and that now it belongs in the past? Surely the present is what’s important, it’s now. Now is when we see the detail. Now is when we shape the future. Right?

    Time heals. Or smears, or covers subtle differences. Back in those historical days, those cities are likely to have been perceived as very different from each other. If you lived there back in the 9th century you’d have probably been able to tell the differences apart far more easily.

    But get closer – really get into those Dutch cities, walk the streets and meet the people, the differences – internal and external – become clearer; you can probably tell by the way someone speaks, dresses or behaves which city they come from, for example, or even from which side of it.

    The important differences I see from the viewpoint of today are practical – which Dutch city can I drive to and find a parking place most easily? And how much is the town council going to charge me to park there?

    Using the knowledge that Zwolle has a history of being tight with money (See the “Blauwefingers” section on Wikipedia), for example, would be insanely prejudiced. But on the other hand, knowing that Deventer takes pride in its history to the extent that it’s often used as a filming location (reference Wikipedia) might make it a place well worth a visit.

    Ultimately the fact remains that history is, in some ways and to varying degrees of relevance, important.

    A comparison with age

    When I was 17 I had a part time job in a petrol station. It was easy for me to tell who was over or under 16 and to whom to serve cigarettes. My older colleagues found it difficult – as too so would I now, being much older.

    Middle age

    When we were young children, old people pretty much looked the same. You know, where ‘old’ is above 5 years old. As we got older that threshold increased. Anyone above their teens, where boys had stubbles and girls had breasts, were ‘old’. Then there were grown up adults who had jobs who were ‘old’, and so on till pension age and beyond.

    Then before we knew it, an additional threshold had formed – one where younger people look and behave the same. All babies “look like Winston Churchill”. All toddlers “scream and wet themselves”. All teenagers (including 15 and 16 year olds trying to buy cigarettes) “find everything unfair, hate their parents” – and so on.

    Within our own age group there’s more distinction. I’m growing up. A young adult. Middle aged. Nearing retirement. There’s more resolution from the moment of now – which differs from the case of the two Dutch cities where “now” needs to be in the past.

    Being removed from an age dims the fine detail; being in it increases that resolution. Time isn’t fractal – the pattern isn’t visible and identical at all scales.

    Do differences matter?

    This is the paradox – that whereas understanding history and seeing the similarities and differences between cities is interesting, the lack of resolution between (or within) age groups is disturbing.

    I overheard a sad conversation on the train a few mornings ago. Now admittedly my Dutch may not be completely up to par but this is what I (think I ) overheard. A couple were talking about their grandmothers. Apparently one had died at 60-something whereas another had just celebrated her 94th birthday. In true Dutch style of directness this difference was summed up as “Ja, dat kan.” (“Yes, this can happen.”).

    The underlying but unspoken thought was that after a certain age people are old and can be expected to pop their clogs at any given moment. Yes. It can happen.

    In relative terms the difference between a 60 year old and a 94 year old is moot; but in absolute terms we’re talking here of 34 years! Can we really be so quick to dismiss 34 years of life? That’s about the age of the lady who said this (as far as I can tell…)

    Both the young and the old (quantify those adjectives for yourself! ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) seem to agree that those differences don’t matter – indeed, the young and the old seem to share the same fascination with age. I’m four and a half!. (Said with pride). “I’m eighty eight and still going”! (Proudly). Maybe it’s to do with position on the Gaussian hill of age distribution. I dare you to ask the 39 year old how old she is. (I suspect a pursed lip and “…under forty”.)

    At the same time, being young or old means being in the age groups where there is most temporal blurring for other age groups!


    My feeling is this: Now is important, even when it was in the past. Just as now shapes tomorrow, the past shaped today – and today’s (usually) our starting point!

    After all – wouldn’t you want your actions today to have some meaning for the future? I’m sure the historical folk of the Dutch cities of Deventer and Zwolle would feel / have felt the same way!


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    April becomes shorter

    I don’t know what to say. Time dilation from the speed of my train? Some sort of marketing gimmick? A Dutch national conspiracy, or more proof of the connection between Holland and time travel?

    Sign seen from my train window (Translation: “April gets shorter by a minute”)

    April gets shorter by a minute
    April gets shorter by a minute

    I don’t know what to say. Time dilation from the speed of my train? Some sort of marketing gimmick? A Dutch national conspiracy, or more proof of the connection between Holland and time travel?


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    January: a time to look forward or backward?

    The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus. Janus has two faces – one which faces forwards and the other faces behind. In January we look forward to the new year, but also take time to look back over the year that has been. In a platonic kind of a way, would our memories and desires be selective?

    Janus – God of Beginnings

    The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus. Janus has two faces – one which faces forwards and the other faces behind.

    Janus: God of Beginnings
    Janus: God of Beginnings. Image courtesy: www.rense.com/general92/janus.htm

    A bi-directional outlook

    January is at the start of the year, the time to look forward to the new year ahead, but also the time when you look back at the year that has been. (You know this from all of those endless best of year lists…)

    I’m more of a night owl than a morning person. I prefer to cower under the quilt in warmth and fear of the day ahead. But once I’m up and about and had time to get my body clock accustomed to the local time and I’m busy with doing things, I’m really motivated and enthusiastic in what I do.

    And I think it’s a bit the same moving from the daily to the yearly time scale; I don’t like the new year celebrations.

    I love Christmas and I spend a long time looking forward to it. In January when Christmas is over there is nothing much new to look forward to – just cold weather (although sometimes winter time can be a good thing).

    A cultural perspective

    The Dutch celebration of the new year (or “oude-nieuwe” – “old-new” – as they call it) is quite different from the new year’s eve parties in England. In England we celebrate from say 8 or 9 o’clock to the midnight hour and then on into the new year.

    In Holland the party doesn’t start until about 11:30 pm so it seems that the celebration is more to do with the arrival of the new year rather than the farewell of the old. That said, fireworks in Holland are ignited from around 8 p.m. and go on till 4 in the morning, whereas in England they are let off on the hour and go on for a duration in accordance with the size of the firework box.

    Fireworks, apparently, follow a different timing schedule than the party-goers!

    A comparison with nature

    Looking forwards or backwards in time is strictly a 1D approach where time flows along a linear axis. In the Earth sciences we commonly undertake statistical measures to describe various transient phenomenon. ‘Playing’ with the time axis is a common approach – for example, the “yearly monthly mean” which looks at the mean value in several Januaries over several years.

    This is still linear, but in a selective fashion.

    I can’t help wondering whether our memories of the past or our desires for the future work in a similar way…


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    The Dutch Masters of Time

    Holland. Well known for being flat, tulips, clogs, windmills and bicycles. Now add hideous table clothes and a strange idea of the English calendar!

    We know and love Holland (or “the Netherlands” as the locals would have you call it) for its tulips, clogs, windmills and bicycles. And for being flat.

    In an earlier post I asked What is it with Holland and time travel? Indeed, I have even witnessed time travel here, to a certain extent. Perhaps!

    Holland now presents to us a new view on time, or at least our marking of its passage. A couple of days ago I saw this rack of table cloths outside a shop called “Marskramer” (“Peddlar”). It’s basically a bric-a-brac kind of a shop which sells…well. Table clothes for one thing.

    "June 31" :  The Dutch idea of the English calendar?
    “31 June” : The Dutch idea of the English calendar?

    Much as I hate this mnemonic, it does come to mind…

    “Thirty days hath September, April, June…”

    Well maybe we can forgive our Dutch friends for their strange idea of the English calendar (if not for their hideous taste in table cloths). The author of the novel The Go Between, L. P. Hartley, noted the following:

    “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley.

    I think the same applies for Holland; Holland is a foreign country, and they do things very differently here.

    Take counting. You know, like you might count the days in the month, for example ๐Ÿ˜‰ Cavemen counted with stones, my 2 year old can manage up to 8 (she must be a computer!), so counting can’t be that tough can it?

    Let’s take 123

    English: “One hundred and twenty three.”
    Hundreds, tens, units. Simple and logical. Easy as, literally, 1, 2, 3.

    Dutch: “One hundred, three and twenty.”
    Hundreds, units then back in the middle to tens. It’s all over the place. Easy as…1, 3, 2?

    Then take 123,456

    English: “one hundred and twenty three thousand, four hundred and fifty six.”

    Dutch: “one hundred, three and twenty thousand, four hundred six and fifty.”
    1, 3, 2, 4, 6, 5

    (Oh yes. And there’s the use of a comma in place of a decimal point!)

    And telling the time. This was possible as early as 1500 BC with sundials (source: Wikipedia.) So it shouldn’t be complicated, right?

    Ha! In Dutch, “Half two” means “half one”. It’s an optimistic outlook where the Dutch look forward ‘two’ the hour rather than back to the ‘one’ that’s passed. (See what I did there?! ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

    It’s really tricky to remember 10 minutes later when it’s embedded in a string:

    English: “twenty to two”

    Dutch: “ten past half two”

    Are we going backwards or forwards here? Is the big hand going 10 minutes past the 6, or forward to the 2? Who knows?

    I think the Dutch are surely they are the true masters of time – they’ve even come up with an extra day in June!


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    Dating for Geeks

    Dating for Geeks cartoon strip asks: What would you like most if you were like Marty McFly in Back to the Future?

    I found this cartoon in a Dutch newspaper (“Spits”) on the train this morning (click to enlarge). Dating for Geeks…with an ounce of time travel! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Dating for Geeks
    Courtesy: www.spitsnieuwes.nl

    And the loose translation into English is:

    – What would you like most if you were like Marty McFly in Back to the Future?

    – A time machine? A hover board? Shoes that tie their own laces?
    – Hmm, no…

    – I would like to choose something that in real life I would never get…
    – What’s that then?

    – A girlfriend.

    Actually, it’s not that funny is it? I’m feeling sorry for him…

    Then again, it seems as though the hover board and the self tying shoes might soon become a reality…so there’s hope yet for our geeky friend! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Hoverboard as in Back to the Future II set to become a reality!
    Courtesy: aliencyborgs.com/back-to-the-future-hoverboards-finally

    self tying shoes
    Courtesy: refinedgeekery.com/2014/03/04/is-this-hoverboard-video-real/


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    Some time in Holland

    What is it with Holland and time travel?

    A lot of people think that the first time travel novel is The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, published in 1895.

    Aside from the fuzzy logistics of what “being first” really means in time travel, the above statement is incorrect. Indeed, H.G. Wells had already published a short story called The Chronic Argonauts in 1888, thus scoring an own-goal in beating himself to the title of First Time Travel Author.

    A little less self-plagiaristic is The Clock That Went Backward, a short story by Edward Page Mitchell which was published in 1881, and as far as I can tell, the ‘first’ piece of fiction involving time travel.

    I’ll get round to reviewing it later, but the point I wanted to make is that the story is set in Holland; a small country with a complicated language. I can’t help but wonder why Holland was chosen as the setting for this ground-breaking piece of work!

    Yes it’s true…the time2timetravel HQ is situated in Holland too, where if you search hard, you can end up in some pretty quirky places!

    Dutch Clock
    “Dutch Clock”. Fancy one on your wall? Image courtesy: clockmasterinc.com

    And there is the “Dutch clock”. I wasn’t even aware there was such a thing until they kept popping in in various novels I’ve been reading, and here was a surprise…that the picture of a clock face used as a header on this site is actually of a Dutch clock…although I hadn’t realised it when I took the picture!

    (Rather ironic…I live in Holland, and took this picture of a Dutch clock during a holiday in France!)

    I don’t have a picture of the above clock in all of it’s full Dutch chronological glory (…in France ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) but descriptively it could be described as a short and stumpy wall mounted grandfather clock. Or at least, one with its legs cut off (see image, right).

    Given the story line of The Clock that went Backward irony again hits us in the face, in that there is a Dutch saying that the Dutch people are tall so that if the sea dikes break then they can keep their heads above the water.

    Tall people, short clocks. But I guess they are not the only ones short on time!


    Time to eat

    Some time ago I took a short break to Texel – one of the Wadden Sea Islands off the coast of Holland.

    Quite by chance (or so I thought…) I ended up in a cafe called “De Tijd” (“The Time”).

    Pancake cafe "De Tijd"
    Pancake cafe “De Tijd”

    The walls were absolutely plastered with clocks! The waitress told me that they were all gifts, donated by patrons over the years. Now (sadly) there is not enough wall space for the tradition to continue, but instead notebooks lie on each table for visitors to jot down any thoughts they might have (regarding the food they’re eating, where they’ve come from, etc.).

    wall of clocks
    wall of clocks…with yours truly!

    Above my head in the shot above is a plaque with a poem, “De Tijd”

    Dutch Time Poem "De Tijd"
    Dutch Time Poem “De Tijd”

    Here’s the translation (thanks to google translate…my own Dutch isn’t up to the task!):

    Whatever one does, the time passes
    though it does not, time passes
    whether they are impoverished or enriched
    uitslooft themselves or sailing stroke
    been doing it wrong, though it does well
    ‘t they awake or asleep, and nothing suspect
    yes, which one also gets rid of
    elapses from the time, time!!!

    And talking of things above my head (and I’m talking quite literally here!) did I mention that the ceiling space was also used as efficiently as the wall space?

    Ceiling of watches
    Ceiling of watches

    And what of the food? It was served on plates like this, which get a thumbs up from me for not displaying the annoyingly presumptiously happy ten-to-two (or ten-past-ten…)

    Dinner time!
    Dinner time!

    Whilst we were waiting for the food to be prepared, my wife reminded me that we’d been here the previous year. I’d forgotten all about it! We were having about to have a ‘Deja Eat’!

    So my wife as reliving her past I was living the present, and as the food was brought in, served on a time-plate, I couldn’t help thinking of Plato (sorry…! ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) and his wish to remember the future.

    Maybe we’ll be back next year…but I can’t remember!