Our linear understanding of time is so deeply engrained in Western thinking (and nowadays also in our interfaces and news feeds) that it almost seems to be a natural concept. But our notion of time as a linear vector is the result of a long history of graphic inventions.

One crucial moment in this history is the publication of the so-called “Chronographie” by Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, in France in 1753. Little was known about this work up till now, but a new book by German art historian Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt (out from Lukas Verlag in German language), provides an enormous amount of detail about this work, its predecessors and context.

In this „Chronographie“, Barbeu-Dubourg presents a universal history of everything – stretching over many centuries. It was printed in 35 individual sheets, which were glued together to form a continuous, 16.5 meter paper roll. This enormous map was displayed using a customized wooden reading machine with rolls on each side.

Dubourg was a physician and publisher, and did research in a wide range of fields (which was common among scholars at the time). Among other subjects, he considered how to improve the teaching and knowledge of history. This involved a huge conceptual task – transferring the fuzzy and complex field of knowledge known as “history” into a clear visual order.

The habit of recording history in graphic tables goes back a long way, as we know from a range of medieval chronicles. Many of them display parallel tracks of time next to each other. Furthermore, over the course of the 17th and early 18th century, several scholars and cartographers created conceptual maps of history that provided alternative models for displaying time.

Barbeu-Dubourg adds two major inventions to these earlier concepts: The time span covered in his map is displayed in equal intervals. On the paper, this creates some white spaces in which nothing noteworthy happened, but at the same time this regularity makes this a crucial step in inventing the timeline. Furthermore, he delivers an actual wooden reading device to enable an easy handling. It had rolls on both sides, and seems to anticipate film techniques which were not invented until 150 years later.

Research in this specific field of cartography has always been scant. Stephen Boyd Davis from London has contributed a number of papers about the history of the timeline, and it is from his work that I learned about Barbeu-Dubourg at first.

Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt is a German art historian who has an impressive track record of research in the field of visual knowledge. In this new book, she contributes in-depth research about the predecessors, the publication history and also the reception of Barbeu-Dubourg’s “Chronologie”. We hear that among the scholars and intellectuals of France, this innovative history-map was well known and much discussed, and has contributed to a new understanding of history and progress.

What I liked most about it is the interactive process of using this map – as a reader, you literally have to scroll through the years. We tend to think that printed books and maps never really allowed for any interaction between user and medium, beyond reading the text and looking at the images. I never really thought this was true. We actually know quite a number of innovative techniques of making print products interactive, from layers of text to cross references and manual notes. The interactive nature of the „Chronologie“ certainly contributes to this story.

The book “Die Chronologiemaschine“ is available in German language from Lukas Verlag in Berlin, including many illustrations and references.

See also how our fellow dataviz afficionados RJ Andrews and Andy Cotgreave have documented their real life experience with the map and its reading device in these pictures.