Graphic design, ahead of its time

Today we marvel at high-tech infographics on the web, but, says Tim Walker, their analogue precursors from the 18th, 19th and 20th century were equally ambitious

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From the ancient Roman calendar to Facebook's brain-melting new "Timeline" profile layout, most of us are accustomed to visualising history as linear; a middle, book-ended by arbitrary beginnings and ends. And yet, timelines designed as a single straight axis, with a regular and measured distribution of dates, have only existed in such a form for around 250 years. So write historians Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, the authors of Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline.

In the age of the internet, the infographic has matured into a mass medium, made famous by websites like David McCandless's Information is Beautiful. Rosenberg and Grafton's new book records its messy pre-natal development. Until the Renaissance, they explain, "chronology was among the most revered of scholarly pursuits... the facts of chronology had significant implications outside the academic study of history.

"For Christians, getting chronology right was the key to many practical matters such as knowing when to celebrate Easter and weighty ones such as knowing when the Apocalypse was nigh."

Until the 18th century, however, chronologists searched in vain for a suitable visual metaphor, grafting history's more significant moments onto imagined maps, monsters or monuments – such as Dürer's triumphal arch, elucidating Emperor Maximilian's genealogy.

The most influential early example of the timeline was Joseph Priestley's A Chart of Biography, from 1765, which ran from right to left in chronological order. Lines denoting the lifespans of significant individuals since 1,200BC were divided vertically into coloured categories: Historians; Antiquarians and Lawyers; Orators and Critics; Artists and Poets; Mathematicians and Physicians; Divines and Metaphysicians; Statesmen and Warriors.

Its sequel was 1769's A New Chart of History, in which Priestley presented the political history of the world.

Such ambitious infographics, en-capsulating the full span of history, were emulated by Priestley's successors, such as Sebastian Adams and John Sparks. Others, however, took the tool he'd perfected and put it to more efficient use.

Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline is published by Princeton Architectural Press, £22.50