From the intersection of computational science and technological speculation,
with boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what could be.
I began that first visit at the Fox Tal-
bot museum near the abbey. The exhib-
its led up to the moment on Lake Como
in 1834 when Fox Talbot had his inspi-
ration. He enjoyed clever toys, trendy
optical devices like the camera lucida for
projecting an image onto sketching pa-
per to guide an artist. I’d like to say, cue
the light bulb over Fox Talbot’s head, ex-
cept electric light hadn’t been invented
yet. Fox Talbot was studiously tracing an
image. Yet he knew that compounds of
silver darkened when exposed to light.
So why not soak the paper in silver salts
and let the drawing produce itself?
In August 1835, Fox Talbot set up
a camera obscura, projecting an im-
age of a window in the South Gallery
of Lacock Abbey onto treated paper.
The result (or at least a copy) is on
the wall beside the window where the
picture was taken. It’s tiny—only 1. 2
inches by one inch—the world’s first
photographic negative. Other early
processes produced one-off images,
but Fox Talbot’s negatives provided
unlimited prints. Forget the idea that
the Victorian information age started
with Charles Babbage’s mechanical
computers. What Fox Talbot invented
was visual information processing, but
his bits were silver crystals, in a mecha-
nism that became the mainstay of pho-
tography for over a century and a half.
A display of photographs from Fox
Talbot’s time stood near the exit. That
was where my time journey began.
One showed a group outside a coun-
try cottage. Most were stiffly Victori-
an, but one, a young woman, smiled
IT’S MY 25TH year visiting Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, England, arriving
early as usual. As I sit in the hire car,
I replay in my mind the day I realized
how I might manipulate time. Ever
since my doctorate in astrophysics,
I’d been researching the equations
of general relativity, focusing on the
crossover between relativity and the
quantum world. But my true interest
was “closed timelike loops”—what
some might call a time machine.
It was here, 25 years prior, I had
worked out how a quantum computer could use a loophole in Einstein’s
gravitational field equations to make
time travel possible. I was in England
for a conference on quantum gravity
and took the opportunity to visit the
home of a personal hero, 19th-century
photography pioneer William Henry
Fox Talbot. Every moment remains
etched in my memory and I have tried
to repeat them each year since.
The first anniversary I brought a
sheaf of printer output from Monte
Carlo simulations run on a Thinking Machines CM- 5 in Cambridge,
permutating the variables I could
alter. A step here, a pause there, attempting to recreate what happened
that day. Each year since I have tried
as many walkthrough variants as I
could. And each year I have failed. I
need to use the rest of my time keeping my career alive, so I limit myself
to the anniversary. Now I’ve written a
smartphone app to guide me, but the
approach is the same, with each detail recreated as best I can. But this
year has to be different.
Between the Abbey
and the Edge of Time
A photo marks my place, then and now.
DOI: 10.1145/3280370 Brian Clegg
[CONTINUED ON P. 175]
Special relativity tells
us all we need to do
is move … and
the faster we go,
we get to the future.
Oriel window in Lacock Abbey photographed
by William Fox Talbot in 1835.