The Time Charts
of Joseph Priestley

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the English scientist and theologian Joseph Priestley published two of the most important data visualizations in modern history, the Chart of Biography (1765) which plotted the lives and deaths of famous people in history, and the New Chart of History (1769), showing the rise and fall of empires.

Priestley’s charts were enormously influential in their time, and they continue to serve as models for how to draw timelines today. This project project explores the history and the visual and the analytic logics of Priestley’s charts by making them interactive.

Explore and enjoy!

About the project

The Time Charts of Joseph Priestley is a digital humanities project directed by Professor Daniel Rosenberg at the InfoGraphics Lab at the University of Oregon. The project uses digital tools to provide insights into the early history of infographics and new perspectives for digital infographic design. Our project focuses on the history of graphic timelines and, in particular, two exceptionally influential examples, the 1765 Chart of Biography and the 1769 New Chart of History by the English natural philosopher and theologian Joseph Priestley. In our study, we ask in what ways Priestley’s original charts were algorithmic. We examine how their data was collected, structured, and manipulated, and how Priestley’s approach to data representation relates to data graphics made with computers today. In building interactive versions of Priestley’s timelines using GIS and other modern digital tools, we also explore the ways in which these charts were cartographic and how Priestley achieved a revolution in the graphic representation of historical time parallel to the revolution in spatial representation achieved by geographic cartographers of the previous century. The Time Charts of Joseph Priestley is supported by NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant HAA-271794-20. Generous support has also been provided by the University of Oregon Libraries, the Robert D. Clark Honors College and the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon, the University of Oregon Office of Research, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany.

This site is still in development, so we hope you enjoy a peek at what we have been working on and bear with us if some features are a little buggy. Check back to see improvements!

Image source: Stuart, Gilbert. J. Priestley, head-and-shoulders portrait. c1889. Photograph. Library of Congress, Lib. of Cong. Web. 21 Oct. 2019.

About Priestley

Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) was an English natural philosopher, theologian, and polymath. He was one of the most famous men in England in his time. Today, Priestley is best remembered for his chemical experiments, especially his isolation of oxygen from air in 1774. A related experiment demonstrated how to carbonate water, a process which Priestley freely discussed and upon which many fortunes were made. But in his day, Priestley was at least as well known for his radical political and theological ideas as for his scientific experiments. In 1791, a mob suspicious of Priestley’s ideas burned down his house and laboratory in Birmingham, England. Under continuing threat, in 1794, Priestley, who was admired by both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, took refuge in western Pennsylvania, where he spent the final decade of his life. Priestley’s Chart of Biography from 1765 and his New Chart of History from 1769 were among the works that first brought Priestley fame. Indeed, on Priestley’s certificate of induction to the Royal Society of London in 1766, the Chart of Biography was his only publication that was specifically named. The impact of Priestley’s charts was swift and enduring. Within decades, the measured, linear timeline form that Priestley pioneered had been assimilated into a common visual vocabulary. Today Priestley’s chronographic format remains ubiquitous. If anything, the recent explosion of digital infographics has made his visual approach more common, and understanding it, that much more important.

Site tour

View the "Chart of Biography" and "Chart of History" tabs to learn about the original images, and to explore our data-driven, interactive recreations of the charts.

The various pages under "Digital explorations" provide additional insights from our analysis of the charts.

The "Essays and artifacts" tab contains a detailed essay about the history of histography and an explanation of how we digitized the chart of history.

About us

Daniel Rosenberg

Principal Investigator Professor of History, Clark Honors College

Joanna Merson

Project Lead Cartographic Developer, InfoGraphics Lab

James Meacham

Project Manager Executive Director, InfoGraphics Lab
Student researchers:
Hannah Taub
Mila Laussey
Ryan Basford
Lyssandra Gollege
Student developers:
Benjamin Elan
Greg FitzGerald
Jacob Maurer
Roane Mullins
Adriana Uscanga
Ian Freeman
Lucinda Roberts
Past Contributor:
Kristi Potter

Data supporting this project

Designed by the University of Oregon InfoGraphics Lab