Time Keeps on Changing


In the new paperback version of Cartographies of Time, written by professors Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grifton, the timeline, one of the most fundamental human tools, offers a frame for understanding Western intellectual history. In the first “comprehensive history of graphic representations of time,” we get a sense of how modern American and European knowledge and values shaped the understanding and modeling of time. As the authors, two professors of history, explain, the simple, linear timeline we all rely on now took a long time to get to. Evolving over time, the timeline itself is rich with history.

While the writing can be a bit confusing in parts as the authors jump back and forth in time (there doesn’t seem to be a very linear history for the timeline), the images, which have been carefully curated for the book, almost speak for themselves, providing a sense of how this “most important tool for organizing information” has changed since 1450.

Beginning with the ancient Western world (there’s no discussion of Asian maps), the authors describe how Greek and Roman scholars liked to make lists of lots of things: priests, Olympic winners, elected officials, etc. Finally, though, Eusebius of Caesarea, a fourth-century theologian, composed the “model for later timelines for centuries to come.” Moving through the ancient world, Eusebius used rows and columns to trace the rise and fall of empires, “coordinating all these histories,” but ended up funneling history down into a “single story.”

Still, not everyone in Medieval Europe got the memo about rows and columns. Trees, depicting families or histories, were popular, too. The authors point to Peter of Poitier’s work (see image above), which was created in the 1200s, as a “visually spare, elegant record of English history from Alfred the Great to Henry III.” They write that these could almost be viewed as a visual aid you might see in a classroom. It certainly helped royalty keep straight who was who.

Rich with visual examples, it’s difficult to select ones to highlight. Here are a few others worth seeing:

In the 1600s, Johannes Buno used “unforgettable figures, curios details, and riddles” to create a “virtual memory theatre.” This was a very old-school mnemomic designed to help people remember names and dates.


Zooming ahead to the mid-1700s, Rosenberg and Grafton spend a lot of time with Joseph Priestley, who’s New Chart of History is described as almost revolutionary. “Priestley regularized the distribution of dates on the chart adn oriented it horizontally to emphasize the continuous flow of history.” Here’s just a slice of one of his charts plotting the shifting of empires:


One favorite map is Edward Quinn’s An Historical Atlas, published in the early 1800s, which takes a step back and looks at the state of knowledge in the West. In a sequence of maps, Quinn rolls back the clouds, indicating how much of the world was known at different stages of history.


In the late 1800s, the diversity of chronologies increases, and more and more historical statistical data is presented visually, often to make a political case or boost a social cause. An example by Luigi Perozza beautifully plots male births vs. the number of war survivors over time.


While Florence Nightingale, one of the original “social entrepreneurs” who revolutionized sanitation, used historical diagrams to show how infection and disease caused more English deaths than combat during the Crimean War.


The authors move through spirtually-inspired chronologies, all the way through to Modern ones, increasingly viewing timeline as an art form. Seen below is the Histomap, designed and produced by amateur historian John Sparks. According to the writers, Sparks would fill pads with names and dates, cut his notes into slips, and paste them onto a massive chart. That chart later became a bestseller for Rand McNally for over 50 years.

Rosenberg and Grafton end up looking at the Web, particularly Web 2.0, and discuss how start-ups are working on “new ways to aggregate and integrate chronological data from many sources.” Still, they wonder if all these user-generated timelines will be easy to use and “function well as a tool,” which is what all the successful timelines have done over time.

Read the book and check out a slideshow from The New York Times with more images.

Image credits: Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, Published by Princeton Architectural Press, Hardcover 2010, Paperback 2012

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