A “masterpiece of visual economy:” Joseph Priestley’s New Chart of History

J[oseph] Priestley, L.L.D. F.R.S., A NEW CHART OF HISTORY.  London: Engraved and published by J. Johnson in Pater-noster Row, J. Bowles No. 13 Cornhill, C. Bowles No. 69 St. Pauls Church Yard, R. Sayer No. 53 Fleet Street and T. Jefferys the corner of St. Martins Lane Charing Cross, April 11th1769.
Engraving on two sheets of laid paper joined, 23”h x 37 3/8”w at neat line plus margins, original wash color recently retouched. Some residual soiling, expert repair to a mended tear extending horizontally from left edge, and some repair and restoration to corners.

Joseph Priestley’s very rare New Chart of History, a “masterpiece of visual economy” (Rosenberg and Grafton) and a landmark in the display of information.

The polymathic Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) was a British clergyman, theologian, scientist, political theorist, educator and prolific author with more than 150 works to his credit. Best known as a chemist, he is credited by many with the discovery of oxygen (Though Antoine Lavoisier also has a claim.) His fascination with electricity brought him into close friendship with Benjamin Franklin, who nurtured his career at key points and nominated him for membership in the Royal Society. A committed Whig, friend of America, and supporter of the French Revolution, his controversial views eventually made him unwelcome at home, and he spent the last decade of his life in self-exile in Pennsylvania.

Priestley became fascinated by “chronography,” the attempt to convey historical information in graphical form. Hitherto the field had been dominated by a straightforward tabular approach, with dates listed across one axis and regions or empires across the other and the individual cells populated by discrete events. While information rich, such tables required much reading and prodigious feats of memory, while doing little to reveal the patterns underlying individual events.

Priestley’s first major chronographical production was his 1765 Chart of Biography. This charted the lifespans of some 2000 historical figures across three thousand years, grouped into six areas of endeavor: Historians Antiquarians and Lawyers Orators and Critics, Artists and Poets, Divines and Metaphysicians, and Statesmen and Warriors.

Priestley then turned his attention to historical events, and in this he was deeply influenced by Jefferys’ Chart of Universal History (1753), of which the only known example resides at the British Library. The significance of Jefferys’ chart was to combine the tabular format with a depiction of peoples and empires as continuous colored blocks rather than cells listing discrete events. While this lost detail, the great advantage was that one could take in the ebb and flow of empires at a glance: that of Alexander as a flat “pancake,” wide in extent but brief in duration; that of Rome as a huge colored mass. As Priestley wrote in the “Short Explanation” at upper left, “This Chart is intended to exhibit a picture of history, or to give a clear view of the rise, progress, extent, and duration of every considerable empire or state.”

In his New Chart of History (1769), Priestley refined Jefferys’ approach by introducing a consistent time scale, whereas Jefferys’ version features a severely compressed scale for the epochs through 1000 AD. Priestly also introduced a variety of helpful visual conventions for clarifying the origins and terminations of countries and empires.

“Each separate country or province is represented by a space bounded by line drawn parallel to the horizon. The termination of a space by a full [i.e., solid] line expresses its being annexed to some other country by conquest. If the termination be by a Broken line, the accession was not violent but peaceable. The name of the country, which make the acquisition, always appears in the continuation of the same space, or of a larger one in which it was absorbed. Dotted lines, in all cases, express uncertainty. The distant parts of very great empires are distinguished by colours.” (from the “Short Explanation”)

In another innovation, whereas Jefferys’ chart read top to bottom, Priestley rotated his so that time flows left to right. This had the great virtue of matching Western patterns of writing and reading, while also conveying the Enlightenment view of history as a narrative marked by forward progress. He dedicated the chart to his friend and supporter Benjamin Franklin, who must have appreciated both the honor and Priestley’s ingenuity.

In Cartographies of Time, Rosenberg and Grafton describe Priestley’s charts as “masterpieces of visual economy” (117), and indeed they were tremendously influential.

“Within very few years, variations on Priestley’s charts began to appear just about everywhere. When his own charts were not copied outright, they were adapted and interpreted, and, over the course of the nineteenth century, envisioning history in the form of a timeline became second nature.” (Rosenberg and Grafton, 130)

This influence reached well beyond chronography. For example William Playfair, who pioneered the presentation of economic data in graphical form, credited Priestley’s work as a valuable precursor.

A New Chart of Historyis rare: COPAC, ESTC and OCLC together list examples at only ten institutions worldwide, and I am aware of but few that have passed through the antiquarian trade in recent years.  It is worth noting that in 1792 engraver Amos Doolittle of New Haven, Connecticut produced a new edition of the chart, which if anything is even scarcer than the London edition.

In all, a significant and remarkable rarity in the history of visual display of information.

Rosenberg and Grafton, Cartographies of Time, p. 120. Rumsey #6747. COPAC, various entries (Aberdeen University, British Library—1769, 1777 and 1816 editions, Chetham’s Library, National Library of Scotland). ESTC T12698 (British Library, Harvard, Newberry and Huntington only). OCLC 82293509 (Harvard, Library Company of Philadelphia, National Library of Scotland); 495000855 (Bibliotheque nationale de France); and 64754870 (Newberry and Univ. of Groningen). (COPAC, ESTC and OCLC as of May 2018.)