The narrator recounts the explanation of two difficult ideas by a man he refers to as the Time Traveler (hereafter known as "TT") to an after-dinner group. The group includes a Psychologist, a Medical Man, a Provincial Mayor, and a few other men. The TT explains that Time adds a fourth dimension to the three dimensions of space. We overlook the fourth dimension because "our consciousness moves along it." He argues that Time, therefore, is a dimension of space. The Medical Man believes the difference between Space and Time is that one cannot move in Time and "get away from the present moment." The TT counters that we are always doing just that, "passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity."
He tells them he has invented a Time Machine and has "experimental verification" of it. The audience speculates on what one might find with this machine in the future, such as a "communistic society." The TT leaves and returns with a small device. He sets it on the table and says it is only a model for a full Time Machine. He explains that its two levers move the traveler forward or backward in time. He says he will send the machine off into the future, and has the Psychologist perform the act. The machine disappears. The men are astounded. The TT says he has nearly completed a larger machine, with which he intends to travel through time himself. When asked, he admits he does not know if the model has gone into the past or the future. The men reason that it would have been visible to them when they first came in (if sent to the past) or it would be visible now (if sent to the future). The TT asks the Psychologist to explain why this is not true; the Psychologist argues that the machine travels through time too quickly for them to appreciate it. The men are willing to believe this, at least for now. The TT shows them his larger machine, made of several metals and substances, in the his laboratory.
Though the TT uses scientific ideas about time and relativity that were circling around the 1890s (Albert Einstein would later draw them together for his groundbreaking 1905 paper on relativity), "The Time Machine" is ultimately not a deep scientific investigation into relativism and time. Wells completely ignores one of the paradoxes of time travel that many believe prohibits its existence: that of cause-and-effect. For instance, if there were time travel, then someone could go back in time and kill his past self, but this is impossible since his future self would not exist in the first place. Wells skirts this paradox by eventually sending the TT only into the future and not backward into the past.
Rather, Wells uses scientific ideas to comment on his contemporary Victorian England. One of the major theories of the time adapted Charles Darwin's theories on evolution for social purposes. In "Origin of the Species," Darwin argued that different environments encouraged the reproduction of those species whose varying traits best suited them to survive; their offspring, in turn, would be better adapted for the new environment, as would their offspring, and so on. Social Darwinism, developed by British philosopher Herbert Spencer, frequently misapplied this concept of "natural selection" to justify 19th-century social stratification between the rich and poor. The catch-phrase "survival of the fittest" (actually coined by Spencer, not Darwin; Spencer also popularized the term "evolution") does not mean the surviving members of an environment are the "best," but merely the best fit for their specific environment (for instance, Spencer's pale British skin would not survive long in sun-baked Africa). Therefore, evolution does not lead to the "perfectibility" of any species, as is generally perceived, but to the increasing adaptability and complexity of a species. Social Darwinism ignored this idea and contended that the social environment was much like the cutthroat natural environment, and that those who succeeded were biologically destined to do so and to continue in their march to human perfection. Conversely, those who failed were naturally inferior specimens of humanity. Social Darwinists found much evidence for their elitist theories in England, where the gap between the rich and poor had opened up even more with the industrial boom of the early 19th-century. However, Wells will later introduce the concept of entropy (from the Second Law of Thermodynamics). The principle of entropy states that systems tend toward disorder and loss of energy over time, an idea many perceive as contradictory to evolution.
We see evidence of this "advanced" society immediately in "The Time Machine." The men gather in a Victorian salon over dinner to discuss ideas of the day, a luxury they can afford as members of the elite class. Moreover, they have been refined into increasingly complex and evolved "sub-species" of man: they are all defined by their professions, and even these professions are specialized (two kinds of doctors, for the mind and body, and a mayor of a province). The TT, also defined by his "profession" of time travel, appears to be the ultimate social scientist who uses "experimental verification" to test his hypotheses.
Finally, Wells foreshadows a major theme of the novel when the narrator brings up the possibility of a "communistic society" in the future. Wells, a Socialist with a Communist bent for much of his life, believed in economic equality as Communism advocated. The ill effects of capitalism, with its close ties to Social Darwinism and entropy, will be explored in greater depth later in the novel.
The narrator says the TT's audience remained skeptical of the TT, who always seems too clever and mysterious. They do not discuss time traveling until they reconvene next Thursday. But the TT is absent, having left a note for the men to have dinner without him if he is not back by seven. The new group consists of the Psychologist, the Medical Man, an Editor, a Journalist, and a Silent Man. As they discuss time travel, the TT enters, dirty, disheveled, and limping. He leaves to clean up, then returns and devours mutton, grateful to be eating meat again. He admits he has been time traveling, but reveals little else until he's finished eating, when he says he will tell the story of his eight futuristic days. The narrator feels he is unable to communicate adequately the TT's storytelling ability, though he transcribes his words verbatim.
This short chapter serves to establish only the mystery of the TT's adventures--why is he so ragged? why is he so ravenous for meat?--and further ingrain the state of Victorian luxury and advancement. The men dine on mutton and wine, and new specialized professionals have been added to their ranks (the Editor and Journalist, whose names--Blank and Dash--humorously reinforce their professions).
The narrator distances himself from the TT by confessing to his inability to communicate the intensity of the TT's voice. Through this distancing, Wells accomplishes two tasks. First, the TT's exploits are slightly more plausible to his audience; the narrator and the men have been skeptical all along, much as Wells's audience would be. Second, one may make the argument that when the TT takes over the narrative after the unobtrusive narrator steps out, Wells aligns himself with the TT. In other words, he is the true TT, and will forecast human future much as the TT does.
There is one piece of logical confusion in this chapter. If the TT has a time traveling machine, why would he show up to dinner late--in other words, why not go back in time just a little bit more to when dinner starts? It suggests that the TT does not have perfect control over the Time Machine, and that his adventures have not been flawless exercises.