The book opens on the narrator at a dinner party of well-educated, upper-class professionals and specialists, including his friend, an eminent scientist whom he calls the Time Traveller. The Time Traveller is describing to his guests principles of science and math, including the notion that time (or “duration”) is a traversable dimension just like length or width. This builds up to an explanation of how time travel might be possible. The assembled guests react with skepticism and excitement, finally demanding that the Time Traveller prove to them that he has actually created a mechanism for traveling in time.
The opening introduces scientific and mathematical concepts that don’t themselves add up to explaining how time travel is possible, but are meant to give readers a taste of the complexity of the concept. By highlighting the intellect and ambition of the Time Traveller, Wells is deliberately setting up a contrast to the humanlike species of the future who have degenerated almost past recognition. It’s important to note, too, the social class of the assembled guests. The Time Traveller, an important scientist, is wealthy, successful, and well-educated, and so are his guests. This implicates the Time Traveller in the class-related violence that the book will soon explore.
The Time Traveller goes to his laboratory and returns with a small model of a machine made of metal and ivory. The group of dinner guests examines it to be sure it’s not a trick, and the Time Traveller points out that one of the bars is glimmering as though it is only partially there. The Time Traveller points to a lever and says that when he presses it the machine will disappear into the future. A skeptical guest insists that he depress the lever himself, and when he does, the machine disappears. The only person not stunned is the Time Traveller.
Here, Wells imagines a scenario that could begin to overcome an educated person’s doubts about time travel. This underscores that the Time Traveller’s guests are educated and skeptical, but it also is a rhetorical device to allow the reader to suspend his or her own disbelief. In addition, the notion of testing a model time machine in public resonates with the Time Traveller’s consistent commitment to the scientific process. He is always testing his ideas and then readjusting them to fit what happens, just like the scientific method.
The Time Traveller then reveals that he has nearly finished building a life-size version of the model in his laboratory, and that it will allow him to make his own voyage in time. He leads the still-skeptical guests to his laboratory, where they observe a larger version of the machine that just disappeared. Despite the machine parts, blueprints, and the spectacle they have just witnessed, the guests still seem not to believe the Time Traveller, who swears that he has never been more serious about anything in his life.
Even though a reader is not likely to believe in the possibility of time travel, Wells’ choice to have the dinner guests remain skeptical of the endeavor encourages readers to be on the Time Traveller’s side, which is essential to their emotional investment in the book. It’s also notable that the Time Traveller seems unconcerned that his guests don’t believe him. As a scientist, he is not interested in convincing people—he wants to show them proof, which he’s confident he can do soon.