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Joseph Priestley Issues the First Biographical Timeline Chart Depicting 2000 Lives


British theologian, dissenting clergyman, natural philosopher, educator, and political theorist Joseph Priestley published A Chart of Biography in London with text entitled A Description of a Chart of Biography in 1765. Priestley's work was the first biographical timeline chart, in which individual bars were used to visualize the life span of a person, allowing the comparison of the lifespans of many people, in this case 2000 people on one large, dense chart.

"The Chart of Biography covers a vast timespan, from 1200 BC to 1800 AD, and includes two thousand names. Priestley organized his list into six categories: Statesman and Warriors; Divines and Metaphysicians; Mathematicians and Physicians (natural philosophers were placed here); Poets and Artists; Orators and Critics (prose fiction authors were placed here); and Historians and Antiquarians (lawyers were placed here). Priestley's 'principle of selection' was fame, not merit; therefore, as he mentions, the chart is a reflection of current opinion. He also wanted to ensure that his readers would recognize the entires on the chart. Priestley had difficulty assigning all of the people listed to individual categories; he attempted to list them in the category under which their most important work had been done. Machiavelli is therefore listed as a historian rather than a statesman and Cicero is listed as a statesman instead of an orator. The chart was also arranged in order of importance; 'statesmen are placed on the lower margin, where they are easier to see, because they are the names most familiar to readers' " (Wikipedia article on A Chart of Biography, accessed 03-16-2010).

Rosenberg & Grafton, Cartographies of Time (2010) 116-17, plate 19.

Timeline Themes