11 Fascinating Facts About H.G. Wells
Born on September 21, 1866 in Kent, England, author Herbert George Wells is best known for his genre-defining sci-fi novels—so much so that he’s often referred to as the “Father of Science Fiction,” a title he shares with Jules Verne (though Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein predates both of them). As well as having a hand in shaping sci-fi as we know it, Wells also influenced the spheres of science, politics, and more. Here’s what you need to know about the author.
1. Before becoming an author, H.G. Wells was a science teacher—and A.A. Milne was one of his students.
From 1889 to 1890, Wells served as science teacher at London’s Henley House School, which had just 13 students and was run out of the home of John Milne. Among Wells’s students was future Winnie-the-Pooh author A. A. Milne, who recalled that Wells was “not a good schoolmaster” because he “was too clever and too impatient.” Wells became a journalist when illness stopped him from teaching.
2. The Time Machine, published in 1895, launched Wells’s prolific literary career.
Wells expanded The Time Machine, which popularized the concept of mechanical time travel, from the short story “The Chronic Argonauts” (1888). The author’s other most famous novels were then published in quick succession: The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). As well as penning many other sci-fi books and short stories, he also wrote social and comic novels, such as Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr Polly (1910).
3. Wells’s books have been adapted into movies, comics, musicals, and board games.
There have been numerous film adaptations of Wells’s works, including a version of The Time Machine (2002) directed by Simon Wells, H. G. Wells’s great-grandson. Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill included Wells’s Invisible Man—along with other classic sci-fi characters like Captain Nemo and Dr. Jekyll—in their graphic novel series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999-2019); its second volume even featured The War of the Worlds, which was also infamously adapted into a radio drama by Orson Welles in 1938 (contrary to popular belief, it did not actually inspire nationwide panic) as well as Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978). This musical retelling then inspired The War of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience in London. Wells’s alien invasion can also be experienced through two board games—the first came out in 1980 and the second in 2019.
The War of the Worlds isn’t the only Wells work to get a musical adaptation, either. Kipps has twice been adapted as a stage musical: First in 1963, when Half a Sixpence opened on the West End and later transferred to Broadway, and in 2016, when a revised version of the musical made it to the West End. The novel has also been adapted for film, TV, and radio.
4. Wells wrote non-fiction in the fields of science, history, politics, and sociology.
His first full-length published work was a Text-Book of Biology (1893). He wrote histories, such as A Short History of the World (1922); political texts, including 1908’s New Worlds for Old (which promotes socialism); and sociological books like Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945). He was also a pioneer of war gaming, releasing the books Floor Games (1911) and Little Wars (1913).
5. His fiction inspired real-life scientific advancement.
Robert H. Goddard, who launched the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926, dedicated his life to making space travel a reality after reading The War of the Worlds as a 16-year-old. In a letter to Wells sent in 1932, he declared that the novel “made a deep impression,” and had encouraged him to literally aim for the stars [PDF].
In The World Set Free (1914) Wells coined the term atomic bomb, imagining it as a weapon “that would continue to explode indefinitely” and be dropped from planes. This idea also served as inspiration for a scientist: Leo Szilard, who hypothesized the nuclear chain reaction and worked on the Manhattan Project, wrote that it was Wells who showed him “what the liberation of atomic energy on a large scale would mean.”
6. Wells made many correct predictions about the future—and some incorrect ones.
In Anticipations (1901), Wells envisioned the rise of faster and cheaper motor transport enabling people to live in suburbs and commute into cities. He also hypothesized “a Federal Europe,” which became a reality in 1993 with the formation of the European Union. Which is not to say his every insight was spot-on: He couldn’t imagine “any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea,” for example.
In the 1937 essay “Permanent World Encyclopaedia,” Wells essentially described Wikipedia. “A great number of workers would be engaged perpetually in perfecting this index of human knowledge and keeping it up to date,” he wrote. It would be “accessible to every individual” and “reproduced exactly and fully” worldwide.
Wells also predicted, and actively campaigned for, the establishment of universal human rights. He drafted the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was incorporated into the United Nations 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. However, his hope that the declaration would lead to a utopian world government did not materialize.
7. His name was included in the SS Black Book.
Wells was publicly critical of the German government, and in 1933, as president of PEN International, an association that promotes the cooperation of writers (the acronym stands for Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists) around the world, he oversaw the expulsion of German PEN for anti-Semitism and failing to protest book burning. Wells’s The Outline of History (1920) was burned, and his name was included in the SS Black Book, a list of people to be arrested during the proposed invasion of Britain.
8. Wells was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times (but never won).
He received nominations in 1921, 1932, 1935 (when no prize was awarded), and 1946, but was beaten by Anatole France, John Galsworthy, and Hermann Hesse.
9. He married twice and had many affairs.
Wells married his cousin, Isabel Mary Smith, in 1891; they divorced three years later, and in 1895, the author married his former student, Amy Catherine Robbins (he called her Jane), with whom he had two children. He fathered two further children during affairs with writers Amber Reeves and Rebecca West. He also had relationships with novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, birth control activist Margaret Sanger, writer Odette Keun, and suspected spy Baroness Moura Budberg.
These affairs were revealed in H.G. Wells in Love (1984), which Wells gave to his eldest son to release once everyone concerned was dead. The exposé omitted his last two lovers, but letters revealed them to be Countess Constance Coolidge and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (who denied the rumors).
10. Wells had diabetes and founded the UK’s leading diabetes charity.
Sometime around 1930, Wells was diagnosed with diabetes, now known to be type 2 (there was no distinction between types at that time). In 1934, the author co-founded the Diabetic Association, now known as Diabetes UK, with his physician and fellow diabetic, R.D. Lawrence.
11. He wanted his epitaph to read “I told you so. You damned fools.”
Wells’s The War in the Air (1908) prophesied the use of aircraft in warfare, a prediction that soon came true. In the preface to the 1941 edition, Wells declared that he wanted “I told you so. You damned fools,” inscribed on his gravestone (emphasis his). He died on August 13, 1946, but his request was not fulfilled. Instead of receiving a burial and headstone, Wells was cremated.