By Whitney Anne Trettien on November 4, 2009
Timelines: the blessing and bane of so many digital humanities projects. While tools like SIMILE’s Timeline have made it easier to represent a series of events within the limited space of the screen, the timeline itself — a visualization so natural, so transparent to most users — is increasingly coming under question as means of depicting the complex network of historical relationships. Given that our understanding of temporal modeling has come to a crossroads (ah yes, yet another linear, spatialized conceptual metaphors for time — they’re almost impossible to escape in the English language!), it seems valuable to indulge in some oversimplified teleological history, and trace how the timeline came to be naturalized as the tool for modeling temporally-related events.
The first modern timeline may well be Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg‘s Carne chronographique, produced in 1753. This fifty-four-foot scrolling history, beginning with Creation, depicts time along a one-axis horizontal grid, with overlapping events laid out vertically.
Perhaps most interestingly, the Carte annotates events with symbols used to visualize the cast of characters involved in his moralist history:
The symbols serve as annotations to the names recorded in the section of the chart labelled “Personages.” Dubourg’s annotations are an assembly of both character-types (martyr, usuper, tyrant, just, bigot, cruel, debaucher, slothful, fool, noble, majestic, blessed, heretic, impious, upright, unfortunate, rebel) and “professions” (savant, painter, theologian, botanist, medical doctor, musician, monk, soldier, astronomer). The annotations declare Dubourg’s teaching agenda the study of history is intended to lead the student to virtue. The symbols give Dubourg’s answer to the question, “What sort of person was King so-and-so?”
— Stephen Ferguson, “The 1753 Carte chronographique of Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 52.2 (Winter 1991): 190-230.
Several decades later, the English theologian Joseph Priestley began experimenting with timelines. In A Chart of Biography from 1765, he graphs the lifespan of famous thinkers within a space that, like the scrolling Carte, looks surprisingly like the SIMILE timeline:
Overlapping lines represent overlapping lives, as time moves from left to right, past to present, on a horizontal axis. Encouraged by this early experiment with visualizing history, Priestley expanded and reconfigured the space of time in his New Chart of History (1769), which plays with type size and the space of the paper as semiotic markers:
In an accompanying book (available in PDF form via Google Books), Priestley describes the process of translating information into a visual rhetoric:
Priestley’s two timelines were wildly popular, going into more than twenty editions. As Daniel Rosenberg writes in an excellent essay on Priestley’s historical visualizations,
It was not only scholars who imitated Priestley’s timeline; during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, readers of history books themselves began taking notes with the assistance of this new device. Manuscript notes in copies of Priestley’s books attest to the skill that his readers quickly acquired in making their own timelines and in annotating his.
— Daniel Rosenberg, “Joseph Priestley and the Graphic Invention of Modern Time,” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 36 (2007): 55-103.
Rosenberg goes on to argue that Priestley’s charts were more than innovations in the history of information visualization; they, like perhaps all mediated visual representations of reality, construct a subjective argument about history, progress,and our place in the world.
Priestley was both a progressive and a providential thinker; he believed that history had a direction, and it is undoubtedly the case that these convictions led him to reflect on the problem of time and lines. It is also clearly the case that the mechanism that he developed for representing chronologies in graphic form achieved its popularity in part because it lent itself so well to the figuration of progress. This would become particularly evident in its applications in the mid and late nineteenth century by Social Darwinists and others. But for Priestley, the timeline was something else; it was a mechanism for breaking open historical narrative and for subjecting it to questions that it resisted in form. If the Chart of Biography in some way looked like progress, this was not true for the Chart of History, nor would it be for a hundred other charts plotted within the same epistemological space. For Priestley the creation of the timeline was a step toward reckoning with the many ways of seeing and representing history. As Priestley suggests, the very possibility of a non-linear historiography requires first accounting for the line.
— Rosenberg, 89
As happens so often with history, we see ourselves reflected in thinkers like Priestley or Dubourg — humanists who struggled with how to best represent information in the media of their day. (In fact, the many digital humanists who have been forced to print their born-digital materials for archival purposes, myself included among them, can share Priestley’s frustration when his Chart, designed as an enormous poster that could be observed holistically, was split into thirty sections and bound as an octavo volume in 1803. Medium specificity!, I can hear Priestley cry.) Returning to their documentation gives us a clearer view of our own research questions — and perhaps more importantly, keeps us from being lulled into easy answers. As the history of these charts show, timelines (and indeed time itself!) are, like all information visualizations, constructed and mediated cultural objects representing subjective experiences and epistemologies.