[8 April 2010]
In Cartographies of Time, authors Rosenberg and Grafton aim to provide the first full account of the development of the modern timeline, from its inauspicious beginnings in crude lists and tables, to the glorious, colorful artworks that convey the sweep of time with arresting visual drama. There’s more to this story, however. The story of the timeline is also the story of how humanity’s perception of time has evolved, and how the various representations of time can tell us much about the personality and proclivity of the era in which it was designed.
Time can give us meaning, a fixed place in the vast span of history to call our own. It can also obliterate us by showing how small our allotted sliver of time really is. Nowhere is this more evident than in Joseph Priestley’s chronological masterpiece, A Chart of Biography. “It is the black line under each name which is to be attended to,” wrote Priestley. “The names are only added because there was no other method of signifying what lives the lines stand for.”
Published in 1765, Priestley’s chart was a unique and innovative attempt to convey the progress that humanity had accomplished between the years 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1700, and it did so with epic flourish. Priestley divided his chart into six major rows delineating the world’s significant vocations: statesmen and warriors; divines and metaphysicians; mathematicians and physicians; artists and poets; orators and critics; and historians, antiquaries, and lawyers. Each row is streaked with thin, black, horizontal lines meant to denote the lifespans of famous men who had gained renown in each field, and Priestley’s roster of luminaries is comprehensive. Hundreds upon hundreds of little life lines adorn the chart.
What Priestley hoped that people saw in his chart was that his time, the late 18th century, was the most fruitful and intellectually potent period in human history. Though the rows for statesmen, warriors, and religious figures are well populated throughout the chart’s 2700 year scope, it’s apparent from a zoomed-out perspective that the arts and sciences are better represented near the end than at the beginning.
An individual viewer, however, may come away from A Chart of Biography having received a much more troubling existential message: that only a small few have made their mark on history and in Priestley’s graphic, that mark is dishearteningly small. Even Christ himself appears insignificant, his scant 33 years on Earth lost among a bundle of lines that all look the same. While the growth of human understanding shown by the chart is pleasing, Priestley’s implication that, in any given time period, the number of lives that matter in any tangible way is typically fewer than 50, is far less so.
Cartographies of Time reveals the subtle agendas that inspired these chronological works. For Priestley, it was the promotion of contemporary natural philosophy over the traditional wisdom of the ancients. Many chronologies were undertaken to prove a theological point. The 15th century German chronologist Hartmann Schedel sought to set down dates not only for the creation of the world, but also the apocalypse. His Nuremburg Chronicle is a gloomy read loaded with satanic witches, blood libel, and the drowning of heretics.
To top it all off, he leaves readers with what he claims are enough blank pages to continue filling in events themselves until the world comes to an end: three pages. Hardly a reassuring dénouement.
Rosenberg and Grafton’s text is crisp and informative, but the true stars of Cartographies of Time are the numerous illustrations and photographs of the chronologies themselves. There are beautiful spreads, like that for the Atlas Historicus of Johann Georg Hagelgans. The innovative, transgressive hybridization of time, geography, data charts, and pure art defies description, and the authors do it justice by allowing it to span two whole pages. Lovers of history, art, and design will find much to enjoy in this volume.
Unfortunately, some of the works are so large and detailed that they present a serious challenge. Sebastian Adams’ 1878 A Chronological Chart of Ancient, Modern, and Biblical History is as dense and comprehensive as its title suggests, stretching nearly 40 feet across and including the virtually every significant historical event, figure, and civilization, fully colored and illustrated. Even though it’s given just over three pages in the book, it’s still too little to fully appreciate the detail and depth of this startling work. It’s a problem that recurs throughout Cartographies of Time, but although it can be occasionally frustrating, it’s not a fatal flaw in this impressive collection.
In the final chapter, Rosenberg and Grafton discuss the future of the timeline, and how technology is once again changing how we represent and perceive of time. Computers and the Internet offer new tools with which to coordinate and deploy data and will almost certainly enhance how we design timelines, bringing dynamics and interactivity to what has long been a static, passive art. It’s an exciting prospect to consider that we live in an era with such potential; that were we to stretch Priestley’s chart all the way to the present we would see those lifelines growing more multitudinous, reflecting our immense progress.
There’s more to add to the history of the timeline. The least the authors could have done was stick a few blank pages in the back of the book to let us fill in the rest.