How to Map Time: A Visual History of the Timeline

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A journey through man's attempts at visualizing time itself

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I was recently asked to select my all-time favorite books for the lovely Ideal Bookshelf project by The Paris Review's Thessaly la Force. Despite the near-impossible task of shrinking my boundless bibliophilia to a modest list of dozen or so titles, I was eventually able to do it, and the selection included Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton. Among both my 7 favorite books on maps and my 7 favorite books on time, this lavish collection of illustrated timelines traces the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present, featuring everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain.

The first chapter, "Time in Print," provides some context for the images:

While historical texts have long been subject to critical analysis, the formal and historical problems posed by graphic representations of time have largely been ignored. This is no small matter: graphic representation is among our most important tools for organizing information.[Cue in Visual Storytelling and graphic designer Francesco Franchi on representation vs. interpretation.] Yet, little has been written about historical charts and diagrams. And, for all of the excellent work that has been recently published on the history and theory of cartography, we have few examples of work in the area Eviatar Zerubavel has called time maps. This book is an attempt to address that gap."

The Morning News has a wonderful slideshow of images from the book this week. A few favorites:

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The Histomap by John Sparks,1931.

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In this universal history Johannes Buno, 1672, each millennium before the birth of Christ is depicted by an image of a large allegorical being. This dragon represents the fourth millennium B.C.

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In the 1860s, French engineer Charles Joseph Minard pioneered several new infographic techniques. Published in 1869, this endures as his most famous graphic, featuring two diagrams that depict the size and attrition of the armies of Hannibal in his expedition across the Alps during the Punic wars and of Napoleon during his assault on Russia. The faded-red color band indicates the army's strength of numbers, with one millimeter in thickness representing ten thousand men. The chart of Napoleon's march also includes a measure of temperature.

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A 'synchronous chart' from Meteorographica (1863) by Francis Galton, pioneer of the study and mapping of weather. The chart represents weather conditions, barometric pressure, and wind direction at a single moment in time across the geographic space of Europe.

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Discus chronologicus by German engraver Christoph Weigel, published in the early 1720s, is a paper chart with a pivoting central arm. Rings represent kingdoms, radial wedges represent centuries, and the names of kingdoms are printed on the moveable arm.

From literature to art history to technology, Cartographies of Time offers a fascinating and dimensional lens on what it means to peer from a single moment of time outward into all other moments that came before and will come after, and inward into our own palpable yet subjective perception of permanence and its opposite.

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This post appears courtesy of Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Image credits: Princeton Architectural Press/The Morning News

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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