Design History: Joseph Priestley

A New Chart of History + Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley and the Graphic Invention of Modern Time
Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 36.1 (2007) 55-103
D. Rosenberg

Cartographies of Time (2007)
D. Rosenberg & A. Grafton

  • River of Time
    • “He who postpones the hour of living as he ought, is like the rustic who waits for the river to pass along (before he crosses); but it glides on and will glide forever.” —Horace, Epistles (I.2.41), quoted in Priestley, Description of a Chart of Biography, 24:476.
  • Introduction
    • “[Timelines]—straight and curved, branching and crossing, simple and embellished, technical and artistic—[are] the basic components of historical diagrams. […] the line is a much more complex and colorful figure than is usually thought. We all use simple line diagrams in our classrooms—what we usually call timelines—to great effect. They are such a familiar part of our mental furniture that it is sometimes hard to remember that we ever acquired them in the first place.”
    • Few examples of critical work classified as time maps are discussed in the numerous publications of history and cartography.
    • Rosenberg and Grafton suggest the ubiquitous nature of lines and history education is not without merit; it is easily understandable. Historically, this has not always been the case.
    • Chronologies are often dismissed as rudimentary by historians. For most, to qualify as historiography the considered must deal in real events, and it is not enough to represent events in chronological framework that they originally occurred, the events must revealed to possess a structure.
    • Why is the timeline an apt visual analogy? Numbers are organized and defined by the line. Our whole perception of temporality is based on linear sequencing.
    • While our modern understanding of timelines (with one axis and regular distribution of dates) is only 250 years old, the analogy has been evolving since written culture’s beginning. Technical innovations in printing and plotting at the end of the 17th century permitted the visual analogy of the timeline to met with precision under the lens of the scientific eye.
    • Innovators in the late 17th century and early 18th century began to tackle how to represent how create more complex visual schemes to aid in the presentation of the most complex ideas. However, the scholars began to develop ways to simplify and create a visual scheme that clearly communicated the uniformity, directionality and irreversibility of time.
  • Joseph Priestley
Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804)
    • English scientist and theologian, usually associated with the first instance of chemical isolation of oxygen, and the invention of soda water.
    • His belief in the study of history celebrates world’s successes as well as a tool for the future generations to anticipate practical needs. The study of history is a narration of God’s natural laws, and by understanding how His higher power has previously worked brings human enlightenment closer to a comprehension of God Himself.
  • Before Joseph Priestley
    • grid, matricy of words
    • non-regularly spaced dates
    • time malleable and expands/contracts depending on rhythms of generations and importance/documentation of events.
    • grid
    • nations are named horizontally, dates descended vertically
    • single-plane allows dates to be given and shown
    • sizes of nations are inconsistent, Romanocentric
    • non-uniformity characteristic of an engraver; single-page, all-at-once-view of a chart was his biggest contribution. Priestley improved upon this with systematic principles of a scientific illustration

Priestley_Lecture_wResponse copy 4

    • English Minister and teacher, Francis Tallents

Priestley_Lecture_wResponse copy 5

    • English Cartographer Thomas Jeffreys, 1753
  • 1765 Chart of Biography

Priestley_Lecture_wResponse copy 6

    • represented the birth and death of historical figures, despite merit, categorized by accomplishment spectra.
    • date/time measures on top and bottom showing horizontal lines as spans of time famous historical figures had lived.
    • few “new” techniques or ideas, yet it was the most strikingly simple diagram produced to this date.
    • the first time way with a fully developed visual vocabulary; first alternative to a traditional data matrix
    • the timeline was “a most excellent mechanical help to the knowledge of history” and now an image of history itself. History, at that time and in Priestley’s opinion, moves forwards and backwards to make comparisons and contrasts, and allows for branches to follow plots and subplots.

Priestley_Lecture_wResponse copy 7

  • 1769 New Chart of History

Priestley_Lecture_wResponse copy 8

    • represents geographical world in terms of who ruled/reigned and when
    • attempted to reconcile the ideas of time and place
    • country region: horizontal space
      time frame: vertical space
      area: ruler/reigning power
  • Design Techniques
    • More than three-feet wide and two-feet tall
    • Chart of History: accurately register the lives and deaths of two thousand famous men on a scale of three thousand years in “universal time”; the fates of seventy-eight principal kingdoms during the same period.
    • The two charts were available as posters to be framed or as scrolls wound up on rollers. Designed for the curiosity and pleasure of a general reader, they were also meant to serve the scholar.
    • “If history were rendered in natural proportion, chronological absurdities would quickly come to light.” —Joseph Priestley
    • Dates are measured on both the top and bottom of the charts
    • Each 100 years is marked on the Chart of History, with dots in between to measure decades
    • Vertical lines connect axis labels to promote visual equivalency
    • Priestley hoped that, by maintaining one scale for the two works, he would make it easy to use them together. Though the two could not literally be superimposed, they could be placed side by side for comparison, and as Priestley notes, readers might very easily inscribe one chart with helpful marks from the other
    • Chart of Biography: horizontal lines to separate biography classifications (Historians, Antiquaries; Orators and Critics; Artists and Poets; Mathematicians and Physicians; Divines and Metaphysicians; etc.)
    • Chart of Biography: Short or long ellipsis (…) to show uncertainty of birth or death at end/beginning of line. More ellipsis, more time of uncertainty.
    • Labels vs. textual information: Though Priestley says that names must be written on the chart, and indeed he places them there, he specifies that their function is merely indexical. The chart functions fully as a graphical representation of history without a single name being mentioned. In Priestley’s words, “it is the black line under each name which is to be attended to: the names are only added because there was no other method of signifying what lives the lines stand for.”
    • Color: He makes only one significant concession to the limitations of the simple linear graphic. He added color to the Chart of History, an innovation which allowed him to exhibit the unity of empires that “cannot be represented by continuous spaces.”
    • Scale for Scope
    • Consistency in measurement
    • Visual Coding
  • Priestley on Reading His Chart of Biography
    • “the noblest prospect . . . is suggested by a view of the crowds of names in the divisions appropriated to the arts and sciences in the last two centuries. Here all the classes of renown, and, I may add, of merit, are full and a hundred times as many might have been admitted, of equal attainments in knowledge with their predecessors. This prospect gives us a kind of security for the continual propagation and extension of knowledge; and that for the future, no more great chasms of men really eminent for knowledge, will ever disfigure that part of the chart of their lives which I cannot draw, or ever see drawn”
    • For Priestley, the essence of the chart was to give a broad view.
    • the way the lines bunch up on the right side shows the rapid acceleration of progress.
    • From a distance, to use his own analogy, the lines on the Chart of Biography should look like “so many small straws swimming on the surface of [an] immense river.” In some eras, these flow smoothly from left to right as in even water. In others, they bunch up or separate as the currents of history change speed.
    • The chart is densest with biographical lines at the farthest right edge, that is to say, in the most recent historical period. This is no accident of historical record.
    • In other words, in Priestley’s view, the mass of straws accumulating at the right of the chart represents an actual historical phenomenon, the “acceleration” of the arts and sciences in his own time. And, indeed, on his chart, something called science literally takes on a figure, perhaps for the first time.
  • Priestley on Reading His New Chart of History
    • “If the reader carry his eye vertically, he will see contemporary state of all the empires submitting in the world, at any particular time. He may observe which were then rising, which were flourishing, and which were upon the decline. Casting his eye a little to each side of the vertical line, he will see what empires had lately gone off the stage and which were about to come on.”
    • the whole of history is before you, a medium that is possible less partial than the actual experience.
    • “They are rather melancholy reflections, which the view of such a chart of history as this is apt to excite in the minds of persons of feeling and humanity. What a number of revolutions are marked upon it! What a broken appearance, in particular, do the finest and most cultivated parts of the earth exhibit, as Greece, Italy, Persia, and Egypt! What torrents of human blood has the restless ambition of mortals shed, and in what complicated distress has the discontent of powerful individuals involved a great part of their species!”
    • here the graphic analogy of the line points to human violence and turmoil, blood shed.
  • Summary
    • he believed that history had a direction.
    • the mechanism that he developed for representing chronologies in graphic form achieved its popularity in part because it lent itself so well to the figuration of progress.
    • But for Priestley, the timeline was something else: it was a mechanism for breaking open historical narrative and for subjecting it to questions that it resisted in form.
    • If the Chart of Biography in some way looked like progress, this was not true for the Chart of History, nor would it be for a hundred other charts plotted within the same epistemological space. For Priestley the creation of the timeline was a step toward reckoning with the many ways of seeing and representing history.
    • Harry’s Holiday: plot hinges on a young boy’s attempt to hand copy one of Priestley’s charts—a foolish effort which occasions a lecture from his father on the virtues of mechanical reproduction. Many reproductions of his charts, and expansions on such, are seen littered throughout 1800s academic work.

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