Sean Redmond regards the time travel motif as providing a "necessary distancing effect" which can allow science fiction to address contemporary issues in metaphorical ways, and valuable for providing a view of history where every person is significant.
Although The Time Machine (by H. G. Wells, published 1895) was instrumental in moving the concept of time travel to the forefront of the public imagination, non-technological forms of time travel had appeared in a number of earlier stories. Some even earlier works had featured elements suggestive of time travel, but remain somewhat ambiguous.
In ancient Hindu mythology, the Mahabharata, written around 700 B.C. mentions the story of the King Revaita, who travels to a different world to meet the creator Brahma. The King is shocked to learn that many ages have passed when he returns to Earth.
Another very old example of this type of story can be found in the Talmud, with the story of Honi HaM'agel, written in 300 A.D., who went to sleep for 70 years and woke up to a world where his grandchildren were grandparents and where all his friends and family were dead.
Urashima Tarō, an early Japanese tale, involves traveling forward in time to a distant future, and was first described in the Nihongi (720). The tale was about a young fisherman, named Urashima Taro, who visits an undersea palace and stays there for three days. After returning home to his village, he finds himself three hundred years in the future, where he is long forgotten, his house is in ruins, and his family long since dead.
In Walter Map's 12th century De nugis curialium ("Courtiers' Trifles"), Map tells of the Briton King Herla, who is transported with his hunting party over two centuries into the future by the enchantment of a mysterious harlequin.
Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733), by Samuel Madden, is mainly a series of letters from English ambassadors in various countries to the British "Lord High Treasurer", along with a few replies from the British foreign office, all purportedly written in 1997 and 1998 and describing the conditions of that era. However, the framing story is that these letters were actual documents given to the narrator by his guardian angel one night in 1728. For this reason, Paul Alkon suggests in his book Origins of Futuristic Fiction that "the first time-traveler in English literature is a guardian angel who returns with state documents from 1998 to the year 1728", although the book does not explicitly show how the angel obtained the documents. Alkon later qualifies this by writing, "[i]t would be stretching our generosity to praise Madden for being the first to show a traveler arriving from the future", but he also says that Madden "deserves recognition as the first to toy with the rich idea of time travel in the form of an artifact sent backwards from the future to be discovered in the present."
In the science fiction anthology Far Boundaries (1951), the editor August Derleth identifies the short story Missing One's Coach: An Anachronism, written for the Dublin University Magazine by an anonymous author in 1838, as a very early time travel story. In it, the narrator is waiting under a tree to be picked up by a coach which will take him out of Newcastle when he suddenly finds himself transported back over a thousand years. There he encounters the Venerable Bede in a monastery, and gives him somewhat ironic explanations of the developments of the coming centuries. It is never entirely clear whether these events actually occurred, or were merely a dream.
In 1843, the Charles Dickens novella A Christmas Carol depicts Ebeneezer Scrooge being transported back and forth in time to points in his own lifetime by a series of Ghosts to visit Christmases Past, Present and Future. However, the things he sees are merely "shadows"; he and the Ghosts do not interact with them.
The book Paris avant les hommes ("Paris before Men"), by the French botanist and geologist Pierre Boitard (published posthumously in 1861), has the main character transported to various prehistoric settings by the magic of a "lame demon", and who is then able to actively interact with prehistoric life.
Golf in the Year 2000 (1892), by J. McCullough, tells the story of an Englishman who fell asleep in 1892 and awakened in the year 2000. The focus of the book is how the game of golf would have changed by then, but many social and technological themes are also discussed along the way, including devices similar to television and women's equality.
The Guardians of time: in this genre, a group of people are charged with ensuring that time turns out "properly" (i.e. protecting it from changes by other time travelers). Examples of this genre include John Schettler's Meridian series and Simon Lee's Timekeepers.
Preventing a bad future: in this genre, the main characters learn, either by going to the future and returning or by the arrival of a time traveler from the future, that the future has not turned out well, having either turned into a dystopia or resulted in the end of the world. The characters try to change something in the present which prevents that future from coming to pass. The Terminator film franchise includes several stories of time travelers from the future waging war with each other so as to create or prevent a post-apocalyptic future. In the TV series Terra Nova, humans travel 85 million years into the past in an effort to prevent a later disaster from occurring.
Unintentional change or fulfillment: in this genre, a time traveler intends to observe past events, or is taken to the past against his will and tries to return to his proper time. However, the time traveler discovers that his actions have unintentionally altered the future because of the Butterfly effect.A Sound of Thunder is an example of this genre.