Today we marvel at detailed infographics on the web, but, says Tim Walker, their analogue precursors from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were equally ambitious
From the ancient Roman calendar to Facebook's brain-melting new "Timeline" profile layout, most of us are accustomed to visualising history as linear; a middle, book-ended by arbitrary beginnings and ends. And yet, timelines designed as a single straight axis, with a regular and measured distribution of dates, have only existed in such a form for around 250 years. So write historians Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, the authors of Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline.
In the age of the internet, the infographic has matured into a mass medium, made famous by websites like David McCandless's Information is Beautiful. Rosenberg and Grafton's new book records its messy pre-natal development.
Until the Renaissance, they explain, "chronology was among the most revered of scholarly pursuits... the facts of chronology had significant implications outside the academic study of history. For Christians, getting chronology right was the key to many practical matters such as knowing when to celebrate Easter and weighty ones such as knowing when the Apocalypse was nigh". Until the 18th Century, however, chronologists searched in vain for a suitable visual metaphor, grafting history's more significant moments onto imagined maps, monsters or monuments - such as Drer's triumphal arch, elucidating Emperor Maximilian's genealogy [far bottom right].
The most influential early example of the timeline was Joseph Priestley's A Chart of Biography, from 1765, which ran from right to left in chronological order. Lines denoting the lifespans of significant individuals since 1200BC were divided vertically into coloured categories: Historians; Antiquarians and Lawyers; Orators and Critics; Artists and Poets; Mathematicians and Physicians; Divines and Metaphysicians; Statesmen and Warriors. Its sequel was 1769's A New Chart of History [top right], in which Priestley presented the political history of the world. Such ambitious infographics, encapsulating the full span of history, were emulated by Priestley's successors, such as Sebastian Adams and John Sparks. Others, however, took the tool he'd perfected and put it to more efficient use.
'Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline' is published by Princeton Architectural Press, 22.50
The Histomap - John Sparks
The Histomap's creator was the American plant manager for Nestl, whose job required him to take many long train journeys. John Sparks would indulge his love of history by filling notepads with names and dates from whichever book he happened to be reading. He later cut the notes into slips and added them to a vast chart he maintained for his own reference. When he published a version of this multi- coloured timeline, it was a huge hit and continued to sell well for publishers Rand McNally for half a century.
A New Chart of History - Joseph Priestley
Priestley was the English theologian and …