Discover the 1820’s Color-Coded System for Memorizing Historical Events, Which Resembled Modern Art (1820)

On first encoun­ter­ing Antoni Jażwiński’s “Pol­ish Sys­tem,” I could­n’t help but think of Incan Quipu, the sys­tem that used knot­ted cords to keep offi­cial records. Like Quipu, Jażwiński’s sys­tem of col­ored squares relies on an extreme short­hand to tell com­plex sto­ries with mnemon­ic devices. But maybe that’s where the sim­i­lar­i­ties end. Jażwiński’s inven­tion (cir­ca (1820) does not so much resem­ble oth­er forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion as it does the abstract art of the fol­low­ing cen­tu­ry.

“Jażwiński’s Méth­ode polon­aise promis­es that the com­plex­i­ties of cen­turies can be refined into col­ors, lines, squares, and just a few marks,” writes Philip­pa Pitts at Sequitur. “Neat­ly arranged into a dia­gram that can be dili­gent­ly com­mit­ted to mem­o­ry, the twists and turns of bat­tles and rev­o­lu­tions are ren­dered as panes of pure gen­tle col­or, qui­et­ly plot­ted as coor­di­nates in a matrix, sub­sumed back into the order­ly progress of his­to­ry.”

His attempts to impose order on life may have come to lit­tle in the end, but as an arti­fact of visu­al cul­ture, the “Pol­ish Sys­tem” is sub­lime. Pitts goes on to write:

There is a won­der­ful res­o­nance between Jażwiński’s chrono­graphs and a wide range of artis­tic pro­duc­tion, despite the anachro­nism of such com­par­isons. They recall Piet Mondrian’s ear­ly checker­boards and Robert Delaunay’s simul­tane­ity. There is some­thing rem­i­nis­cent of process art here: They evoke the repet­i­tive, cat­a­logu­ing hand­work of Hanne Dar­boven or Agnes Mar­tin. There appears to be a com­mon calm, com­fort, cathar­sis, or sal­va­tion promised by the embrace of rule, order, and log­ic. 

Jażwińs­ki, a Pol­ish edu­ca­tor, invent­ed the sys­tem in the 1820s. It was “lat­er brought to pub­lic atten­tion in the 1830s and 1840s by Gen­er­al Józef Bem, a mil­i­tary engi­neer with a pen­chant for mnemon­ics,” notes the Pub­lic Domain Review. Such sys­tems cropped up every­where in 19th-cen­tu­ry edu­ca­tion, such as those pio­neered by Emma Willard, the first woman map­mak­er in the U.S. “Jażwiński’s con­tri­bu­tion (and its lat­er adap­ta­tions) proved one of the most pop­u­lar.”

He explained his sys­tem with long para­graphs of text (which you can read here, in French), lit­tle of which stu­dents were like­ly to remem­ber. What mat­tered was whether they could make sense of the col­or-cod­ing and sym­bols placed inside the grid sys­tem, with each grid stand­ing for an entire cen­tu­ry — 100 years of human his­to­ry reduced, for exam­ple, in the fig­ure above, to one name, Con­stan­tine the Great, and two sym­bols, a sword and cross. This was an exam­ple of a “chrono­log­i­cal con­stel­la­tion,” in which his­tor­i­cal events take par­tic­u­lar shapes, “some­times it’s a chair,” Jażwińs­ki wrote, “a sick­le, a boat, a let­ter of the alpha­bet, etc.”

Even the names neat­ly print­ed above the grids are redun­dant, Pitts sug­gests. In such sys­tems, called chrono­graphs, “deno­ta­tive text is of lim­it­ed use. It is con­no­ta­tive visu­al­i­ty which fur­ther con­dens­es the infor­ma­tion: Flags, shields, and insignia can serve as short­hand for nations and dynas­ties, while loom­ing storm clouds, bright sun­bursts, and invo­ca­tions of clas­si­cal archi­tec­ture add lay­ers of asso­ci­at­ed mean­ing.” The view of his­to­ry rep­re­sent­ed by such sys­tems is quaint, at best; their over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tions erase more than they could ever com­mu­ni­cate. But their visu­al appeal is unde­ni­able as objects from a pre-Google past, when mem­o­riza­tion was the only way to reli­ably store and access knowl­edge out­side of books.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Emma Willard, the First Woman Map­mak­er in Amer­i­ca, Cre­ates Pio­neer­ing Maps of Time to Teach Stu­dents about Democ­ra­cy (Cir­ca 1851)

How the Inca Used Intri­cate­ly-Knot­ted Cords, Called Khipu, to Write Their His­to­ries, Send Mes­sages & Keep Records

Joseph Priest­ley Visu­al­izes His­to­ry & Great His­tor­i­cal Fig­ures with Two of the Most Influ­en­tial Info­graph­ics Ever (1769)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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