Maciunas’ Learning Machine: LEARNING IN THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT by Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt


by Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt

The meteoric career of charts and diagrams in historiography began long before George Maciunas’ learning machines. Its origins can be traced back to a network of eighteenth-century scholars who were instrumental in popularizing the visualization of history in the form of knowledge charts and also helped to sustain the ascendancy of these charts well into the nineteenth century. The prime mover in this development was Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg(1709-1779), a doctor of medicine and professor of pharmacology at the University of Paris, who in 1753 published a remarkable map of history, the Chronographie universelle & details qui en dependent pour la Chronologie & les Genealogies, also known as the Carte chronographique.(1) This chart was the first to map world history synchronoptically, from Adam and Eve to the Enlightenment. Barbeu-Dubourg even designed a “machine” to facilitate the practical use of his chart, his objective being the exemplary fulfillment of the education mandate imposed by the Enlightenment on the intellectual elite.(2) An explanatory booklet was published with the chart.(3)

The Carte chronographique consists of thirty-five folio-format copperplate engravings executed by the Parisian map engraver A. Cosmant.(4) Pasted next to each other in a row, the engravings produce a long scroll of paper of about six and a half meters in length. The length was merely the inevitable consequence of Barbeu-Dubourg’s insistence on allotting equal space to each of the 6,500 years of world history. The scale is given in the top margin. The horizontal axis represents the continuous timeline of historical topography, while the categories along the vertical axis are variable, since it is they that reflect the course of history. Whereas the early stages of the chart are structured primarily by the thematic categories “The Patriarchs,” “Descendents of Cain,” and “Momentous Events,” the new category of “Famous People” is soon added. After “The Flood” it is individual countries, starting with “Egypt” and “China,” which slowly but surely take over as the most important variable on the map of history, and which as topological formations eventually displace the Old Testament categories.

As a method of visualization, the Carte chronographique broke new ground in historiography, which is doubtless why commentators at the time described it as an “invention.”(5) Its main novelty resides in Barbeu-Dubourg’s adaptation of a method from geography for use in history.(6) Charts and tables are an indispensable tool in geography, where they provide a comprehensive impression of the topographical conditions prevailing in different parts of the world. Historiography, on the other hand, knew of no such visuals or teaching aids, for although history could be and was indeed broken down into single thematic blocks and these then configured and reconfigured to form charts, no one had ever attempted to capture all of world history in a single diagram. Barbeu-Dubourg’s synchronoptic total view of the past was a pioneering work.(7) His contribution to learning by seeing or, better still, to visual enlightenment, cannot be overestimated.

Having defined the “general utility” of his work as his paramount concern, Barbeu-Dubourg had to seek recourse in geography, since only there could he find the vivid forms of representation which a chronology based solely on facts could not provide. The visual appeal of geography, moreover, was so strong that it seemed methodologically more sophisticated than a chronology confined to mere names and numbers. “Bright,” “simple,” and “captivating” were among the words used by Barbeu-Dubourg to describe the geographical sciences with their appealing maps and diverse graphic elements. Measured against such a yardstick, chronology’s abstract data seemed excessively “dry,” “tedious,” and “laborious.”(8) Barbeu-Dubourg’s true stoke of genius thus lay in his discovery, through geography, of a new way of representing chronology and making it visually attractive. For as Barbeu-Dubourg himself reasoned: “Geography is much more sophisticated, and is generally less ignored than Chronology; & the reason for this is very clear. There are lots of ways of studying the one, but these have not yet been applied to the other.”(9) It was the combination of the two disciplines that sparked something new – namely the didactic chart as “entertaining science.”(10) Barbeu-Dubourg’s combinational method, and above all his visual communication of knowledge, confirmed one of the basic assumptions of the encyclopedists, which was that knowledge is acquired directly only via medium of the senses.(11)

Yet it is not just Barbeu-Dubourg’s method, but also his style of chronolographic design that is indebted to geography. The grid of the Carte chronographique, for example, was borrowed from cylindrical projection. All that Barbeu-Dubourg had to do was recode the lines of latitude and meridians that geographers used to isogonally map the surface of the spherical Earth on a two-dimensional plane as a system of coordinates in which the horizontal and vertical axes represented time and space. This determined the layout of all of world history. Time is represented at first by dotted lines and later, as the quantity of available data increases, by solid vertical lines making the passage of the decades, Space is divided up horizontally and by and large according to theme and country. The use of rows of dots and broken vertical lines allows a certain degree of clarity to be retained, even where a large number of facts have to be packed in. The grid structure at least accords every historical context can be inferred. To put it in more abstract terms: the horizontal comparison of different facts rests on the same variables, while the vertical comparison of different variables rests on the same point in time.

Barbeu-Dubourg’s desire to modernize historiography without trivializing it rested on a combination of various methods of visualization. This was essential to his credibility as an advocate of an iconic turn in the study of history. The very act of combining, however, also cast him in the role of mediator between different scholarly practices – a self-imposed mission which is characteristic of the age of Enlightenment. Pointers to the visually educational function of the Carte chronographique can be found both in the responses of contemporary critics and in the writings of Barbeu-Dubourg himself, who in an intertextual play on a well-known cliche draws attention to the visual qualities of geography and chronology by describing them in metaphorical terms as the “two eyes of history.”(12)

The metaphor of the “deux yeux de l’historie,” which was first coined by Abraham Ortelius and at the time formed part of every historian’s vocabulary, is symptomatic of the reassessment of the importance of the act of seeing in historiography in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.(13) The greater weight attached to seeing was not confined to eye-coming more and more a part of the methodological toolbox of the study of history. Being easy to memorize, charts and tables soon became a constituent part of the cognitive process by which knowledge was acquired and evidence collected – across all generations.

As a scholar, Barbeu-Dubourg knew that the will to know had to be nurtured from infancy. His Carte chronographique can therefore be viewed as an attempt to provide new scope for learning, from which young people – of both sexes, as he himself stressed – would be especially likely to profit, bearing in mind that many of them had no teacher capable of introducing them to the study of history.(14) The opportunity for learning by seeing which pictorial or strongly visual forms of representation offered was thus an ideal introduction to history’s vast terrain. For older people, meanwhile, such visuals were a useful aid when committing historical knowledge to memory.

Barbeu-Dubourg provided another aid to orientation for those navigating the past, in the form of a system of symbols developed specially for his Carte chronographique. He included iconic markers which enabled him to indicate the professions, talents, sand personalities of the historical figures on his chart, as well as key events in their lives, These symbolic markers lent the names and concepts introduced an essentially emblematic quality. Some have speculated that the model for them might have been Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia – at the time a well-known manual for the interpretation of allegorical figures and their attributes. This work was first published without illustrations in Rome in 1593, and was reissued in several illustrated editions and translations, including one in French, in the course of the eighteenth century.(15) But the use of symbols was of course not confined to iconography and art alone. As chemical signs, alchemical ciphers, or astronomical constellations, symbols were for a long time used to characterize the moral standing of historical personages. The Atlas historique, ou Nouvelle Introduction a l’Historie, a la Chronologie & a la Geographie Ancienne & Moderne, for example – an extravagant compendium of history both ancient and modern published in Amsterdam by Francois L’Honore and Zacharias in several volumes and editions in the early eighteenth century(26) – characterizes the princes mentioned with the aid of nineteen symbols standing for a whole gamut of qualities, proclivities, and dispositions.

The system of symbols in the Carte chronographique is considerably more nuanced than that in the Atlas historique. Barbeu-Dubourg did not confine himself to the character traits of holders of positions of political power. Instead, he used his sixty-five symbols to define a vast array of people. All the estates of the ancien regime were represented, from prince to prisoner, bishop to blasphemer, philosopher to fool, and historian to thespian. While the little icons inevitably lend the geometrically structured chart an ornamental touch, the embellishment of the diagram and moralizing of the facts are actually two sides of the same coin. The eye-catching symbols served as iconic signposts, which according to Barbeu-Dubourg would help viewers to distinguish effortlessly between “good and evil” in history.(17) One critic who was especially concerned about young people suggested that viewers should enter new symbols of their own for the personages named on the chart – for both pleasure and personal evaluation.(18) The chronographic chart, he argued, could only unfold its full didactic potential by being elaborated according to the individual interests of the student. Only then would enlightenment be put into practice.

Barbeu-Dubourg’s Carte chronographique stands apart from older chronological tables to the extent that here everything literally “speaks to the eye & to the imagination.”(19) Unlike the historical charts of Denis Petau, Claude Delisle, and Antoine Lancelot, all of whom were highly acclaimed authors in their field and in their time, Barbeu-Dubourg’s chart takes the monolinear approach to narrative historiography one stage further by adding a synchronoptical dimension to a developmental scheme.(20) This was Barbeu-Dubourg’s response to the demand for precision and brevity, itself a reaction to the predilection for prolixity of so many historians. Barbeu-Dubourg argued that a glance at the chart was all that was needed to grasp the superfluity of lengthy historical discourse: “Does anyone read history books? One has only to take one’s place in front of the Machine, opened at the century corresponding to the sovereigns being studied, and one sees at a glance all the rulers, all the memorable events of the same century & all the personages most worthy of remembrance by posterity.”(21) Yet the topological arrangement of history was not everything. Barbeu-Dubourg also developed a mechanical apparatus with which to transform the Carte chronographique into a veritable chronology machine.

Barbeu-Subourg’s chronology machine rests on an ingenious mechanism consisting of two wooden cylinders with hand cranks. By turning these, the chart can be horizontally rolled off one cylinder and onto the other at the same time. The scrolling can be done wither forward or backward and as the distance between the two cylinders and thus also the visible portion of the diagram remains constant at around thirty-five centimeters, the only thing that changes is the historical period that is under scrutiny. This likewise remains constant at about 150 years, thus precluding the risk of universal history as chronological overkill.

The effect on the viewer of such a steady procession of data does indeed merit the epithet cinematographic. The ,echanism that produced the optical effects with which Barbeu-Dubourg sought to gain viewers’ attention and suspense long before the invention of film was not without antecedents, however. One of these was the practice of preserving large prints and drawings by storing them rolled up.(22) The technique was simple, and safe and effective as a means of preventing creases and tears – which in Barbeu-Dubourg’s machine was essential to the uninterrupted chronological flow of data.

The chronology machine had to work perfectly, for only then could wearisome chronology metamorphose into exciting chronography, only then could the “dry,” “tedious,” and “laborious” study of facts become entertaining science. Where curiosity coincided with the thirst for knowledge, affective reinvention could be said to have succeeded.(23) Barbeu-Dubourg placed his faith in a mechanical method of visualization which had the capacity to fire the imagination. He used the machine’s optical potential to show the fascination of history using only a bare minimum of words. Driven by the hand of the viewer, the gloriously simple chronology machine with its quietly rustling roll of paper lulls the user into a trance-like state in which knowledge literally rolls off the line. With a minimum of effort, the viewer can watch past rulers and their contemporaries, and whole epochs slowly pass by, the actual physical length of their representation in the diagram commensurate with their reign, lifespan, or duration. Barbeu-Dubourg himself called the chart a “tableau mouvant & anime.” and took care to incorporate visual, tactile, and acoustic elements to reinforce the learning effect with an appeal to several senses. Memorable facts appealed so strongly to the senses, or so the machine’s inventor believed, that they would in any case make themselves unforgettable – by leaving an indelible stamp on the memory. The declared aim was “to learn as if mechanically and without having to think too much.”(24) It was this combination of work and play, knowledge and pleasure, that earned Barbeu-Dubourg such highly praise. Little by little, this entertaining learning machine introduced its viewers to history without ever burdening them with the sheer weight of the facts. This lightness of touch in the handling of vast amounts of material moved one writer for the Mercure de France to hail the invention as a new kind of “science machine.”(25)

The chronology machine offered a modest spectacle to delight the eyes. With lingering stares and cursory glances and the desire to break with linear reading practices, the past could be experienced afresh. Viewers had only to put a finger on the chart to travel back and forth through history,(26) studying either the diachronic course of events and the transitions between them or the synchronic overlaps. The didactic vision machine was constantly mutating into a variable time machine. The moving text-picture created incentives to explore the many surprising twist and turns of history. It was part of the Carte chronographique‘s representational strategy that history could be studied from front to back or back to front. The irreversible timeline on which all historical accounts had hitherto rested could at last be recast as a reversible conceptual model. Users could pursue their own interests in depth, and above all actively – by varying the speed and hence the duration and intensity of the lesson. Thus the art of entertainment inadvertently became a visual learning method. The image of the autonomous student or scholar, which Barbeu-Dubourg always had in mind, was a key figure in the intellectual underpinning of the Enlightenment. The Carte chronographique thus provided a didactic, diagrammatic way out of self-inflicted ignorance. The idea of the interactive user was born. George Maciunas is one of them.

    1. The author is currently preparing a detailed study of the Carte chronographique, for which the following work has proved a valuable resource: Stephen Ferguson, “The 1753 Carte chronographique of Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg,” in Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol.52, no.2 (1991), pp. 190-230. An earlier version of this chapter was published under gthe title “Barbeu-Dubourgs Lernmaschine: Geschichtsdiagrammatik im Zeitalter der Aufklarung,” in Bildwelten des Wissens: Kunsthistorisches Jahrbuch fur Bildkritik, vol.7, no.1, 2009, pp.9-18

    2. In the eighteenth century, the Carte chronographique could be obtained either from Barbeu-Dubourg himself or from two Parisian dealers. Only one copy of the machine version has survived, now housed in Princeton University Library. There is a bound copy in the Bibliotheque nationale de France, Paris.

    3. Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, Chronographie, ou Description des tems; Contenant toute la suite des Souverains de l’Univers, & des principaux evenemens de chaque Siecle, depuis la Creation du Monde jusqu’a present; En trentecinq Planches gravees en Taille-douce, & reunies en une Machine d’un usage facile & commode (Paris 1753). Two editions of this work were published in 1753: a shorter edition sand an edition enlarged by an “Approbation.” “Avertissement,” and list of symbols.

    4. Whether A. Cosmant the engraver is identical with Antoine Cosmant the bookbinder has yet to be established.

    5. For example in the Journal de Trevoux ou Memoires pour servir a l’histoire des sciences & des arts, no.53 (1753; reprint : Geneva 1969), pp.1898-1902 (p.1901).

    6. See Barbeu-Dubourg, Chronographie (n.17), p.4.

    7. Ibid., p.13.

    8. Ibid., p.5.

    9. Ibid., p.4.

    10. Ibid., p.8.

    11. See Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, “Discours preliminaire des editeurs,” in Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Encyclopedie, ou Dictionnaire raisonne des Sciences, des Arts et des Metiers, par une Societe de Gens de Letters, vol.1 (Paris 1751), pp.i-xlv.

    12. Barbeu-Dubourg, Chronographie (n.17), p.4.

    13. See Christian Zwink, Imagination und Reprasentation: Die theoretische Formulierung der Historiographie im spaten 17. und fruhen 18. Jahrhundert in Frankreich (Tubingen 2006), pp.317-27.

    14. See the review of the Carte chronographique in Mercure de France (Dec.1753), pp.103-12 (p.111).

    15. See Ferguson, “The 1753 Carte chronographique of Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg” (n.15), pp.198,211,226.

    16. On the complex history of editions of the Atlas historique, see Aubrey Rosenberg, Nicolas Gueudeville and his Work (1652-172?) (The Hague 1982), pp.79-91, 164-66, 253-59.

    17. Barbeu-Dubourg, Chronographie (n.17),p.8.

    18. See Mercure de France (n.28), pp.107,111.

    19. Barbeu-Dubourg, Chronographie (n.17), p.8.

    20. See Denis Petau, Abrege chronographique de l’Histoire universelle sacree et profane: Nouvelle Edition continuee jusqu’ a present, 5 vols. (Paris 1731); Claude Delisle (alias Claude de L’Isle), Abrege de l’Histoire universelle, ed. Antoine Lancelot, 7 vols. (Paris 1731); Claude Delisle, Tables genealogiques et historiques des patriarches, des rois, des empereurs et des autres princes…(Paris 1718).

    21. Barbeu-Dubourg, Chronographie (n.17), p.13.

    22. See Mercure de France (n.28), pp.107-8.

    23. For more on the media archaelogy of the vision machine from the point of view of its cinematographic properties, see Blickmaschines oder wie Bilder enstehen, ed. Nike Batzner, Werner Nekes, and Eva Schmidt (Cologne 2008); Ich sehe was, was du nicht siehst! Sehmaschinen und Bilderwelten: Die Sammlung Werner Nekes, ed. Bodo von Dewitz and Werner Nekes (Cologne 2002).

    24. Barbeu-Dubourg, Chronographie (n.17), p.8.

    25. Mercure de France (n.28), p.104.

    26. See Barbeu-Dubourg, Chronographie (n.17), p.13.