History at a glance

18 04 2011

‘Historical chart. Representing at one view the rise and progress of the principal states & empires of the known world’, c. 1780s. Designed by Adam Ferguson, copper engraving by A. Bell, hand coloured. 575 x 249 mm (Paul Dobraszczyk)

In the nineteenth century, historical charts, or chronologies, emerged as a popular method of showing comparative historical development; that is, by means of graphs or tables on which were plotted the development of different civilizations over time. In this case, time is represented on the vertical axis and read from top to bottom, while different-coloured bars on the horizontal axis represent various empires, which are labelled at the top of the page in twelve columns. The columns are in some cases further divided by means of colour alone: Britain into Scotland, Ireland and England; and Spain into Portugal. From top to bottom, the width of the areas of colour varies according to the geographical reach of each empire – for example, in the middle of the chart is a large area of pink, indicating the extent of the Roman Empire across many other countries.

The source of this particular example is the Encyclopaedia Britannica, whose second edition (1777-84) included this historical chart as a foldout plate. When the third edition of the encyclopaedia was published in 1797, the chart’s timeline was extended to 1800. The development of historical charts like this one was pioneered by Joseph Priestley in the eighteenth century, with his graphic method of presenting time as a line, and was later taken up by Major James Bell, who published the first edition of his A compendious view of universal history & literature in a series of tables in 1820. Bell’s charts were displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851 in the form of a long roll, unfolded to give a sense of historical development ‘in one view’. The chart illustrated here was designed by Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), a prominent Scottish philosopher and historian, and published long before Bell came to dominate the field.

The sense of perceiving history as a totality, by means of comparative development of empires, developed from sixteenth-century historians such as Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609), who founded the study of chronology. Historical tables were probably used mainly in education, whether in schools or in the home of those who could afford such lavish publications. As educative tools, the ‘in one view’ format of the chart was designed to aid memory: organising historical data into spatial formations on the page was believed to imprint it on the memory of the reader/viewer much more effectively than words alone.

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