Protagoras wrote that man is the measure of all things; and while centuries later, Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man illustrated this concept, it takes just one look at Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger together (Twins, 1998) to see how radically different these measures can be. Considering the common units of measurement we have today, it may be hard to imagine a time when systems for quantifying weights and distances varied widely even between neighbors. Time, too, divided by night and day, has been interpreted and recorded in widely varying ways. Two recent books tackle these histories—one that looks at empirical measurement, the other representations of time.
Robert Crease's World in the Balance shows how various measurement systems have developed and converged into a single system since the French Revolution, when multiple standards were decried. This history of codifying measurement into a unified system takes us from China to Africa, and to Europe and the U.S. The result is a rational system by which all elements are related through a common measurement and scaling system, commonly known as the metric system.
Arbitrary systems—bodies, flutes, and gold dust scales—satisfied appropriateness and accessibility, but problems arose when different systems interacted. Homogenization of these systems developed largely due to commerce, industrialization, globalism, and politics. Crease shows that something as simple as a desire to denounce colonial rule was enough to motivate countries to throw off imperial systems and convert to the metric system.
Courtesy WW Norton
Earlier systems of weights and measures were recorded in artifacts and stored in vaults. Yet the search continued for an enduring and universal standard based in nature. Henry Peirce, who displayed unmatched brilliance and cantankerous behavior, pioneered some of history’s biggest (and simultaneous) advancements in the field by aligning the meter to natural phenomena, and alienating nearly everyone along the way. Peirce was responsible for moving the meter from a fraction of the earth’s meridian to the more precise atomic spectroscopy of today's standard.
This rage for order became increasingly paradoxical on many fronts. Irrationally, the search had been driven, in part, by fear that if the artifacts holding the secrets to the measurements were to be destroyed in an apocalypse, or space-faring aliens came to earth, the key to the metric system had to be fully accessible in nature. And, as measurements become more precise, they moved further away from everyday use and closer to the laboratory. Furthermore, these measurements focused on physical quantities and could not approximate qualitative differences.
Time too did not escape scrutiny: Crease mentions, for instance, that a decimal standard was quickly rejected by those who believed that every time piece would become useless; and otherwise sympathetic supporters of the metric system blanched. These challenges, though, did not halt the eventual representations of time that Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton describe in their lavishly illustrated Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline.
The single-axis timeline developed in the late 18th century, but the desire for increased information and precision produced new ways of charting. Much of the problem wasn’t how to add more detail, as several illustrations in the book prove, but how to simplify and make the information accessible—a strategy many architecture firms still employ with pictographs and visual statistics.
Using predominantly Western examples, Cartographies of Time follows the ideas that prompted representations. The book itself is a timeline of historical representations of lineage and events, wars and rulers, and astronomical occurrences and inventions. The more interesting feats of graphic design include natural elements, figures, or archaeological elements, as illustrated Wunderkammer.
While many charts in history have relied on linear depictions, some have avoided the spreadsheet grid by using circular maps, scrolls with unique measuring devices, and fans. Emma Willard’s Temple of Time in 1846 drew a timeline in the image of a temple with a geographical floor, columns cataloging personalities, and a roof depicting character types, all in a forced perspective. Etienne-Jules Marie developed his photo series to record movement in time, just as both Edison and Jannsen recorded sound as a chronological device, not as entertainment, as both have become.
Both books show modern artists teasing out the irrational, or taking, to the logical extreme, qualities in their ever-scientific milieu. While Duchamp was goofing on the meter with the malleability and non-Euclidean geometry of his 3 Standard Stoppages, Francis Picabia and Alfred Barr were poking fun at rendering time as a single linear event, by showing timelines as a collection of multiple influences converging and diverging.
For an accessible read, Crease gets more theoretical and scientific in this last chapter, while Rosenberg and Grafton become more accessible and popular with their examples. Somewhat academic due to endnotes and indices, neither book yields a dry run of facts and dates. Rather, both portray the vitality and curiosity inherent in the search for better systems, precision, and representations.