The History of the History Chart

  • The Author
  • Evolution of a Concept
  • The published History Chart
  • Reviews
  • Credits
  • HyperHistory Online
  • Back

  • a
    The Author: Andreas Nothiger

    Born in Zurich, Switzerland, I studied architecture there, and worked in this field for some time in Zurich and Paris. I also helped to organize some of the big Eastern protest marches based on the Einstein/Russell appeal against nuclear testing. In 1962 I reverted to my Bohemian roots and organized instead an Eastern Jazz party in a restored village in the Toscana, near Siena, Italy. At that time the idea was born to visit the carnival in Rio de Janeiro with some friends. In the best party spirit we agreed that the most exiting way to reach Brazil would be a trip around the world - lasting perhaps an entire year !

    In the spring of 1964 we set out on a journey that would lead us across the Middle East, Afghanistan, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Borneo, China, Siberia, and Japan. Before we left Switzerland I obtained an agreement with the largest Swiss newspaper to write weekly stories about our voyage, including articles about the histories of Asian countries - those reports would eventually become the starting point of the World History Project.

    We briefly worked architecturally in Kabul and later in Bangkok. A trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia led to some film work with French singer and actor Charles Aznavour. Then a lonely journey through China which was off limits to most tourists during the heydays of the Cultural Revolution. From China we plunged (through Mongolia) into Siberia to the consternation of Soviet officials not used to travellers without Intourist accommodations. Embarrassed Soviet consular staff in Peking had issued visas without Intourist connections on the same day the Peking Intourist office was burned down by fanatical Red Guards.

    During my one year in Japan I met a remarkable Swiss architect who was presently specializing in research about archaic (preliterate) cultural rituals. I think he is the only person who developed a convincing idea of why the Ise Shrine (near Nara) has been rebuilt every 20 years since the 7th century - still a mystery to Japanese scholars today.

    Our trip stretched over a longer period of time than planned, and when we finally crossed the Pacific towards Vancouver in Canada, three years had passed by! Funds accumulated from architectural work in Bangkok had vanished also. I decided therefore, to stay and work in Vancouver - never to complete my journey around the world!

    At first I worked as an architect, conceptualizing a novel design for the Sedgewick Library at the University of British Columbia. (The Library was built in 1970 and its design has won several architectural prizes. Recently I developed a concept for a new type of skyscraper integrating landscaping and building structure). In 1970 I became the owner of the Classical Joint Coffee House, a venue in Vancouver's Gastown district, that developed soon into a well known jazz club where musicians and poets from around the world performed.

    That was the time when Greenpeace was born in Vancouver and when many of the early support meetings were organized in the backroom of the Joint. During the 1970's a CO-OP radio station was established nearby, and soon weekly live broadcasts from the Joint were transmitted from a little studio in the basement. All those adventures left little time for anything else during the eighteen years when I was managing the "Classical Joint", but when the 1980's came to a close the time seemed right to focus my attention on an entirely new and different project - the World History Chart.

    The Cold War was about to end and some historians solemnly proclaimed the end of all history. Those predictions had been premature, to say the least, if we think about the social upheaval in the Balkans and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Far from the end of history, there is suddenly too much history bubbling up for the casual observer to absorb easily.

    A new approach to represent history was therefore badly needed. I thought this would be a most appropriate time for the publication of a graphic representation of world history, a project that had evolved from a simple diagram - drawn up many years ago in India - to a refined chart, designed on a Macintosh computer. In 1984 I had already printed a rough outline of the history chart and late in 1988 I decided to sell the Classical Joint, so that I could concentrate on a new and different adventure.

    Evolution of a Concept

    The original concept for a synchronoptic timeline dates back to the time of our journey throughout Asia when I was writing about the histories of Asian cultures for a Swiss newspaper. The Asian continent is a vast storehouse of history, but with so many diverse cultural traditions and unfamiliar names that a traditional history book about India, for example, reads to a Western visitor like a foreign telephone directory.

    In India I began to draft my first timeline so that I could relate its history to the more familiar history of Europe. Because of my training as an architect, it was only natural that I would use a graphic diagram as a helpful guide. And because such a diagram made it possible to see many things at the same time, I called it a Synchronoptic Time Map. Synchronoptical means "seeing at the same time".

    Many years later - after I had settled in Vancouver - this first crude timeline was expanded to encompass the history of the entire world. Two trips, in 1980 and 1985, to Bremen in Germany helped to establish valuable contacts with the historian Dr. Arno Peters, who endorsed the project enthusiastically. His comprehensive work provided a large part of the scientific basis for the project. The purpose of the new chart was to provide a perspective of world history, to provide a sense for the flow of time.

    The History Chart

    The World History Chart begins with David and Solomon and ends 3000 years later with Einstein, Picasso, Roosevelt and Churchill. In between, in divisions of 10 years, the major events, empires and invasions, inventions and achievements, rulers and leaders, writers, philosophers and scientists are listed. Colour-coded lifelines for 464 of history's most influential people; over 3000 facts relating to science, culture and politics; and 24 historical maps are fitted neatly into a chart which is, nevertheless, small enough that 3000 years of world history can be reviewed at a single glance!
    Selection criteria for the persons in the lifelines

    For the design of the chart I had four main objectives in mind:

  • First - a combination of time and space, that is, a combination of geographical and historical information so that we could find out simultaneously when things happened and where they happened.

  • Second - the clarity of the design, so that the visual impression would help to retain the most important information. For most people it is easier to remember the shape of a colourful image, than to memorize the pages of a telephone book, and that is exactly, of how many history books came across to me.

  • Third - a true scale of time which would eliminate the need to memorize historical dates, because with such a scale we could get a visual feel of time.

  • Fourth - the size of the chart. It had to be small enough so that the user could review world history at a single glance. In order to be meaningful, however, the information had to be comprehensive. At the same time the chart had to be simple and clear so that the reader would not get lost in too many details.
  • I decided, therefore, that all the information which did not fit properly into the chart should be put into a separate booklet. The chart itself was then separated into three different parts. The top part depicting the lifelines of important peoples, distinguishing with different colors between science, culture, religion, and politics; the center part displaying the chronologies of the major civilizations; and the lower part containing the geographical maps. The concept seemed simple enough, but it took many more years of research to fill in the thousands of facts and names.


    The Chart was finally published by the author in the summer of 1989 and was sold in over 4 000 copies, mostly on the Westcoast. A second edition was published in 1991 by Penguin Books, Canada, Ltd. A third and revised edition was published in 2001 in cooperation with ITMB Publishing Ltd.

    Reviews James A.Michener :
    "... I studied with great care this remarkable historical chart. I find it to be a work of both scholarship and imagination, and I would judge that any student who aspired to thorough knowledge in the field of history and civilization could profit from having this at hand."

    James Burke
    BBC Connection Series :

    " was extremely kind of you to send me a copy of your fabulous chart.......the World History Chart is on the wall beside my desk and I refer to it often. Synchronoptic views are ever more important in a world of increasing specialization..."

    Isaac Asimov :
    "... I studied the World History Chart with the greatest of pleasure..."

    Stephen Lewis :
    UN Ambassador and Permanent Representative

    "I am quite knocked out by your Synchronoptical History. It has touches of genius, ...and if Arno Peters is already a convert, his testament would be the most impressive of all..."

    Dr. Arno Peters
    Historian, Bremen :

    "... this work provided me with a very great, happy surprise. This Synchronopsis has a value all of its own, which is yet missing in my own work: It makes it possible to survey the entire world history at one glance : at the same time it provides a most valuable combination of historical and geographical data..."
    "....for today my deepest congratulation for Your valuable work, which I known required a major effort over many years...."

    Dr. Carl Sagan
    Astronomer :

    "... with best wishes for the success of the publication of your marvelous chart ...."

    A lengthy review in the Vancouver Sun newspaper, which was carried by most Canadian newspapers, helped to promote the early sale of the chart.

    Credits The cooperation of Dr. Arno Peters in Bremen, Germany, is greatly appreciated. Much of the scientific data has been obtained from his comprehensive volumes of the "Synchronoptische Weltgeschichte". Thanks also to the Canada Council who supported the first publication of the chart with an exploration grant.

    The Future : HyperHistory Online

      Once upon a time, I dreamt of embedding tiny invisible scripts within my Chart, stories full of marvelous tales retrievable with a fairy-tale microscope. A fantasy, of course ?
    - that is almost exactly what Hypermedia can do and it seems as if the synchronoptic chart anticipated a medium like the Internet where the World Wide Web offers a wealth of opportunity to expand the synchronoptic concept.

    HyperHistory Online is a voluminous website using multiple windows. Frames have often been used needlessly but for HyperHistory it proved to be ideal, because it allows for a quick display of scripts within the text panel while retaining the context provided by the synchronoptic graphics inside the main panel.

    More than 2,000 files with over 50 MB of information are interconnected throughout the site and several hundred www links have been incorporated so far. The interface of HyperHistory is simple and clear enough that anybody can navigate around effortlessly without any expert help.

    The electronic and the printed versions of the project complement each other: Hypermedia infinitely extends content, while the Chart confers a superior overview of world history.

    Cyberworld : Information glut
    Hypermedia allows us to use resources from other history sites around the world and relate them to the synchronoptic graphics of HHO. I'm mindful that the world of cyberspace contains an overwhelming amount of facts but also a deluge of marginal details. A good filtering system is therefore badly needed. HyperHistory offers a unique opportunity to filter out trivial data and to deliver relevant information quickly.
    ( See Testimonials )

    Some of the many major sources used:

    Synchronoptische Weltgeschichte by Arno Peters
    Timetables of History by Grun
      based upon Stein's Kulturfahrplan
    World Biography
    Encyclopaedia Britannica
    The World Book Encyclopedia
    History by W. H. McNeill
    A Brief History of Science by R. Hall
    History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
    Outline of History by H.G. Wells
    Twentieth Century History by Tony Howarth
    Connections by James Burke
    Penguin Atlas of World History
    Penguin Atlas of Medieval History
    Penguin Atlas of North American History
    maps custom designed based on many different atlases