Spring 2004

A Timeline of Timelines

Sasha Archibald and Daniel Rosenberg

This is an expanded version of a timeline tha­t appeared in Cabinet’s “Histories of the Future” issue. Daniel Rosenberg’s introduction to the timeline can be found here. Although we have not been able to preserve the horizontal design, we have added additio­nal entries for this web version. If there are omissions or errors, we’d love to hear from you. Please email Cabinet at this email address.

Jewish scholar José ben Halafta calculates the exact length of time between Creation and the destruction of the Second Temple. By the Julian calendar, existence begins on Monday, 7 October 3761 BC at 10:10 pm.

ca. 325
In his Chronicle, Eusebius of Caesarea innovates a tabular system to coordinate events drawn from several distinct historiographic traditions. Abraham’s life structures the chronicle; events are matched to the age of Abraham and then to the year of various monarchies. Eusebius calculates the beginning of time as 5,198 years before the Incarnation. Around the same time, Eusebius also creates a “canon table” aligning the gospels according to a chronological system. The Merton College copy of Eusebius’s Chronicle depicted here, one of the oldest extant, comes from mid-fifth-century Italy.

ca. 415
Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of the biblical chronology forms a framework for interpreting human history according to the “six ages of man.”

Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguus introduces the convention of dating events anno Domini.

ca. 530
Rule of St. Benedict organizes devotional practice around the “canonical hours” measured by the clock.

Year One of the Muslim calendar established by Caliph Umar I as 622.

In On the Reckoning of Dates, Bede calculates the beginning of time at 3,952 years before the Incarnation. In The Ecclesiastical History, Bede implements the “Dionysian system” of dating in relation to the birth of Christ.

An anomalous graph appears in an edition of Macrobius’s commentary on Cicero’s The Dream of Scipio, an analysis of physics and astronomy. The drawing, probably added to the text by a transcriber, plots planetary and solar movement as a function of time. Although the graph does not seem to convey accurate information, it is nonetheless a very early example of changing values measured against a time axis.

Moses Maimonides promotes use of the mundane era among Jewish scholars.

12–13th CENTURY
Explosion of narrative genres including the lay, fabliau, and romance. Rise of the notion of Purgatory as a variable, measurable, and manipulable period in the after life.

12–13th CENTURY
Jesse Trees, pictorial depictions of Christ’s royal ancestry as given in Matthew, proliferate in medieval manuscripts, murals, and stained glass windows. Jesse, the father of King David and the claimed ancestor of the Virgin, is typically pictured at the base of the scene, the tree’s trunk growing from his navel.

Franco of Cologne’s (ca. 1240–ca. 1280) treatise The Art of Measured Song codifies a system of music notation that fixes the durational value of notes, while their relative value is measured against the breve, Franco’s base unit of musical time.

According to Joachim of Fiore (1135–1202), this was the pivotal year in humanity’s transition to the third and final “state” of history. Twelfth- and thirteenth-century renderings depict Joachim’s system of historical states (status) and phases (aetates) as trees, chains, and ladders.

14–15th CENTURY
Books of Hours, illuminated private prayer books, contain the texts of prayers to be said at the canonical hours; the devotionals are often prefaced with a richly illustrated twelve-month calendar, depicting events common to each month or season.

Leon Battista Alberti’s On the Family insists on the importance of a literal accounting of the hours of one’s day.

By highlighting its anachronisms, Lorenzo Valla shows the much-disputed Church document, The Donation of Constantine, to be a forgery.

Werner Rolewinck’s popular Bundle of Dates structures a book-length chronology of the world around a single, horizontal line continuing from page to page.

In his Nuremberg Chronicle of the World, Hartmann Schedel depicts the creation of the earth with seven concentric circles. Also of note, the Chronicle represents royal ancestry with portraits interconnected with vines to indicate marriage and parenthood, thereby participating in a broader tradition that associates genetic lineage and arboreal growth.

ca. 1500
Leonardo da Vinci is both the first to use rectangular coordinates to analyze the velocity of falling objects and the first to recognize a correlation between the particular climate and precipitation of a given time period and the shape of the resultant tree rings.

Jean Bodin’s Method for the Easy Comprehension of History argues for an absolute chronology that applies to all historical events regardless of place, time, or culture.

Gregorian calendar reform instituted. Ten days dropped from the year. October 5–14, 1582 do not take place.

In A New Treatise on Chronology, Joseph Scaliger attempts to produce a complete and self-contained chronology of world history including translation tables for integrating all existing chronologies. His Chronological Treasury (1606) collects and arranges all of the available ancient chronological sources.

The Anatomy of Daniel’s Statue by Lorenz Faust gives graphic expression to the four-fold chronological figure in the prophecy of Daniel.

Henri Voisin de la Popelinière, History of Histories.

Galileo plots the speed of a rolling ball on a time axis.

Religious and political ferment in England produces numerous apocalyptic tracts including Joseph Mede’s Key of the Revelation. The Key, translated from Latin into English in 1641 at the behest of Parliament, maps the end of history onto a complex graphical figure combining cyclical and linear forms.

Domenicus Petavius argues that orienting a chronological system around the birth of Christ is pure convention. His Rationarium temporum rigorously separates questions of history from those of chronology and maintains that chronology is a purely technical specialty.

James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, publishes a widely influential calculation of biblical chronology, placing the beginning of time at 23 October 4004 BC. Twenty-five years later, Thomas Guy begins printing Bibles annotated with Ussher’s chronology; Bibles inscribed with Ussher’s dates remain in print until the early twentieth century.

In Pre-Adamites, Isaac Lapeyrère argues that Scripture authorizes belief in human existence prior to Adam.

Three years after Lapeyrère’s Pre-Adamites, the Jesuit missionary Martino Martini published the first Chinese chronology in the West: Historiae sinicae decas prima. Father Martini based his work on the traditional Chinese chronologies and came to the shocking conclusion that authentic Chinese history goes back to the year 2952 BC, i.e., 600 years prior to the year fixed by the Hebrew Bible for the Great Flood. This meant that China had to be inhabited long before the flood. Martini did not try to reconcile Biblical with Chinese chronology, but many of his successors did: Martini’s work had demonstrated the importance of the use of Chinese historical records, and such records and their interpretation henceforth became a crucial ingredient of world chronologies. [Thanks to Professor Urs App for this entry]

Christopher Wren’s weather clock is one of a plethora of new mechanical devices that automatically register natural phenomena. Wren’s clock, for example, indicates changes in temperature and wind direction with a continuous line.

Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus criticizes the tradition of religious prophecy and argues for a historical interpretation of Scripture.

Jacques Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle.

In an attempt to synchronize biblical history with new geological ideas, Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth argues that the great deluge was the result of waters underneath the earth’s surface breaking through the earth’s crust, thereby destroying what Burnet believed to be the earth’s pre-flood state—a perfectly smooth, featureless surface, like that of an egg. The book’s frontispiece is a series of drawings depicting the cycle of stages in the geological history of the earth beginning with Creation and culminating in Apocalypse.

Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica proposes a theory of absolute time. Newton’s posthumous Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) uses astronomical observations to argue that the history of Israel antedates those of Egypt and Greece.

After Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, Sir William Petty is hired to formulate a methodology for assessing and partitioning the spoils; his Discourse on Political Arithmetic (1690) applies this “political arithmetic” to England. Because the methodology involves calculating a total value index based on all “properties” of the country—people, land and infrastructure—it impels not only the collection of vast amounts of data, but new methods of visually depicting that data.

Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary treats figures from secular and religious sources within a single scholarly apparatus. The second edition concludes with an exhaustive ten-page “Chronological Table of all the Eminent Persons Treated in this Dictionary.” The table begins with Adam and ends in 1700.

The convention of dating events BC becomes popular.

In The New Science, Giambattista Vico criticizes both the astronomical and mathematical basis of seventeenth-century chronology and proposes a new universal chronology based on a theory of cyclical human progress. The New Science includes a chronological table that aligns the histories of the Hebrews, Chaldeans, Scythians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans beginning with the Deluge.

Jacques Barbeu-Duborg, the French translator, physician, and disciple of Benjamin Franklin, creates his Chronological Chart, a fifty-four-foot timeline of history from Creation contained in a custom case.

Building on da Vinci and Galileo’s early use of vertical and horizontal axes, mathematician Leonard Euler establishes the modern convention that axes must be perpendicular.

In scientific papers published over two decades, the German natural philosopher J. H. Lambert presents diagrams representing observational data on magnetism, temperature change, and other subjects. Already in 1765, Lambert promotes the use of graphs to detect both experimental and theoretical error, arguing that a diagram may in many instances perform “incomparably better service than a table.”

English chemist Joseph Priestley publishes the first of several timelines that contemporary audiences would recognize as such: A Chart of Biography compares the life spans of 2,000 celebrated men from 1200 BC to AD 1750, using bars set against a linear time axis to denote their life spans.

John Harrison awarded prize for successful invention of a marine chronometer.

Laurence Sterne’s novel, Tristram Shandy, includes a set of sketches indicating the non-linear path of a well-told story; narrative digressions appear as deviations from a straight line.

Louis-Sébastien Mercier publishes perhaps the first future fiction. The Year 2440 describes French society and culture after seven centuries of progress.

In his Epochs of Nature, the French naturalist Comte de Buffon argues that the Earth may be as much as 75,000 years old. In unpublished manuscripts, he speculates that it may be more than three million years old.

Immanuel Kant criticizes Newton’s conception of absolute time in The Critique of Pure Reason.

Immanuel Kant, An Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.

The Encyclopædia Britannica contains a fold-out chart designed by Adam Ferguson “representing at one view the rise and progress of the principal state and empires of the known world” from the Deluge in anno mundi 1656 to anno Domini 1900 (the years after the present are blank).

Joseph Priestley’s timeline was shortly followed by political economist William Playfair’s invention of the bar chart, an innovation whose merits remained unrealized for several decades. As a young man, Playfair worked in the shop of James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, where he was likely acquainted with Watt’s self-registering device for measuring steam pressure.

Last volume of Johann Gottfried Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind published.

Introduction of French Revolutionary calendar declaring September 1792 as the beginning of the new Year One.

The patenting and marketing of graph paper attests to the growing use of Cartesian coordinates in scientific data analysis.

Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of Mankind, a ten-stage account of human perfectibility from primitive to philosophical times.

Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population argues that while human population tends to increase geometrically, the means of human subsistence can only increase arithmetically.

Using a Ramist format familiar to readers of Diderot’s Encyclopédie and other eighteenth-century scientific works, utopian socialist Charles Fourier depicts an eighty-thousand-year time frame for human history, passing through four great stages or “movements.”

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck publishes Zoological Philosophy containing an evolutionary family tree branching out from simpler to more complex organisms.

Josiah Holbrook’s broadside, Geography and Chronology are the Two Lights to History, depicts time as a branched tree, in an attempt to literalize Christ’s statement in the New Testament: “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” Each limb of the tree represents one hundred years, and each branch 10; the root structure encompasses the period before Christ.

William Smith’s detailed and systematic geological maps of Britain including his Strata Identified by Organized Fossils inspire new theories of natural chronology.

An historical atlas published by Edward Quin depicts the widening European understanding of world geography through a series of plates depicting clouds dispersing over a world map.

Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Latin and Germanic Nations from 1494 to 1514 offers the famous dictum that history “only wants to show what actually happened.”

Charles Lyell’s “uniformitarian” thesis. His Principles of Geology argues that all geological forms may be explained in terms of common natural processes assuming a long enough time scale.

The last of G.W.F. Hegel’s lectures, on which his Philosophy of History (1837) was based.

Felix Bodin’s Novel of the Future gives the first historical account of futuristic fiction.

Evangelizing to native American tribes in the Oregon Territory from 1839, Catholic missionary Francis Norbert Blanchet employs a chronological device carved in wood. The popularity of later manuscript and print versions of the “Catholic Ladder” sets off bitter sectarian competition with Protestant missionaries who devise their own “Protestant Ladder” in response.

First publication of Disturnell’s Railway and Steamship Books.

In anticipation of the coming rapture predicted for 1843, followers of New England preacher William Miller produce and popularize a panoply of apocalyptic time charts.

May 1844
Religious leader William Miller acknowledges to his Adventists followers that his prediction that the world would end by March 1844 was erroneous; Miller promises the end by October 1844. When October passes without incident, the (non)event becomes known by Adventists as “The Great Disappointment.”

Auguste Comte, Positivist Calendar of 558 Worthies of All Ages and Nations.

First use of the term “prehistoric” in English.

Florence Nightingale, a major innovator of statistical graphs, publishes Mortality of the British Army. Her diagrams demonstrate that over the course of the Crimean War, British deaths owe principally to “preventable or mitigable” diseases rather than battlefield wounds.

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species traces species’ genealogies back more than three hundred million years. Darwin’s work contains a single illustration, a branching evolutionary tree. His first known presketch appears in his notebooks of 1839.

In his Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx describes four great stages of history organized by modes of production.

Charles Joseph Minard’s Thematic Map of the Successive Losses of French Soldiers in the Russian Campaign, 1812–1813. Among the finest of Minard’s graphical works, this chart plots the catastrophic loss of men in relation to place, time, and temperature during Napoleon’s march to Moscow.

Oregon minister Sebastian Adams publishes his Synchronological Chart, a seventeen-foot long chromolithograph of all of world history grounded in Ussher’s dating system. Adams’s vivid chart remains in print today in various editions including The Wall Chart of World History.

Eadweard Muybridge and E. J. Marey each begin work in “chronophotography.” In coining the term, Marey explicitly refers to the older tradition of “chronography,” that is to say, timelines.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of historicism in The Use and Abuse of History.

Charles Renouvier’s counterfactual Uchronia includes a chart depicting the theoretical relationship between the actual course of history and possible alternative paths.

The word graph is first used by the English mathematician James Joseph Sylvester. (Lambert referred to his graphs as figuren, Watt as diagrams, and Playfair as lineal arithmetic.)

Wilhelm Wundt’s experiments to determine the duration of the present.

English Parliament gives legal sanction to Greenwich Mean Time.

Nineteenth-century pedagogical reformers patent dozens of games and devices for teaching chronology, including Nelson Loverin’s 1882 Centograph, based loosely on a mnemonic system popularized in the 1840s by the Polish war hero Josef Bem. Loverin’s device came in a desktop and free-standing version.

International Meridian Conference establishes the Prime Meridian at Greenwich Observatory in England.

Mark Twain patents and markets a chronological “Memory-Builder” game.

In Time and Free Will, Henri Bergson argues for a distinction between the homogeneous mathematical conception of time and heterogeneous experience of duration. He insists that the experience of time should not be represented in a linear fashion.

H. G. Wells’s Time Machine.

Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés.

Ernst Te Peerdt, The Problem of the Representation of Instants of Time in Painting and Drawing.

Andrew Ellicott Douglass founds the field of dendrochronology by inventing a system whereby known sequences of events (floating chronologies) can be fixed to specific years (absolute chronologies) via the scientific analysis of tree rings.

George Beard’s American Nervousness.

Henry Adams’ “Law of Acceleration.”

Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

Raymond Poincaré convenes the International Conference on Time.

Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life argues that the calendar expresses the rhythm of collective activity.

Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger’s treatise on Cubism, Du Cubisme, articulates the Cubist approach as “moving around an object so as to record successive views of it which, when combined in a single image, reconstitute it in time.”

In their nineteenth-century notebook sketches, evolution theorists represented cross-generational reproduction with concentric circles. In this diagram, eugenicists Arthur Estabrook and Charles Davenport aim to convey the danger posed by the unchecked reproduction of “degenerates.”

Edmund Husserl elaborates his notion of the “specious present” as he completes his series of lectures entitled “The Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness”.

Eugène Minkowski begins How We Live the Future (and Not What We Know of It).

First volume of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West is published.

The final installment of H.G. Wells’ bi-weekly periodical, Outline of History: A Plain History of Life and Mankind, includes a comprehensive timeline that comprehensively depicts events from 1,000 BC to the present day.

James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Sigmund Freud, “A Note on the Mystic Writing Pad.”

Gertrude Stein: “Beginning again and again is a natural thing even when there is a series. Beginning again and again and again explaining composition and time is a natural thing.”

Marcel Proust completes On the Remembrance of Things Past.

Werner Heisenberg argues that conventional understandings of time, space, and causation do not apply at the subatomic level.

Invention of the quartz clock.

In National Geographic, Andrew Ellicott Douglass announces his discovery of a “Rosetta Stone” for American archaeology in the chronological reading of tree rings, to become known as “dendrochronology.”

English philosopher Olaf Stapleton investigates the future of the human race through fiction. Stapleton’s two-billion-year narrative, Last and First Men, includes a series of timelines dramatizing the vertigo of viewing conventional human history against the background of evolutionary time. In each section of Stapleton’s chart, the time scale increases by a power of ten.

Victor Houteff publishes his religious philosophy in the two-volume work The Shepherd’s Rod; his illustrative timelines convey the fast-approaching end of the world. Followers of his teachings include David Koresh.

Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.

In a presentation to the Board of Trustees at the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, the museum’s founding director and an amateur military historian, outlines the (soon abandoned) collection plan of MoMA with sketches of time as a torpedo. As the torpedo moves ahead through time, the work positioned at the back of Barr’s torpedo passes from MoMA’s collection to that of the Metropolitan, allowing MoMA to stay on the cusp of the modern.

Radiocarbon dating.

Fernand Braudel theorizes the history of the longue durée.

The Olympic Games in London make use of Omega’s photofinish camera.

Invention of the atomic clock. In 1967, the length of the second will be redefined by use of this device.

Studies of the damage wrought by atom bombs prompt timelines broken into ever smaller increments of time.

Electronics Magazine publishes a logarithmic graph depicting what would become known as “Moore’s Law,” the still-durable prediction of increasing miniaturization and speed in computing devices.

Electronic time-keeping devices replace live judges in certifying race winners at the Olympics in Mexico City.

The year of the Apocalypse according to Dionysius Exiguus.

Throughout the late twentieth century, professional semioticians struggle with the problem of constructing an iconographic language capable of communicating radiation dangers long after the death of current languages. Several of these symbolic systems are prepared for nuclear facilities, including the US government nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

A poster version of A Timeline of Timelines is now available. See an image of the poster here and go here to purchase.

Sasha Archibald is an associate editor at Cabinet.

Daniel Rosenberg is assistant professor of history in the Robert D. Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon. His next book concerns the history of the past.