By the time he died on August 13, 1946, in London, Herbert George Wells was admired as a prophet and as an important social philosopher who helped shape the modern world; but at his birth on September 21, 1866, his future seemed likely to be one of little education, poorly paying jobs, and anonymity. His father was a professional cricket player and shopkeeper, and his mother was a maidservant. From 1874 to 1880, Wells attended Thomas Morley’s Commercial Academy, and as a fourteen-year-old he was apprenticed first to a dry goods merchant and later to a druggist. When seventeen, he tried to become a teacher in a rural area, then in 1884 he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science. He left in 1887 without obtaining a degree. In that year he fell severely ill, and his future seemed bleak. In 1891 he married his cousin Isabell Mary Wells, and the marriage foundered.
Out of these unhappy experiences emerged Wells’s passions for science and social reform. Too sick to pursue regular work, Wells tried writing. In 1891 the Fortnightly Review published one of his articles. He quickly established himself as a promising new writer, although editors often found his scientific speculations confusing. The year 1895 was a significant one that set the pattern for the rest of Wells’s life. He divorced Isabell, married Amy Catherine Robbins, and saw the publication of his first novel, The Time Machine, which he conceived after writing a series of articles on time travel. The novel was a best seller, and Wells’s future as a successful novelist was assured, even though he was stung by suggestions that his scientific fantasies were not serious literature.
During the 1890s and early 1900s, Wells wrote the novels for which he is best known to young adult readers: The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, and Food of the Gods. These scientific fantasies were fabulously popular, but Wells wanted to be taken seriously. Therefore, he wrote novels of social commentary, the first of which, Love and Mr. Lewisham, appeared in 1900. This novel and two others that focused on social criticism, Tono-Bungay (1909) and The History of Mr. Polly (1910), were greeted enthusiastically by critics. By the start of World War I, Wells’s immense popularity and high praise from critics made him one of the most powerful men of letters of his day.
He was widely regarded as a sage who could foresee the future, and he took his eminence seriously. He devoted most of the last twenty-five years of his life to writing popularizations of science, to advocating his evolutionary view of history, and to trying to persuade world leaders to abstain from war. In 1933 Wells was elected president of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (the PEN clubs). In this capacity, Wells tried to use the PEN clubs of various nations to improve international understanding. But Nazi Germany turned its branch into a propaganda organ of the government, and the Soviet Union’s members did not share Wells’s enthusiasm for unfettered free speech, which he regarded as essential for human progress. In his later years, Wells became more cynical, predicted World War II, and believed that only a world-state that would emerge from a catastrophic war would be able to establish peace and protect the civil rights of human beings. Such was his stature that his death in 1946 was regarded as the end of an era; the prophet had died at the beginning of the future he foresaw.