I’ve loved history timelines ever since I first saw one in the back of an old family bible when I was around six years old. In fact, I think it was at that moment that my lifelong love affair with charts began. And if you follow this blog or are familiar with my other site, UsefulCharts.com, you’ll know that I looooove charts!)
I particular like world history charts because of their massive scope. Trying to capture the entirety of world history on a single sheet of paper is no small feat. Timelines that attempt it usually plot history along a single line, as if it were a river flowing toward the present moment. They are also usually synchronoptic – meaning that they show what was happening in various parts of the world at the same time by using some sort of side-by-side format. The “river” of history therefore ends up looking more like a river delta with each major civilization or empire becoming a separate stream.
In this post, I’m going to look at six of the best world history timelines available online these days. And obviously, I’m going to do it in chronological order.
1. Adam’s Synchronological Chart of History
The first chart on my list is also the most ambitious. It was by made a Presbyterian minister/schoolteacher from Salem, Oregon named Sebastian C. Adams (although it is often incorrectly attributed to Edward Hull). I remember my jaw dropping the first time I saw this timeline about 15 years ago. It is 17 feet long, beautifully drawn, and filled with a painstaking amount of detail. For its size, it’s also surprisingly cheap. You can buy it on Amazon for less than $30! (Buy Now)
But now for the downside. This chart was originally designed in 1871 and very little on it has changed since then. Sure, the current version has been updated to include events up to the twenty-first century but 98% of the timeline is basically Adam’s original. This means you’re getting a very Victorian view of history. It combines dates based on a literal understanding of the Book of Genesis (starting with Ussher‘s infamous date for creation in 4004 BC) with dates based on historical records (which start around 2000 BC). It is also extremely Eurocentric, at times racist, and does not incorporate all that historians have learned about the past over the last 140+ years. So I do not recommend this for teaching history. It’s more a novelty piece.
2. Sparkes’ Histomap
This chart is similar to the first in that it continues to be published with very little revision. In this case, the original was made by amateur historian John Sparkes in 1931 and the current version (by Rand McNally) simply tacks on current events to bring it up to date. It is an interesting design though and is different from Adam’s chart in that it reads from top to bottom as opposed to left to right (starting at 2000 BC). Here it is shown tipped on its side:
The unique thing about Spark’s timeline is that it emphasizes how the balance of power has shifted over the centuries. Each colored “stream” represents a powerful civilization and the relative size of the stream at any given point represents how important that civilization was on the world stage. One thing I don’t like about this design though is that all the facts are recorded in the same font with no other visual embellishments. Therefore nothing really stands out over any other thing. Regardless, this one’s on Amazon too, for around $20 (Buy Now).
3. Andreas Nothiger’s World History Chart
Now this is one that I would actually recommend for use as a teaching tool, along with its web version, hyperhistory.com. The first edition came out in 1989 and, like most of the other timelines listed here, it is the end result of a personal project taken on by a passionate fan of history rather than a corporate production put together by “experts”. It’s about 4 feet long, comes with a 40-page companion booklet and focuses on four parts of the world equally: Europe, the Middle East, South & Central Asia, and China. Unfortunately, it only starts in 1000 BC (and thus misses the entire Bronze Age) but the design is great and it includes more than 20 full-color maps.
Oh, and the author must have great PR skills because his chart boasts reviews from several big names such as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. You can pick up a used copy on Amazon for a mere $6 or $7! (Buy Now)
4. Hammond’s Graphic History of Mankind
This one’s one of my favorites, probably because it reminds me of the chart I saw in the back of that bible so many years ago. Btw, I’ve never been able to track that chart down again. I’m pretty sure it was a RSV bible, c. late 70′s or early 80′s. If you think you might know what I’m talking about, please contact me. Anyway, the Hammond design is similar enough to the back-of-the-bible chart that I suspect that they may even be related in some way (e.g. – same author or based on the same source, etc.). For now, all I know is that the current version dates to 1999.
The unfortunate thing about this chart is that, as far as I know, it isn’t available as a single-piece, wall chart. Instead, it is only available as an 8-page spread at the back of the Hammond Historical World Atlas, a great book in its own right, available for around $30 (Buy Now).
The only other thing I don’t like about this chart is that it does not maintain a standardized time scale. At the beginning, a single inch represents 1000 years, then it changes to 250 years, then 100, then 50, and then finally 25. This is obviously done in order to fit in more information about events that are closer in time to the present but the end result is that it fails to give the reader a fair comparison of modern empires with ancient ones.
5. The Oxford World History Timeline
You’re bound to come across this chart (below, left) if you’re browsing the net for history timelines. What I like best about it is that it comes as a poster and therefore fits easily on any spare bit of wall space. What I don’t like about it is that, like Spark’s histomap, it squeezes all the various civilizations together rather than showing them as separate streams like on Adam’s or Hammond’s charts. It’s also (like most of the timelines here) pretty weak when it comes to the Bronze Age. Published in 2004, you can grab it for less than $10 (Buy Now).
One interesting historical note about this chart: It seems to be based on the design of one of the first world history timelines ever produced – “A New Chart of History” by Joseph Priestley, published way back in 1769 (above, right). Btw, if you’re interested in old timelines like this or want to learn about the history of timelines in general, you really ought to check out Cartographies of Time by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton.
6. Timeline of World History by UsefulCharts.com
Finally, we come to my own labor of love. Having been a long-time fan of history timelines, I decided to create my own. I started small, publishing a double-sided 8.5×11″ version in 2011 and then followed it up with a 13×19″ poster in early 2012. Both sold so well that I spent the entire summer of 2012 working on a full-sized (24×36″) poster edition, which is the version I currently sell now. You can find it on Amazon for $25 + Free Shipping (Buy Now).
I aimed to combine all of the elements that I liked in the five timelines I just introduced to you. I went with a vertical stream design like Hammond’s but kept the scale equidistant throughout like Adam’s. Like the Oxford chart, I decided to go with a poster format as opposed to a fold-out or multi-page chart. I started with an earlier date than most of the other charts (3000 BC) and, like Nothiger’s, consciously tried to include more on India, China, and Africa. Finally, like Sparke’s, I indicated the shifts in power balance by way of the thickness of each civilization’s “stream”.
I also tried my best to incorporate cutting edge historical information, such as the latest theories on how the various Indo-European groups are related. There are also several newly discovered Bronze Age civilizations included on the chart.
Much of the information was gleaned either from Wikipedia or history-related websites or from the New Atlas of World History by John Haywood, a great new book that shows complete world maps for every major period in human history.
Another thing I did was label each century in addition to providing the dates along a 100-point scale. This helps everyone to remember that the 700′s BC are actually called the 8th century BC, and so on. “Ages” (Bronze Age, Late Antiquity, The Renaissance, etc.) are clearly marked as well as major climate events such as the 4.2 kiloyear event and the Medieval Warm Period. Finally, I decided to include a few insets covering from the period from the Big Bang to human prehistory, as well as some speculative dates regarding both the near and far future.
All in all, I’m pretty happy with the result although I’ve already got a list going of revisions I’d like to make on the next addition. For those who have a copy, feel free to send me your suggestions as well.
Oh, and in case you missed the link, let me make yet another shameless plug: It’s available for sale on both Amazon.com and Amazon.ca. It comes shipped in a cardboard tube and is printed on glossy poster paper. I think you’ll like it. Let me know if you do!