A few years ago, I worked on a Big Studio Movie that involved time travel. This particular project never made it off the launch pad, but it started me thinking about an admittedly minor issue with the genre:

How do time travelers know where and when they are?

For travelers with functional time machines, there is presumably some device onboard to calculate geographic and temporal location. Easy enough.

But what if the time machine breaks in transit? Or what if, like Kyle Reese in The Terminator, the voyager arrives in the past with no gear whatsoever?

Here’s the basic question that keeps me up some nights:

If I were deposited somewhere on Earth, somewhere in time, how could I figure out where and when I was?

Ask someone

Assuming there is a human civilization nearby, this seems like the obvious choice.

Odds are I wouldn’t speak their language, but I suspect that observing them would give me a general indication about where I was (Europe versus Asia versus Central America) and when (Paleolithic versus Iron Age). I’d want to be careful making assumptions based on ethnicity, since humans have moved around the globe a lot.

On the off chance I wasn’t immediately killed as an outsider, I’d eventually learn their language well enough to ask more detailed questions that could narrow things down further:

  • Which way is the ocean?
  • What other cultures have you encountered?
  • What’s the most impressive landmark, natural or otherwise, you can take me to?

Available clues

If there were no one else around, I’d have a much harder time even getting started figuring things out. But I wonder how much of that is my own ignorance.

Certainly, a competent biologist would be able to study the nearby plants and animals to get a sense of which ecosystem — and possibly what time period — she found herself in.

Ditto for a paleontologist.

An experienced geographer or geologist would likely look for things I’d never considered, such as minerals in the soil or weather patterns.

A great astronomer might be able to use stars to figure stuff out. (My hunch is that celestial observation could help you determine where or when, but not both.)

An archeologist could likely glean useful information from abandoned settlements, even if the humans themselves weren’t around.

In general, these are situations where scientists have a considerable leg up on screenwriters, both because of the knowledge in their heads and their ability to apply the scientific method.

Phone a friend

Let’s say that through movie magic, I have a radio that lets me communicate with a trusted confidant in 2017. We’ll call her Trish.

Like a lost tourist, I might rely on Trish to Google things for me, or consult modern experts. Let’s assume she’s very resourceful and persuasive.

  • What would I ask her to do?
  • Who would I want her to call?
  • What might Trish tell me to do on my side to help determine where and when I was?

What’s interesting about Trish is that we all have one: the internet. It’s easy to forget that even ten or twenty years ago, it was much harder to find answers to many of our questions. We think of the internet as being a source of facts and opinions, but one of its most important functions is troubleshooting.

So that’s why I’m writing this blog post: to help solve my imaginary predicament. I’m genuinely curious how people smarter than me would solve this issue. What advice would you give to lost time travelers?

If you have ideas, you can find me on Twitter @johnaugust, or send longer suggestions to ask@johnaugust.com. I’ll share the most interesting and/or helpful ideas submitted.