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Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 36.1 (2007) 55-103

Joseph Priestley and the Graphic Invention of Modern Time

Labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum

In historiography, the idea of time is expressed through a variety of figures, not the least of which is the line. Indeed, in temporal representation in general, the linear metaphor appears virtually everywhere. As W. J. T. Mitchell and others have argued, much of the language that we use to talk about time already implies this turn.1 In visual art, the same holds true: from the most ancient images of time to the most modern, the line appears as a central figure. The linear metaphor is ubiquitous in everyday visual representations, too, in almanacs, calendars, charts, and graphs of all sorts.2 So it comes as something of a surprise to discover that it was only quite recently that scholars first thought to represent chronological relationships among historical events by placing them on a measured timeline. This fact is not only surprising in retrospect: in the 1750s and 60s, when the modern timeline was first introduced, observers found it equally strange.

Certainly, there was no technical reason why a regular timeline could not have been created earlier. Technologies of printing had long been available, as had techniques for geometrical plotting far more complex than were necessary for this application.3 Nor was the problem of inscribing chronology new in the Enlightenment. To the contrary, every historical culture has produced its own mechanisms of chronological inscription. The Persians had their king lists; the Greeks, their tables of Olympiads; the Romans, their fasti, and so [End Page 55] forth, and in Europe, during the Middle Ages and the early modern period, scholars argued the fine points of Biblical chronology, producing many volumes of tables and calculations.4 Indeed, it is conventional wisdom that such mechanisms of chronology necessarily precede and form the basis for fully developed historical narrative. But, in fact, the history of chronography does not precede that of historiography: the two are intertwined, responding to related intellectual and cultural changes, and to one another.5 (fig.1)

 Joseph Priestley, Chart of Biography, 1765. (60 x 95 cm) Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society. (Pages 2 and 3)
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Figure 1
Joseph Priestley, Chart of Biography, 1765. (60 x 95 cm) Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society. (Pages 2 and 3)
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The most influential timelines published in the eighteenth century were the Chart of Biography (1765) and the New Chart of History (1769) created by the scientist and theologian, Joseph Priestley (1733–1804).6 Priestley's charts were immediately praised and widely copied. Together, the two works went through more than twenty editions, the latest appearing in 1820. Variations on them can be found in works as different as James Playfair's antiquarian System of Chronology of 1784 and Nicolas Chantreau's theoretical manifesto Science de l'histoire of 1803; editions of other works which draw directly [End Page 57] on Priestley's charts, such as G. P. Putnam's Chronology, remained in print well into the twentieth century.7

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.8 In some instances, these additions and revisions became the basis for new printed charts, in others, they were used and circulated in manuscript: John Dickinson, a signer of the American Declaration of Independence and an early governor of Delaware received as a gift a two foot by two foot handmade chart of history after the style of Priestley.9 Related graphic forms can also be found in a wide range of different applications in the late eighteenth century including Thomas Jefferson's 1782 chart of the growing seasons of vegetables.10

All of this is especially striking because Priestley is not principally remembered as a historian. The bulk of his...


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