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"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." So starts an impressive illustrated book _Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline_ (Princeton Architectural Press) by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton. The reason the timeline is ignored is that it seems so obvious - plot historic trends on a line, the earlier ones on one end leading to later ones on the other. It is such a simple idea that it is a surprise that we didn't know about it as soon as we started putting marks on paper. Yet there is a history of the development of such lines, and it is fascinating how the lines caught on once people started charting history on paper. That such graphic histories are useful seems obvious; they have the potential for giving visual form to historical flow, and for showing connections of one trend to another. There are plenty of serious charts of time shown here that conscientiously do just that. There are other charts, just as serious, that have been designed to show, for instance, how Jesus is going to return in 1843, and there are idiosyncratic charts by Dadaists which show not much of anything but in a highly complex fashion. The book is most entertaining when it looks at these oddities, but there is nothing like it to show our progress at taking graphic time seriously.
The antecedent of the timeline was probably the lists and tables giving a chronology of rulers and important events. Family trees lent themselves to chronological display, although many of the ones here are so complicated that it is hard to see the years ticking by. By far the most important name here is Joseph Priestley, whose experiments in chemistry helped in understanding what oxygen did and whose religious beliefs forced him to flee to America to avoid persecution. He was the inventor of the time map as we know it. One of his charts produced here is _A Chart of Biography_ (1765) showing a horizontal line for each scientist on the chart (the chart shown concerns those involved in investigating vision, light, and color, but there was a more extensive chart that showed artists, statesmen, historians, and more). Each line starts on the birth year and ends on the death year of each scientist. Elegant and effective, it was a watershed: "Though it followed centuries of experimentation, it was the first chart to present a complete and fully theorized visual vocabulary for a time map, and the first to successfully compete with the matrix as a normative structure for representing regular chronology." Many of the charts here are direct descendants of Priestley's, and many of them are designed to push a particular religious view. The millennial views of an imminent apocalypse in the nineteenth century combined with cheap printing rates produced many strange charts, some starting with the seven days of creation and ending, as they say, "in the not so distant future." Among the charts shown here is a representation of history up to 1843; that was the date when the followers of the New England minister William Miller predicted the Apocalypse, and history was to end then, so the chart did, too. His followers were disappointed that the end did not come in 1843, and when it did not come even in 1844 it was clear that there was some error, and, the authors say tactfully, "both Miller's predictions and his chronology charts had to be radically revised." There were other charts afterwards to show a later year for the end; at least some learned the lesson that no such end is predictable, and those who thought it still predictable were not so bold as to put a date on it.
This book is filled with gorgeous color pictures of the charts. It must be said that some of the pictures are just too small, but this seems unavoidable when some of these charts were huge, more than fifty feet long. Many are crammed with words, too, and so we should probably thank the authors for reading them for us and then reproducing them in a way that offers no temptation for us to scan them from beginning to end. The ones that can be read are fascinating, like the Marconi Telegraph chart that shows the time and position of transatlantic steamers for April 1912, by which it could be seen which ones ought to have been near enough the _Titanic_ to help her out. Buckminster Fuller produced a chart in 1943 to show how the world was about to have a technological revolution that would end war and poverty. Closer to accurate is the simple graph by Gordon Moore, the famous "Moore's Law" which shows the inexorable increase of speed of computing as time goes by, and has proved to be surprisingly accurate. Mark Twain had a chart that was part of his history game, and there were other games that were graphic ways to help remember important historic dates and events. There are not only timelines but time circles, and in one case a time dragon from 1672. There are brilliant time maps and silly ones, ones based on facts and some based only on artistic interpretation. Collected in this handsome volume, they make a rich show of graphics and of our attempts to make sense of history.