Writing Prompt: Time Travel to 1750
“All rise!” The bailiff’s shout announced the arrival of Judge Miller, ruler of Delaware’s small court.
Bill Demidov stood among people wearing everything from moth-eaten suits to threadbare rags. The judge, a short man in a long powdered wig, entered and sat. Bill swallowed his nervousness. It wasn’t every day you filed a patent application that changed your life.
To his left, a woman in soot-stained clothes coughed into a handkerchief. Behind him, Bill sensed workers from the factories and canneries eying his fine clothes and judging him. Thinking him soft.
He was not soft. All these people had to deal with was other immigrants and low wages. They had never labored under a hot sun on an island farming camp.
“Be seated!” the bailiff boomed, and Bill sat with the others in a massive creaking of seats.
The courtroom was drafty, the windows frosted. To Bill, the very idea of “cold” was bizarre — in his time, the tiny islands remaining on Earth no longer experienced “cold” — but he knew he didn’t like it. Cold was annoying. It chewed on your skin and made your insides hurt.
If all went right today, he would never return to the cramped working islands of 2182. People presented claims as Bill toyed with his pocketwatch that wasn’t a pocketwatch. The reason he was here.
Two tenants accused each other of stealing firewood. One man accused another of misrepresenting the age of a packhorse who dropped dead. A woman in fine clothes claimed another stole her prize hunting dog. Through it all, Judge Miller listened, questioned, and dispensed justice.
Before the judge got to his case, Bill heard the double doors at the back of the courtroom creak open. He turned with many others to evaluate the newcomer. Who was coming into the courtroom late?
It was a tall, thin man with gold-rimmed glasses and a fancy suit. He eyed those in the room like one would eye a paddock of growcows, then sat on the edge of a bench. Probably some rich man’s lawyer.
“Bill Garrison!” The bailiff’s voice boomed. “Approach the bench!”
Bill stood. This was the day he finalized his patent application, the single most important event in his sad life. He couldn’t screw this up, could he? The patent was reviewed and approved. This was a formality.
Bill approached the bench clutching his own small suitcase. All he had to do was present the paperwork and get the judge to approve it, and then he would have his patent. He would finally be rich.
“You have your paperwork in order?” Miller asked.
“Yes, your honor,” Bill said, reaching for his briefcase.
“Ah, uh, excuse me.” The man with the gold-rimmed glasses stood. “May I approach?”
“Why?” Miller sounded bored.
“My client, a Mister Franklin of Philadelphia, wishes to contest the patent filed by Bill Garrison.”
Bill’s heart sank. How was this possible? How had Franklin even learned he was here?
“Approach,” Miller said. “This might actually be interesting.”
“Your honor,” Bill started, but Miller raised a hand to shush him.
“Your name,” Miller demanded.
“Thomas File, sir.”
“Why are you in my court today, Mister File?”
“It is my contention,” File said, narrowing his eyes behind his thick lenses, “that Bill Garrison, a former employee of Mister Franklin’s, stole Mister Franklin’s work.”
“Now hold on!” Bill said, as that was ludicrous. “I never worked for Benjamin Franklin.” Two years in this muddy backward time was more than enough. “I’ve never even met him. Whatever this man claims—”
“Mister Franklin has been researching his pointed lightning rod conductor for more than four years,” File said, “and I have correspondence dating back to 1746. You first filed your patent in 1748, did you not?”
“Still filed before you,” Bill said, his stubborn streak kicking in. “If anyone stole anything, he stole my idea.” That was almost true.
File opened his briefcase. “Your honor, here is a diagram Mister Franklin drew for his invention. Note the date and details.”
The bailiff passed the document to Miller, who squinted and frowned. “What is this, a weathervane?”
“It’s a lightning rod!” Bill said, because he couldn’t let this frustrating little man steal his idea — or rather, his idea to steal this idea. “It protects buildings from lightning by channeling it to the ground, instead!”
“If you would kindly compare Mister Franklin’s diagram to that provided by Mister Garrison,” File said.
“What?” Bill frowned at him.
“You will find them identical,” File said.
For the first time, Bill smiled. This man was just making things up! The lightning rod design was his own — he had drawn it based on designs on the worker tents — which meant File had no case.
“That’s completely untrue.” Bill opened his briefcase and produced his diagrams. “If you’ll review my design, your honor, you’ll clearly see … that…”
Bill stared at the papers. The papers that weren’t his papers. These were Benjamin Franklin’s originals.
What were they doing in his briefcase?
The bailiff plucked the papers from his hands before Bill could do anything more than gawk.
“Now wait a minute,” Bill said, but Miller was already comparing. “Your honor, those aren’t mine!”
“That’s obvious,” Miller said, shaking his head. “Next time you steal your boss’s idea, Mister Garrison, you might consider blotting out the initials.”
“But I didn’t—”
“Your patent claim is denied.” Miller hammered his gavel. “Mister File, are you bringing charges?”
“No, your honor,” File said.
“You sure?” Miller looked dubious. “Didn’t he steal your client’s design?”
“In my client’s opinion, justice has been served.” File closed his briefcase and bowed his head.
“Very well,” Miller said. He glanced at his bailiff. “Next case!”
Bill hurried after File, who was already leaving. He caught up with the man outside the courtroom, grabbing his arm. “How did you do that?”
File pulled his arm away. “Do what, Mister Garrison?”
“How did you sneak those papers into my briefcase?”
Gradually, File’s flat face curved into a satisfied smile. “You really should be more careful with your things, Mister Demidov.” He produced a silver pocketwatch that wasn’t a pocketwatch. A pocketwatch just like Bill’s.
Bill gasped as the man used his real name. “You’re from…” He lowered his voice. “The future?”
“Did you really think you could steal from one of the most well-known personalities of the 1700s?”
“He stole the lightning rod design from my ancestor!” Bill said, standing up straight. “Akinfiy Demidov designed the lightning rod years before Franklin filed his patent!”
“You can’t change the timeline because Benjamin Franklin beat your ancestor to court.”
“But he stole the design first!” Garrison said. “Who sent you?”
“Who do you think sent me?”
“No one knows how to build time machines! I only developed the design two years ago!”
“And your first action, having invented time travel, was to try to conduct patent fraud?”
Bill grimaced. “It was a first step! Did you steal my design?”
“Your design,” File said, “was uncovered in 2294, over one hundred years after you mysteriously escaped from your island work camp.” File opened a pocketwatch with luminous numbers and dials that looked much nicer than Bill’s own, primitive time machine. “We have, of course, made improvements.”
“But how?” Bill demanded. “I only left two years ago!”
“You must understand, Mister Garrison, that once time travel was invented, the concept of ‘years’ became irrelevant. Once we could defend the timestream, we would always defend the timestream.”
“What do you mean, defend the timestream?”
“Two-hundred forty years after you invented your device, President Ivanapolos founded the Bureau of Time Management to stop plots just like yours. Our experts believe tampering with the established timeline is simply too dangerous.”
“People know I designed a time machine?” Perhaps his fortune could be made in the future, not the past. “I’m famous?” Bill felt hope again.
“Your name is now taught in all orbital universities. You are known across the solar system, Mister Demidov, as the inventor of time travel.”
Bill couldn’t believe it. “Am I rich in the future?” Could this all be true?
“No, Mister Demidov.” File clicked his pocketwatch. “You are in jail.”
Bill blinked. “Huh?”
“Timestream tampering is punishable by life in prison,” File said, and that’s when the world dissolved.
When it returned, Bill’s word was a small cell with a soft-looking bed, a tiny window overlooking a blue planet covered in water, and a single metal toilet. Bill’s pocketwatch was gone. So was Mister File.
“Wait a minute!” Bill shouted. “You can’t do this to me! I’m the inventor of time travel!”
Vents hissed as gas filled the room, and then Bill didn’t feel upset. He felt happy. His little white cell was the best little white cell in the world.
He settled on his bed, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. He dreamed of warm skies and open seas. For the first time since he’d been born, he was content.
He forgot all about his time machine.
About the Story:
I’ve actually never written a time travel story due to the glaring scientific problems with it, not the least of which is the Earth, its solar system, and everything else moves in space, so most time travel stories would end up with you sucking vacuum. Historical fiction is one of my least favorite genres, soinitially, I wasn’t excited about this month’s theme at all. However, after toying with time travel plots, I did like the idea of someone using time travel to file a patent application before the original owner. It was silly and petty enough that I hadn’t seen it elsewhere, and then I just needed to find a patent.
After doing some cursory Google research on inventions patented near 1750, I came across the history of the “pointed lightning rod conductor” and the various claims about it’s inventor (whether Afinfiy Demidov or Benjamin Franklin came up with the idea first or independently) and found the perfect subject for my patent claim. Obviously, I’m sure this story is rife with historical inaccuracies (another reason I don’t write historical fiction often is because I am lazy :p) but I hope it was entertaining nonetheless.
Photo Credit: Tadie88 <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/68748051@N06/32742605572″>26.01.17 Flash Gun..</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>