Play Mark Twain’s “Memory-Builder,” His Game for Remembering Historical Facts & Dates

twain game

Mark Twain wrote The Adven­tures of Tom Sawyer, The Adven­tures of Huck­le­ber­ry Finn, and A Con­necti­cut Yan­kee in King Arthur’s Court, of course, but like any good lumi­nary of 19th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, he also put togeth­er a few inven­tions on the side. These non-lit­er­ary achieve­ments of Twain’s includ­ed an “Improve­ment in Adjustable and Detach­able Straps for Gar­ments” (as the patent calls it) meant to replace sus­penders, a “self-past­ing” scrap­book”, and the “Mem­o­ry-Builder, a game for acquir­ing and retain­ing all sorts of facts and dates.”

“Twain believed that mem­o­riza­tion — a com­mon strat­e­gy of 19th-cen­tu­ry school­ing — was a wor­thy, if tire­some, pur­suit, and looked for ways to make it more inter­est­ing for annoyed stu­dents,” writes Slate’s Rebec­ca Onion. This line of think­ing led him to cre­ate the Mem­o­ry-Builder, which he described as a “game which shall fill the chil­dren’s heads with dates with­out study” in an 1883 let­ter to a friend. He explained the back­ground of his edu­ca­tion­al phi­los­o­phy in much fuller detail in a 1914 piece from Harper’s mag­a­zine:

Six­teen years ago when my chil­dren were lit­tle crea­tures the gov­erness was try­ing to ham­mer some primer his­to­ries into their heads. Part of this fun — if you like to call it that — con­sist­ed in the mem­o­riz­ing of the acces­sion dates of the thir­ty-sev­en per­son­ages who had ruled Eng­land from the Con­queror down. These lit­tle peo­ple found it a bit­ter, hard con­tract. It was all dates, they all looked alike, and they would­n’t stick. Day after day of the sum­mer vaca­tion drib­bled by, and still the kings held the fort; the chil­dren could­n’t con­quer any six of them.

This expe­ri­ence gave rise to a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent learn­ing meth­ods, of which the Mem­o­ry-Builder (patent­ed in 1885) would prove the best-known. Though Twain worked out a way to play it on a crib­bage board con­vert­ed into a his­tor­i­cal time­line, you can play a tech­no­log­i­cal­ly much-updat­ed but mate­ri­al­ly iden­ti­cal ver­sion of the game online (with the same crib­bage pins and the same strange­ly intense focus on those roy­als) at the web site of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon’s library. Alter­na­tive­ly, you can play an adap­ta­tion that deals with the life and times of Twain him­self at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­gini­a’s web site.

Whether or not the Mem­o­ry-Builder can help you learn your his­to­ry, you’ll have to find out for your­self. Not hav­ing caught on at the time, Twain’s game did­n’t get far out of the pro­to­type stage, but the idea behind it has sur­vived in the form of one of Twain’s many so-very-quotable quotes: “I have nev­er let my school­ing inter­fere with my edu­ca­tion.” Some­thing tells me he’d approve of see­ing his game on the inter­net, sure­ly the tool that has done more to get edu­ca­tion into the learn­er’s own hands than any­thing else in human his­to­ry so far. (Um, have you seen our list of 1100 Free Online Cours­es?)

via Slate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain Pre­dicts the Inter­net in 1898: Read His Sci-Fi Crime Sto­ry, “From The ‘Lon­don Times’ in 1904”

Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Writ­ten With a Type­writer

Mark Twain Shirt­less in 1883 Pho­to

Mark Twain Cap­tured on Film by Thomas Edi­son in 1909. It’s the Only Known Footage of the Author.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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