Spring 2004

The Trouble with Timelines

The measure of it all

Daniel Rosenberg

In 1765, Joseph Priestley published a chart representing the lives of famous men by means of lines arrayed chronologically against a scale of 2,950 years. Priestley’s Chart of Biography was not the first timeline. It had a direct precedent in Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg’s 1753 Chronological Chart and earlier roots in chronologies and genealogies, calendars and canon tables, and traditional forms of narrative imagery depicting historical events. Despite the persistence of cyclical gestures, a 1627 chart of the events of the coming apocalypse by Joseph Mede already has something of the modern timeline about it. But none of this made Priestley’s chart any less striking in its day. In fact, the idea of a timeline was still strange enough in the mid-eighteenth century that it required a certain amount of explanation. In his accompanying pamphlet, Priestley argues that although time in itself is an abstraction that may not be “the object of any of our senses, and no image can properly be made of it, yet because it has a relation to quantity, and we can say a greater or less space of time, it admits of a natural and easy representation in our minds by the idea of a measurable space, and particularly that of a LINE.”[1]

After Priestley, the form of the timeline caught on. In addition to its visual effectiveness, the timeline amplified conceptions of historical progress that were becoming popular at the time. The relationship was mutually reinforcing. As Priestley himself suggests, the timeline filled in as a kind of fantasized visual referent for an object without material substance. In its simplest form, it appeared to guarantee the simplicity and directionality of past and future history. But Priestley’s commentary points to a problem too. History had never actually taken the form of a timeline or of any other line for that matter. And simplicity, the great advantage of the form, threatened also to be its greatest flaw. The timeline could function as “the most excellent mechanical help to the knowledge of history” because it could impress the imagination “indelibly.”[2] For the same reason, a century later, Henri Bergson would refer to the “imaginary homogeneous time” depicted by the timeline as a deceiving “idol.”[3]

But already in Priestley’s day, the problem of the linear representation of time was posed with precision by writers such as Laurence Sterne whose 1760 Tristram Shandy satirized the idea of telling a story straight. Sterne’s novel even includes a set of sketches indicating the digressive form of a story well and truly told. In fact, Sterne and Priestley are much more similar than they may appear. For Priestley, the timeline is a heuristic, an “excellent mechanical help.” For Sterne, the linear representation of time is a construction. “Could a historiographer drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule,—straight forward;—for instance, from Rome all the way to Loretto, without ever once turning his head aside either to the right hand or to the left,—he might venture to foretell you an hour when he should get to his journey’s end,” Sterne writes. “But the thing is, morally speaking, impossible. For if he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid. He will have views and prospects to himself perpetually soliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly.”[4]

Both Priestley and Sterne point to the technical ingenuity and the intensity of the labor required to support a fantasy of linear time. Over the course of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, the convention of the timeline was progressively naturalized. But its development tended also to raise new questions. Filling in an ideal timeline with more and better data only pushed it toward the absurd. Dubourg’s Chronological Chart, mounted on a scroll and encased in a decorative box, was already fifty-four feet long. Later attempts to re-anchor the timeline in material reference, as in the case of Charles-Joseph Minard’s 1869 diagram, Figurative Chart of the Successive Loss of Men in the French Army in the Russian Campaign, 1812–1813, produced results that were beautiful but ultimately put into question the promise of the modern timeline. The visual simplicity of the diagram is paradigmatic as is the numbing pathos of its articulation across the space of the Russian winter. At the same time, through color, angle, and shape, Minard’s chart marks the centrality of the idea of reversal in the thinking and telling of history. Minard’s chart may be more accurate than Priestley’s, not because it carries more or better historical detail but because it reads in the way a story might be told. The same could be said for the branching timeline in Charles Renouvier’s 1876 Uchronia (Utopia in History): An Apocryphal Sketch of the Development of European Civilization Not as It Was But as It Might Have Been, depicting both the actual course of history and the various alternative paths that might have been if other actions had been taken.

The problems presented by twentieth-century versions of the timeline arise from different sources. In most important respects, the conceptual issues were already on the table in the eighteenth century. But the twentieth century brought developments in time reckoning that gave timelines new poignancy. In 1945, it became relevant for the first time to tell world history in terms of milliseconds, and, very soon, it also became necessary to start thinking in practical terms about the transmission of information over the course of the very long term. There is something more than a little sobering about the recurrence of the cyclical form in the US government glyph for the declining radioactivity of nuclear waste stored in Yucca Mountain. In it, there may be an echo of Joseph Mede’s indecision about the appropriateness of applying the linear form to an apocalyptic narrative.

­Click here to view “A Timeline of Timelines”

  1. Joseph Priestley, Description of a Chart of Biography, in John Towill Rutt, ed., The Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley, 25 vols. (London: G. Smallfield, 1817–1832), vol. 24, p. 465.

  2. Joseph Priestley, Description of a New Chart of History, 2nd ed. (London: J. Johnson, 1770), pp. 11–12.

  3. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer (New York: Zone Books, 1988), p. 207.

  4. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (New York: W. W. Norton, 1980), p. 26.

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.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.