H. G. Wells

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H. G. Wells at the door of his house at Sandgate

Herbert George Wells (September 21, 1866August 13, 1946) was a British writer best known for his science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine.



Early life

Herbert George was the fourth and last son born at 57 The High Street, Bromley to Joseph Wells, a former domestic gardener and at the time shopkeeper and professional cricketer and his wife Sarah Neal, a former domestic servant and occasional housekeeper. Both parents were members of the working class. They were earning a meagre income that helped support their family for several years.

A defining incident of young Herbert George's life is said to be an accident he had in 1874 when he was eight years old. The accident left him for a time with a broken leg. To spend his time he started reading and soon became a devoted bibliophile. Later that year he entered the Academy of Thomas Morley, presumably named after Thomas Morley (1557/15581602) a noted composer of madrigals. He studied in the Academy until 1879. But in 1877 another accident had affected his life. This time it had happened to his father, leaving Joseph Wells with a fractured thigh. The accident effectively put an end to Joseph's career as a cricketer, and his earnings as a shopkeeper were not enough to compensate for the loss.

No longer able to support their sons financially, they instead sought to set each of them as apprentices to various professionals. At the time it was a usual method for young employees to learn their trade working under a more experienced employer. In time they should be able to practice their trade for themselves. From 1880 to 1883 Herbert George had an unhappy apprenticeship as a draper. His experiences were later used as inspiration for his novel Kipps, which described the life of a draper's apprentice while also being a critique of the world's distribution of wealth. During those years he was a well-known resident of Sandgate.


In 1883 his employer dismissed him, claiming to be dissatisfied with him. The young man was reportedly not displeased with this ending to his apprenticeship. Later that year, he became a teacher at Midhurst Grammar school, until he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science, now part of Imperial College) in London, studying biology under T. H. Huxley. As an alumnus, he later helped to set up the Royal College of Science Association, of which he became the first president in 1909. Herbert George studied in his new school until 1887 with an allowance of 21 shillings a week thanks to his scholarship.

He soon entered the Debating Society of his school. These years mark the beginning of his interest in a possible reformation of society. At first approaching the subject through studying The Republic by Plato, he soon turned to his contemporary ideas of socialism as expressed by the recently formed Fabian Society. He was also among the founders of "The Science School Journal", a school magazine which allowed him to express his views on literature and society. The school year 18861887 became the last year of his studies. Having previously successfully passed his exams in both biology and physics, his lack of interest in geology resulted in his failure to pass and the loss of his scholarship.

Herbert George was left without a source of income for a while. His aunt Mary, a cousin of his father, invited him to stay with her for a while, so at least he did not face the problem of housing. During his stay with his aunt, he grew interested in her daughter, Isabel Mary Wells, his cousin.

In 1891 Wells married Isabel, but left her after a couple of years; and in 1895 he married Amy Catherine Robbins, one of his students. His second marriage lasted considerably longer.

Game Designer

Seeking a more structured way to play with toy soldiers, H.G. Wells wrote Little Wars - recognized today as the first recreational wargame. He is regarded by gamers and hobbyists as "the Father of Miniature Wargaming."


Wells' first bestseller was Anticipations, published in 1901. Perhaps his most explicitly futuristic work, it bore the subtitle "An Experiment in Prophecy" when originally serialized in a magazine. The book is interesting both for its hits (trains and cars resulting in the dispersion of population from cities to suburbs; moral restrictions declining as men and women seek greater sexual freedom) and its misses ("my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea.")

His early novels, called "scientific romances", invented a number of themes now classic in science fiction in such works as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds and are often thought of as being influenced by the works of Jules Verne. He also wrote other, non-fantastic novels which have received critical acclaim, including the satire on Edwardian advertising Tono-Bungay and Kipps.

Though not a science-fiction novel, radioactive decay plays a small but consequential role in Tono-Bungay. It plays a much larger role in The World Set Free (1914). This book contains what is surely his biggest prophetic "hit." Scientists of the day were well aware that the natural decay of radium releases energy at a slow rate for thousands of years. The rate of release is too slow to have practical utility, but the total amount released is huge. Wells' novel revolves around an (unspecified) invention that accelerates the process of radioactive decay, producing bombs that explode with no more than the force of ordinary high explosive— but which "continue to explode" for days on end. "Nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier twentieth century," he wrote, "than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible... [but] they did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands." Le Szilrd acknowledged that the book inspired him to theorize the nuclear chain reaction.

Wells also wrote nonfiction. His classic two-volume work The Outline of History (1920) set a new standard and direction for popularised scholarship. Many other authors followed with 'Outlines' of their own in other subjects. Wells followed it in 1922 by a much shorter popular work, A Short History of the World. The 'Outlines' became sufficiently common for James Thurber to parody the trend in his humorous essay An Outline of Scientists.

From quite early in his career, he sought a better way to organize society, and wrote a number of Utopian novels. Usually starting with the world rushing to catastrophe, until people realize a better way of living: whether by mysterious gases from a comet causing people to behave rationally (In the Days of the Comet), or a world council of scientists taking over, as in The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which he later adapted for the 1938 Alexander Korda film, Things to Come. This depicted, all too accurately, the impending World War, with cities being destroyed by aerial bombs.

Missing image
H. G. Wells in 1943

Wells contemplates the ideas of Nature vs Nurture and questions humanity in books like The Island of Dr. Moreau. Not all his scientific romances ended in a happy Utopia, as the dystopian When the Sleeper Awakes shows. The Island of Dr. Moreau is even darker. The narrator, having been trapped on an island of animals vivisected (unsuccessfully) into human beings, eventually returns to England; like Gulliver on his return from the Houyhnhnms he finds himself unable to shake off the perceptions of his fellow humans as barely civilised beasts, slowly reverting back to their animal natures.

He called his political views socialist, and with his fondness for Utopia, he was at first quite sympathetic to Lenin's attempts at reconstructing the shattered Russian economy, as his account of a visit (Russia in the Shadows 1920) shows. But he grew disillusioned at the doctrinal rigidity of the Bolsheviks, and after meeting Stalin grew convinced the whole enterprise had gone horribly wrong.1

Wells also wrote the preface for the first edition of W. N. P. Barbellion's diaries, The Journal of a Disappointed Man, published in 1919. Since Barbellion was the real author's pen-name, many reviewers believed Wells to have been the true author of the Journal; Wells always denied this, despite being full of praise for the diaries, but the rumours persisted until Barbellion's death later that year.

In 1927, Florence Deeks sued Wells for plagiarism, claiming that he had stolen much of the content of The Outline of History from a work she had submitted to Macmillan & Sons, his North American publisher, but who held onto the manuscript for eight months before rejecting it. Despite numerous similarities in phrasing and factual errors, the court found Wells not guilty.

In 1938, he published a collection of essays on the future organization of knowledge and education, titled World Brain, including the essay The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia.

Near the end of the Second World War Allied forces discovered that the SS had compiled lists of intellectuals and politicians slated for immediate liquidation upon the invasion of England in the abandoned Operation Sea Lion. The name “H.G. Wells” appeared high on the list for the "crime" of being a socialist.

In his later years, he grew increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for humanity (mostly because of the Second World War) as the title of his last book, Mind at the End of its Tether suggests. His later books are often thought to do more preaching than storytelling or lack the energy and invention of his earlier works. One critic complained: "He sold his birthright for a pot of message" 2

His last words were, "I'm all right".

H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells


In his lifetime and after his death, Wells was considered a prominent socialist thinker. In his book The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek, one of the twentieth century's most famous libertarians, held up Wells as an example of the idealist intellectuals who believed in "the most comprehensive central planning" and could "at the same time, write an ardent defense of the rights of man". 3 In later years, however, Wells image has shifted and he is now thought of simply as one of the pioneers of science fiction; Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and staunch Republican, praised Wells in his book To Renew America, writing "Our generation is still seeking its Jules Verne or H.G. Wells to dazzle our imaginations with hope and optimism". 4

Appearances in other contexts

H. G. Wells appears as a character in the Doctor Who serial Timelash.

He also appears as a character in the novel and motion picture Time After Time.

He also appears as a character in multiple episodes of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

The novel The Time Ships, by British author Stephen Baxter, was designated by the Wells estate as an authorised sequel to The Time Machine, marking the centenary of its publication, and features characters, situations and technobabble from several of Wells' stories, as well as a representation of Wells (unnamed, and referred to as 'my friend, the Author'.)


A partial listing of his works: (Entries marked with an * are available at the Project Gutenberg website.)

His autobiography was published in 1934, as An Experiment in Autobiography.


  1. For examples of his contemporaries' willful disregard of the failings of the Soviet Union, see the book Political Pilgrims by Paul Hollander.
  2. The "pot of message" remark comes from a Theodore Sturgeon short story from 1948 entitled Unite and Conquer, a character in the story was quoting a "Dr. Pierce".
  3. Hayek, Freidrich. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944 (1994 edition). p. 94.
  4. Gingrich, Newt. To Renew America. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. p. 189.


External links

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