Joseph Priestly, Chart of Biography

I want to find a full image of this chart and put it online:


Joseph Priestly, Chart of Biography (1765)

A Description to the Chart of Biography (Google Books) has lots of defensive posturing. It reminds me of things I’ve said defending the genealogy data.

The proper employment of men of letters is either making new discoveries, in order to extend the bounds of human knowledge; or facilitating the communication of the discoveries which have been made already, in order to make an acquaintance with science more general among mankind. Вut few are qualified to make new discoveries of importance: a considerable share of natural genius, opportunity of making experiments, and a favourable concurrence of circumstances are requisite to it….

This Chart, which is about three feet in length, and two feet in breadth, represents the interval of time between the year 1200 before the Christian Eга and 1800 after Christ, divided by an equal scale into centuries….

It will easily occur to all my readers, that my greatest difficulty must have been the proper choice of names to fill this tablet of fame; and some degree of solicitude is certainly unavoidable when a man voluntarily assumes the province of the arbiter and dispenser of every man’s reputation, and when he sees all the dead pass, as it were, in review before him for that purpose. But this is no greater presumption than is implied in numerous other works, and in fact no more than one man’s giving his present opinion of others.

The nature of the design necessarily assigned some limits to the width of the columns and though in some ages there was room enough for all the candidates for fame, if I would have inserted them; in others, and particularly in modern times, where no reasonable column would admit a tenth part of the candidates, it, must require no small judgement to decide concerning their respective pretensions. With respect to this, I can only say that I have acquitted myself with all the impartiality of which I was capable.

Thankfully, with JavaScript, Flash and dynamic web pages we can get around the limits of space. From Wikipedia on the Chart of Biography:

Priestley organized his list into six categories:

  • Statesman and Warriors
  • Divines and Metaphysicians
  • Mathematicians and Physicians (natural philosophers were placed here)
  • Poets and Artists
  • Orators and Critics (prose fiction authors were placed here)
  • Historians and Antiquarians (lawyers were placed here)

Priestley’s “principle of selection” was fame, not merit; therefore, as he mentions, the chart is a reflection of current opinion.

He also made a Chart of History in 1769 and dedicated to Benjamin Franklin.



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