The problem James Watt had was that the steam engine sitting before him seemed to be able to do everything you could possibly want an engine to do. Everything he had tried to run with it had been totally successful. It was all a bit boring, actually. All the explosions from the original experimental versions were in the past and now he finally had a working engine. There was nothing else he could do to improve it and it had begun to be put to use in all sorts of machines. All that was left was to find something else to work on to occupy his mind.
"Are you still here? I thought you'd have been down the pub by now."
James glanced over his shoulder to find Matthew Boulton approaching, fellow inventor and partner-in-crime. So to speak. They'd met some years back and become firm friends. Indeed, without Boulton's help, the steam engine couldn't have been finished.
"I have a figment of an idea, Boulton. I just cannot work out what it might be. Some application of this steam engine that would be so astronomically amazing I cannot quite believe I have thought of it. Perhaps some ale will allow it to emerge," James said.
"Let's be off then. Erasmus is waiting for us," Matthew said, wrapping an arm around his shoulder.
The pub was packed, as usual. Matthew and James made their way to the room at the back where they usually met the rest of the Lunar Society. Joseph Wright had already started offering to paint murals on the pub walls again, determined to make them just a little prettier than the drab grey-brown they currently were. Having acquired some ale, they sat down with their friends.
After a considerable quantity of alcohol was consumed, James felt his idea was ready to test out on his friends, and he stood up, gesturing for them to be quiet.
"Esteemed gentlemen, please, I wish to engage your most intelligent minds for a moment. Behold, I have though of a grand idea. It is possibly the most fantastic thing I have ever thought of, or possibly the daftest, but I feel I should run it by you just to make sure I have not made any errors in my reasoning. Even I cannot believe what I have discovered, but I trust you will not allow me to proceed if my reasoning is flawed. Gentlemen, in inventing the steam engine, I have discovered something incredible. I cannot fathom how or why it has come about, but it is so incredibly important I cannot bear to leave it alone. Gentlemen, I propose nothing short of a machine that can travel back and forth in time! I must work out the precise mechanism, but I am confident there is potential here that will fundamentally alter the course of English history if it succeeds. Is it not the daftest idea I have ever thought of? I am quite sure it is. Convince me I should not begin tomorrow on the work required to build such a daft machine. I have half a plan in my head. I think it might just work," James said.
Matthew could not help laughing, and neither could the rest of their friends. And yet, as James detailed his theories, the laughing slowly ceased, and James' proposal seemed more than just daft meanderings. Even Erasmus could find no fault in his logic, if what he had observed was indeed true.
Every Lunatic left the pub that night with a grand headache that hadn't been caused by the alcohol they'd drunk. If James could produce a working machine, a working machine that could travel through time, well, the ramifications of that would be ...
And that was what triggered the headaches. Imagining what they could do with such a machine had driven them into something of a frenzy and no one could quite agree on what should be done with it first. James decided it was a very good thing that he had not yet built such a machine yet; as a theoretical concept, it was more than enough for his friends. He could only imagine the disagreements should he ever confront them with a working model.
In spite of his concerns, James began work on the time machine the next day, as he'd said he would. He did not tell anyone, particularly anyone outside of the Lunar Society, what he was working on. If anyone else should get wind of it, he may find himself in a lot of trouble. Travelling through time was akin to blasphemy. Devil's magic. James proceeded, undaunted.
Three years passed before James and Matthew had finished their work. The machine stood before them, gleaming and proud, waiting to be tested. It looked like a boiler, though if one looked inside, they would find it was nothing of the sort. Copper was the only metal that seemed to work, and so the machine had been built out of it. The chamber had six seats in it so the occupants could sit down while the machine took them to their destination. The centre of the room contained the control panel where the date could be set and the machine activated. The only thing left to do was get inside and try it out, just to see where it would take them.
At five in the morning on June the second, the first test was to begin. Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly, and their friend Joseph Wright of Derby, climbed into the machine with James and Matthew. It took half an hour to decide which year they should like to travel to in this first instance. The year 1970 was chosen, if only because it was the only one everyone could agree on. There was no rationale, apart from seeing what the 20th century was like. They formulated all manner of wild ideas as James programmed the machine.
"Alright, my friends, let's see where she'll take us," James said gleefully as he powered on the machine.
There was a gradual whirring sound as gears began turning. A rumble shook the chamber for several minutes. It was only when the chamber stopped that James indicated they may have arrived at their destination.
There were small windows in the chamber, nothing more than small portholes, but nothing could be seen outside of them apart from darkness and vegetation. With nothing to do but go and see where they were, James unlocked the door and they stepped out into the night.
It wasn't entirely clear where they were. It was, apparently, the middle of the night. Looking around, they were near a narrow canal. Buildings sat across on the other side of the water. There didn't appear to be a lock nearby for them to cross over, and the water was still. There were no boats about, nor lights.
Just as they were about to begin walking around, a car came crashing through the vegetation behind them and ploughed straight into the canal. If the driver had any luck at all, it was that the canal was too narrow to drown him, and the car was stuck against the walls at a steep angle. The man inside appeared to be unconscious, or perhaps dead. It was unclear.
"Well, I can certainly say this trip has, so far, been very eventful. Should we, perhaps, try to pull that poor chap out of that contraption?" Matthew said.
James walked over to the car and ran a hand along the bumper. "Whatever do you think it is? Some sort of metal carriage, by the look of it, with some sort of engine. And reaching such speeds! I shall enjoy learning about those inventions. How should we get him out anyway? Do you think it's safe to climb over that thing?"
Joseph Wright was way ahead of him, tentatively climbing onto the car as he tried to ascertain how stable it was. Standing on the most stable part, he looked back at his friends and smiled as he tried to move it.
"Steady as a rock, my friends! It is such a magnificent view from here," Joseph Wright opined, gazing about the dark city around him.
"Oh, come down from there. You can paint it later. Is our man in there still alive?" James said.
Carefully moving down the car, Joseph Wright slid down the bonnet and onto the other side of the canal. Finding a better position, he peered into the cabin and knocked on the window, trying to rouse the man's attention. He had some blood pouring from some wounds on his face. After quite a lot of tapping, Joseph Wright was not keen to get too close as he might fall into the water himself, the man slowly gazed up at him, blinking at him in confusion.
"By Jove, the man lives! Come, how do we get him out of here? He's in an awful way," Joseph Wright called.
James led the rest of them across the car and onto the other side of the canal. They observed the man inside with interest. He was, by now, slightly panicking, and he was tugging on a handle on the inside of the door, willing it to open. James and Matthew investigated the door from the outside, hoping to work it out. Trying the obvious handle space did not seem to work. The door appeared jammed. The door on the other side fared a little better. With some considerable encouragement on Joseph Priestly's behalf, the door finally gave way and flung itself and Joseph Priestly out of the way. The man inside scrambled free and tumbled out of the car, finding his way onto dry land. It was all the energy he had left as he collapsed to the ground, bleeding badly.
"I daresay we should treat the man. You brought some bandages, did you not? I can't imagine why you would not bring them," Matthew said.
"I did indeed pack them. One can never know what one will need when time travelling!" James exclaimed as he climbed back over the car and back to the time machine.
Retrieving the medical supplies and a lamp, he returned, and they began cleaning and dressing the wounds. The man was still, barely, alive, and did not protest the treatment he was given. They carried him to the buildings, hoping to find another person to help. The man would not heal lying beside a canal.
Three streets down, a woman had finally answered the door to them, and without noticing anything was amiss, directed them to the hospital.
They hailed down a metal carriage in the streets, begging the driver to take them to hospital so they could save the man's life. There is nothing that spurs acquiescence quite like an unconscious wounded man.
They all climbed in, nursing the man on their laps. How they all fit in wasn't entirely clear, but the driver was not about to complain, and drove off.
"Pray, are we in the year nineteen seventy?" Matthew asked.
"Yeah, sure, nineteen seventy. You lot speak real daft, if you ask me. Where you from? London or something?" the driver replied with a laugh.
James managed to look both excited and exasperated. "We are time travellers from the past, my boy! We are having excellent adventures. Now, drive, this poor chap won't last much longer!"
The hospital was both familiar and foreign. Erasmus had taken charge, asking to see the local doctor about treating the man. They were told the hospital did not work that way, and they would have to wait for their friend to be treated and admitted first before they could see him.
This seemed like a great indignation, but Erasmus, wisely, decided not to argue. They left the man in their care and set off to explore more of the city.
The streets were familiar. James remembered walking down Broad Street many times. Birmingham seemed just as dirty as it always had, it was still an industrial city at heart, except there were now tall towers of houses and metal carriages and street lamps that did not use gasoline or candles.
They spent all night looking around. The city was strangely quiet at night, though as dawn approached, people began to emerge. It was at dawn that they saw, for the first time, something explicitly unexplainable.
A human being, completely unaided, was flying through the air at incredible speed!
There was no mistaking his form. He appeared to need no apparatus. His ability to fly seemed to come from his body alone. He flew across the sky before landing on the roof of a terrace house down the road. The man floated down to the ground as if floating on air. He landed on the step, took his keys out of his pocket, unlocked the door, and went inside.
It was the most incredible thing the Lunar Society had ever seen. No one had anything to say. They remained there, unsure if it was stranger than they, time travellers far from home. Two hundred years had indeed brought a lot of progress, if human beings were able to fly.