A Tinkerer’s Art (abstracts)

Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton

Fig. 1: For twenty-first century readers, it is second nature to think of timeliness as scaling smoothly from large to small, from centuries to decades to years, months, days, minutes, and seconds. But for earlier readers, these translations were not so simple. Prior to national and international standardizations of time in the last decades of the nineteenth century, complex correspondence charts—such as Alvin Jewett Johnson’s 1873 “A diagram exhibiting the difference of time between the places shown and Washington”, from Johnson’s New Illustrated Family Atlas of the World—were necessary to establish exact synchronisms across geographical space.


Fig. 2: Francis Galton did pioneering work both in the study of weather and in its mapping. In Meteorographica, or Methods of Mapping the Weather, from 1863, Galton presented a variety of meteorological diagrams including “synchronous charts” such as the one depicted here, indicating weather conditions, barometric pressure, and wind direction at a single historic moment across the geographic space of Europe.

In the Western world, concepts and experiences of time changed quickly during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Over the course of a very short period, new social developments including industrialization, urbanization, and the spread of new transportation and communication technologies such as the railroad and telegraph made new time-keeping conventions unavoidable. More and more, daily behavior was governed by clocks and watches. The correct time was no longer established only by local convention. Time zones connected faraway places and governed a global, interconnected system.

As measured time penetrated into even more domains of cultural life, so did the graphic frameworks of chronography.[figs. 1–2]The coordination of time frames (through technologies such as the marine chronometer and conventions such as international time zones) brought chronographics into play in many new areas. Much has been made of the cultural impact of the first photographs of the earth taken in the 1960s; of the vision of one continuous and connected world that those pictures provided. But already in the nineteenth century, “synchronous maps” showing data readings from different geographical locations taken at the same moment provided something conceptually similar.

Fig. 3: A board game published in Paris after 1715, the Tableau chronologique de l’histoire universelle en forme de jeu begins in the Year 1 of the World, with Adam, and ends on September 1, 1715, with the accession of Louis XV. Board games of this type became very popular in Europe and England during the nineteenth century. The general rules are printed on the game, and the specific instructions are inscribed over many of the individual spaces on the game board. Players with the bad luck to land on the penultimate year 1714, for example, were instructed to return to the year 1191.

Fig. 4: “Wallis’s New Game of Universal History and Chronology” from 1840 is a hand-colored game sheet divided in twelve and mounted on linen. It has spaces for such events as the first use of paper in England, the invention of engraving, and the discovery of longitude.

Nineteenth century chronographers experimented with every format they could get their hands on.[figs.3–4]In addition to reference works, they made games and toys and mechanisms of many different kinds. Chronological amusements, such as simple board games in which players rolled dice to race along a historical path, were already popular by the end of the eighteenth century, and with cheaper printing techniques, developing consumer markets, and a growing awareness of the value of visual education, they continued to proliferate in the following century.

In general, early chronological games were fairly straightforward: the usual layout is a continuous spiral; players begin at the outer edge and, by rolling dice or something similar, advance toward the center; or else they begin at the center and do the reverse. Spaces are marked with either dates or notable events such as coronations, battles and treaties. The basic goal is to get to the end of the board first. Race games such as these, of course, could be organized around any theme at all, but the structure of chronology suited them particularly well: chronological subject matter provided a rationale for the linear structure of games, and it gave them an internal tension, as players had opportunities to jump ahead of one another and to leapfrog, like the time traveler of Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s 1769 “The Year 2240: A Dream if Ever There Was One”, over dangerous and exciting events.1

Fig. 5: Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Memory Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of Facts and Dates, Hartford, Connecticut, 1885.
Fig. 6: In its response to Mark Twain’s first application for his “Memory-Builder”, the United States Patent Office asked Twain to distinguish between his game and other extant chronology games, including Victor Klobassa’s “Centenary Game”, patented in 1875. Twain replied that his and Klobassa’s games were not at all alike: his was a game of knowledge; Klobassa’s a game of chance.

Fig. 7: In his 1899 article, “How to Make History Dates Stick,” Mark Twain offered a series of pictographs to aid in memorizing the chronology of the English monarchs. Most were based on linguistic associations: “hen” for Henry, “whale” for William, “steer” for Stephen, and so on. These could then be laid out on a mnemonic timeline reversing at each change of regime. Twain suggested redrawing each cartoon as many times as there were years in a monarch’s reign. That, he said, would ink the image indelibly into one’s mind.

[…] The nineteenth century American writer Samuel L. Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, was fascinated by new technologies. He famously lost his shirt investing in the Paige Compositor—someone else’s concept for an automatic typesetting machine—but he also held three patents of his own, none of which brought him such financial heartache: one for a self-adhesive scrapbook, one for an adjustable garment strap, and one from 1885, for a chronology game.

The concept of Twain’s game was straightforward: players would name the dates of significant historical events, earning the right to push pins into a field of numbered spaces.[figs. 5–7]In response to queries from the United States Patent Office, Twain carefully distinguished his game from other, already-patented chronology games, including Victor Klobassa’s “Centenary Game”, the design of which was singled out by the patent inspector as being suspiciously close to Twain’s. But, as Twain argued successfully, the two really had nothing in common beyond the theme of chronology. Klobossa’s patent was for a game of chance with a circular board that involved little more chronology than the display of dates. Twain called it a “gambling apparatus”.2

In contrast, Twain’s game presupposed “a thorough knowledge of history”.3 His board contains no historical information: it is a simple chronological template in which each date is equivalent to every other. In this respect, it is a truly modern chronology game. Like Priestley, Twain was fascinated by synchronisms. As Twain says, “One often knows a lot of odds and ends of facts belonging within a certain period but happening in widely separated regions; and as they have no connections with each other, he is apt to fail to notice that they are contemporaneous; but he will notice it when he comes to group them on this game-board. For instance, it will surprise him to notice how many historical acquaintances were walking about the Earth, widely scattered, while Shakespeare lived.”4 Twain believed in memorizing lots of dates, but for him the payoff was not just the accumulation of facts, it was creating a skeleton for real knowledge. Twain saw history as a treasury of memorable stories, and he thought that his game would elicit these by a process of suggestion. “The accidental mention of Waterloo” by one player, he writes, may turn loose from the other “an inundation of French history. The very mention of any nation will bring before the vision of the adversaries the minor features of the historical landscape that stretches away from it.”5

Twain’s game play was simple and adaptable. The basic version pitted two players head to head, trying to name events and dates and to fill each dated hole in the chronological game board. The game could be played until the board was filled or the players’s knowledge of history was exhausted, to a time limit or a designated point total. Ten points were awarded for giving the date of a monarch’s accession, five points for a battle, and one point for any other historical event. Points could also be given for stating miscellaneous facts that were unrelated to chronology but interesting and worthwhile to know. Though Twain gave different values to different kinds of facts, he did not mean to suggest that some facts (accessions, battles) were more fundamentally important than others; only that they represented key markers in the chronological landscape. And he designed his game to be winnable on the basis of knowing minor facts as well as major ones. In the hypothetical game scenario that he provides with his rules, the player with more minor facts manages to eke out a victory. The moral: “The minor events of history are valuable, although not always showy and picturesque.”6 In Twain’s view, both the biggest and the smallest events in history were all potentially dramatic occasions, and, as in his “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, all available for ironic redeployment and juxtaposition.

[…] Mark Twain, though his board game already represented a new take on the problem of chronographics, continued to puzzle and invent through the 1880s and 1890s. In 1899, fourteen years after he had first published “Mark Twain’s Memory-Builder”, Twain wrote a magazine article entirely devoted to the subject. The article, “How To Make History Dates Stick,” brimmed with Twain’s characteristic humor.7 In it, he bemoaned his own difficulties remembering things, dates above all. Over the years, he said, he had implemented numerous aids and expedients. At one point, when he was having trouble committing a speech to memory, he came up with the idea of writing notes on the tips of his fingers so that he could easily refer to them while he talked. This plan backfired. He remembered the speech but irritated the audience, who had trouble understanding why the esteemed speaker seemed to be gazing idly at his fingernails.

The solution, Twain discovered—or rediscovered, since it is essentially the standard method of classical mnemonics—was to lay down a strong system of visual association and commit that to memory.[figs. 8–9]He began doing this for his speeches—drawing little pictures to help call up a subject, and sometimes in twisted and humorous ways, as for example, when he used a picture of lightning to remind him to talk about San Francisco, since according to Twain, there is no lightning in San Francisco—and then applied the method to the tougher subject of chronology. The key to it all, Twain argued, was doing it yourself. It was not enough to use someone else’s system. That could help, no doubt, but to really commit something to memory you had to figure it out for yourself. Twain writes,

                 Dates are difficult things to acquire; and after they are acquired it is difficult to keep them in the
                 head. But they are very valuable. They are like the cattle-pens of a ranch—they shut in the several
                 brands of historical cattle, each within its own fence, and keep them from getting mixed together.
                 Dates are hard to remember because they consist of figures; figures are monotonously unstriking
                 in appearance, and they don’t take hold, they form no pictures, and so they give the eye no chance
                 to help. Pictures are the thing.8

Figs. 8-9: Mark Twain, driveway from “How to Make History Dates Stick,” Harpers, 1899. Twain proposed marking off a road or path in equal lengths, calling those lengths years, and then posting stakes at key moments. He had done this very thing with his own daughters. Not only did it succeed in overcoming their distaste for chronology, it stuck the dates permanently for Twain himself. He writes, “When I think of the Commonwealth I see a shady little group of these small saplings which we called the oak parlor, when of think of George II, I see him stretching up the hill, part of him occupied by a flight of stone steps… Victoria’s reign reached almost to my study door on the first little summit; there’s sixteen feet to be added now; I believe that that would carry it to a big pine tree that was shattered by some lightning one summer when it was trying to hit me.”
Figs. 10-12: Mark Twain, mnemonic cartoons of Edward I, Edward II, and Edward III, from “How to Make History Dates Stick,” 1899. Twain writes, “Edward I. That is an editor. He is trying to think of a word. He propos his feet on a chair, which is the editor’s way; then he can think better. I do not care much for this one; his ears are not alike; still, editor suggests the sound of Edward, and he will do. I could make him better if I had a model, but I made this one from memory. But is no particular matter; they all look alike, anyway. They are conceited and troublesome, and don’t pay enough. Edward was the first really English king that had yet occupied the throne. The editor in the picture probably looks just as Edward looked when it was first borne in upon him that this was so. His whole attitude expressed gratification and pride mixed with stupefaction and astonishment.”

In his article, Twain gives numerous examples of his own mnemonics; funny combinations of verbal and visual play. For the chronology of English kings, he created pictographs based on alliterations: the Henrys are hens, the Stephens are streets, the Williams are whales, and the Edwards—feet tipped up on their chairs, pens in hand, and malice in their eyes—are editors.

Twain’s images were crude, but this didn’t matter to him.[figs. 10–12]The point, he said, was just to be able to remember. Thus, Twain gives us his somewhat mangled impression of Edward III, a literary critic who “has pulled out his carving-knife and his tomahawk and is starting after a book which he is going to have for breakfast.”9

None of this decoration should be taken to suggest that Twain had thrown out this idea of a timeline. Far from it: in Twain’s system, you start by making pictures, then you pin then to the wall in chronological order like kings marching in procession.10 In good weather, Twain suggested, a similar arrangement could be implemented outdoors. He taught his daughters to mark off a road or path in equal lengths, to call those lengths years, and then to post stakes at key moments. Twain was not the only one to suggest sending children out to play in the chronological field. In an early promotion of his own chronological system, Jazwinski had suggested that his colorful matrices would make a wonderful plan for a garden. Or, if time did not permit such a horticultural approach, a playing field could simply be marked off by ribbons indicating conquests, accessions or other great events.

Fig. 13: Antoni Jazwinski, Tableau muet servant aux Exercices Chronologiques et autres de la Méthode dite Polonaise, Paris, 1834.

None of Twain’s inventions were intended as art, and Twain joked heartily about his poor drafting skills. [fig. 13]If he could do it, anyone could, he said. His idea was to make history visible; touchable, even walkable; to make the children in his household see what they might only have otherwise read. Yet, in Twain, as in Jazwinski, Bem, and Peabody, there is a surprising incitement to artistic practice. Not to high art, not to considered aesthetics, but to a kind of tinkerer’s art; doodles in the margins of history.

The following paragraphs have been reproduced from “A Tinkerer’s Art”, the sixth chapter of Cartographies of Time, A History of the Timeline, by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010), 180–209. Manifesta Journal would like to thank Princeton Architectural Press for their kind permission to publish this excerpt.

  • 1. Daniel Rosenberg, “An Eighteenth Century Time Machine: The Encyclopedia of Diderot”, in Postmodernism and the Enlightenment: New Perspectives in Eighteenth Century French Intellectual History, ed. Daniel Gordon (New York: Routledge, 2001), 45–66.
  • 2. Samuel L. Clemens to United States Patent Office, 9 October 1884, United States National Archives.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Memory-Builder, reverse.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Mark Twain, “How to Make History Dates Stick”, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, 130: 775 (December 1914), 3–15.
  • 8. Twain, “How to Make History Dates Stick”, 3.
  • 9. Ibid., 11
  • 10. Ibid., 7