Grand Unified Timeline of Human History

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This project proposal has been initiated by Erik Zachte, author of EasyTimeline. He gave a presentation about EasyTimeline at Wikimania (August 2005), and as part of that promoted this project.

Everyone who is interested in history in general and especially graphical timelines is invited to comment and contribute.

Note: Links to timelines in the text below are to English versions whenever possible, as this article is written in English, even when the timeline originated in another language.

Project Definition Phase[edit]

Introduction[edit]

EasyTimeline was introduced as an extension to the Mediawiki software in March 2004. Since then more than 500 graphical timelines 1 (June 2005) have been produced with this tool on all wikipedias combined. Quite a few timelines have been translated into a handful of other languages.

These timelines deal with all kinds of topics and periods. Scope varies from the history of one city, one sports event or one person, to the history of humans as a species or even of the universe.

Timelines differ in scope along at least three dimensions.

Space 
from local history to global developments
Time 
from detailed account of one major event to a grand classification of large epochs
Topic 
from one aspect of human life to all human endeavour

Up till now most timelines 'shine in splendid isolation', meaning they are meant to be viewed on their own, not as part of a larger scheme. Sometimes a few timelines on one page belong together, either because they are related sequentially (a period has been sliced into several sub-periods, to keep each chart at a reasonable size), e.g. a timeline for the Roman Empire, or because one chart shows a whole period and a second chart zooms in on a smaller section of that period, in order to provide a more detailed account, e.g. geological timescale.

1 As an aside, some charts are not timelines at all, but creative and beautiful alternate uses for the EasyTimeline syntax, e.g. instrumental pitch ranges, a comparison of US lakes and a historical map of Thebe, but those fall outside the scope of this discussion.

Project Goal[edit]

It seems very likely that within one or two years no timelines of human history will be viewed by more people all over the globe than the ones in Wikipedia. Wikipedia timelines will in fact be exemplary for which types of historical information can be conveyed with a chart and how this is done most effectively.

This project aims to produce a set of graphical timelines in a consistent and simple format, that together offer a coherent and grand perspective on the whole of human history in all its aspects

This project should help anyone who is interested in major historical themes to gain an overview of and insights into major historical developments.

Guidelines[edit]

A set of guidelines to be agreed upon by participating authors may help to make the results of this project larger than the sum of its parts. Guidelines deal with organisation, navigation, presentation, depth of content and lack of bias.

Concept guidelines, please comment:

  • Only charts that fit in a predefined broad supported conceptual framework are released as part of the Grand Unified Timeline of Human History.

This is not to say that just a few persons can here and now dictate which timelines should be produced, but to encourage everyone to discuss how timelines should be arranged and organised before actually starting to build one. Only with some forethought and a fruitful discussion will it be possible to make a coherent and complete set of timelines without too much overlap or repetition. In fact people can contribute to this project by collecting data, and discussing which of those to include in a certain timeline, without learning EasyTimeline syntax or getting lost in graphical minutiae. Someone will take the final step to visualize the raw data.

  • All charts use a intuitive and uniform navigation system.

The combined charts are ordered and interlinked, in such a way that a user can start with a chart presenting a large perspective, either in space, time and/or topical content and from there navigate to a detailed chart that covers one or more of these three aspects in more detail, and vice versa sees in a detailed chart links to related more general charts.

  • All charts that belong to this project use (to a degree) a uniform presentation.

Think of color coding of events, font settings, general layout, size, etc. To be discussed in detail below.

  • Charts follow guidelines regarding what type of information and how much detailing belongs on a certain level in the chart hierarchy.

A chart that covers global events for several centuries should not name individual people (too few can be named, it would overcrowd and distort the general picture). A chart that deals with one topic, say major philosophical movements and thinkers through all time, should not name people that are generally seen as only of local or even national significance.

  • The complete series of charts aims to be regionally and culturally unbiased.

Of course there is already the important NPOV principle on Wikimedia. But apart from that it would be nice to develop a set of charts that contains information that is of interest to a wider audience than say inhabitants of one country, or speakers of one language. On translation charts can always be localized to add specific details that are mainly of interest for speakers of one language. In fact this might be a reason to design the principal set of charts here on meta, which is targeting all wikipedia projects on equal footing, but it might lead to double maintenance (dillemma).

Practical issues[edit]

  • Where possible work that has already been done will be incorporated or used as starting point. Some existing charts already have a high quality content, but may need to brought in line with other other charts in terms of presentation.
  • It may be useful to put all charts that belong to this project on template pages, so that they can easily be incorporated into multiple articles. Also the user can then navigate from one chart to another without have to scroll though a large body of article text.
  • It may help to avoid arousing sentiments by not transforming existing timelines, but instead provide alternatives within this project (perhaps reusing all content from an existing timeline, but bringing the presentation more into line with other charts). People can then later decide to replace an existing timeline in some article with one from this project.
  • Of course wikipedians in all languages are invited to participate. Charts can originate in any language and be translated to elicit comments from the whole community.

Ambition level[edit]

Building all these timelines will be a challenge. But it certainly can be done.

In fact it does not seem overambitious, because:

  • There is no time limit. It may take a year. It make take two years. In fact it will never be ready since more and more detailed timelines can be added.
  • Wikipedia itself is proof that almost no task is too big when enough enthusiastic people put their hands together.
  • Much of the data gathering has already been done. Each timeline can draw from several articles containing all relevant data. The task is therefore more an editorial one:
    • Where to draw the boundaries per timeline (period, geography, topics) ?
    • Which data to add to a timeline (type of data, level of detail)?
    • How to present the data?

Design Phase[edit]

Initial thoughts, please comment

It is rational to start the Grand Unified Timeline with the big history of universe timeline and then go into detailed timelines. There are few identifiable events in the scale of billions of years, so the major timelines will be relatively straightforward to prepare - and will provide a solid start for the project.

More detailed timelines will be prepared subsequently, covering progressively shorter time spans in each phase, until only the extreme right of the Grand Unified Timeline remains and human history starts. This will mark the end of the preliminary phase.

It is at this level that most timelines will be. The level of detail will increase progressively with time.

The same methodology shall be applied to the user interface, as suggested below.


Organisation[edit]

It will be a major task already to define which timelines will be needed on the highest levels to cover all major periods, regions, and facets of human endeavour.

Here is a rough sketch to define the first building blocks of the Grand Unified Timeline. A comprehensive history of what we know about the Universe, Galaxy, Solar System, Planet, Life forms and Mankind will require at least 50 timelines, each describing a more or less detailed time span, either about cosmic events, planetary events, prevailing life forms, major civilizations, dominant empires/states or about single facets of human history, like religion, science (in fact each science merits its own timeline: math, medicine, astronomy, etc etc), technology, philosophy, fine arts (again one day this will diversify into several timelines), music, etc.

History of the Cosmos

History of Life

Human History

  • History of homo sapiens (covers 200,000 years)
  • Early civilizations (10,000-2000 BC) (inventions, migration patterns, global scope)

Civilizations

  • Early civilizations around the Mediterranean and in the Near East (3500-600 BC)
  • Early Chinese civilizations (? - ?)
  • Early Indian civilizations (? - ?)
  • Early African civilizations (? - ?)
  • Early American civilizations (? - ?) - includes all North, Central and South America Civilizations
  • Early Australian civilizations (? - ?)

Empires

Religions

  • Major world religions (700 AD - now) (very high level sketch of global developments, all major religions in one chart, founders, schisms, spread across the globe)
  • History of Confucianism (from inception till now, again very high level)
  • History of Buddhism
  • History of Judaism
  • History of Christianity
  • History of Islam
  • etc

Of course further detailed timelines will follow, like

  • Spread of Christianity in the classical world
  • Christianity in the Middle Ages
  • Reformation and Contra-Reformation
  • etc

Navigation[edit]

Legend Most Grand Unified Timeline (GUT) charts will require a legend, preferably in a standard location (e.g. below the image).

Links to other GUT charts should be recognizable as such, and not be confused with links to articles. It might be helpful to present these links in a separate navigation box outside the plot area (= outside the actual chart).

Presentation[edit]

Presentation Guidelines[edit]

Design matters Nice geographic maps offer a lot of detail without becoming overcrowded. Why one map maker succeeds in this respect far better than another is partly attributable to general design principles. Font type (alas not selectable in EasyTimeline yet) and size, use of color, it all matters very much. The same applies to timelines. Design matters.

Uniformity The user will feel much more at ease when navigating from one GUT chart to another, when the basic layout is similar and as many elements as possible are already familiar. This is very similar to how an atlas is organized. The scale will differ per map, but standardized symbols will be used on each map; major cities, roads, railways and terrain elevation will all be represented with uniform symbols and colors throughout the atlas. There is no need for the user to study the legend again after 2 or 3 maps.

Font size Likewise the overal presentation will be enhanced when a charts use a standard font size and color. Most EasyTimeline charts use fontsize 'S' (small) as standard font size and XS (very small) in exceptional cases when much text needs to pressed in a confined space (first try shortening a phrase, or use reasonably intelligible abbreviations). Some timelines use XS as standard. These timeline are hard to read. Often the real reason is that too much text is crammed in a small space. With timelines the adagium 'less is more' really holds true. Timelines should not try to tell a complete story, they provide hightlights, points of reference, to be detailed and explained elsewhere. Other timelines use M (medium) font. This is a very heavy typeface. We do not write complete articles in bold text either.

Colors Some timeline authors try to use colors that have a symbolic meaning within the given context. E.g. colors that relate to the flag of a country, or to the shirt colors of a football team. This is very impractible in many cases: it seems wiser to use a color range that is optimized for visibility (all colors are clearly different from each other), possibly assigning some colours to certain types of events uniformly over all charts (compare the atlas) but not care about any symbolism or connotations that some colour may bring with them (this will differ from culture to culture in many cases).

Image size It might seem sensible to standardize on one image size for all charts, but this may be overdoing it. (the extreme differences in scale between maps in an atlas are actually an artefact caused by the uniform page size thoughout the book, not counting foldout pages). Actually it seems more important to use uniform basic components (like a standard bar width and font size) for all GUT charts that present similar large epochs, and let the overall image size vary with the complexity of the chart: many concurrent 'story lines' (= bars in EasyTimeline PlotData section) give a wider chart, lots of events per bar may be a reason to stretch the chart parallel to the timeaxis.

It would be nice if most GUT charts would fit on an average user screen, but this may prove difficult. Nowadays most people use a 1024x678 or higher resolution display. Still roughly half of the existing timelines will not fit on a 1024x678 screen when one looks at the net space that remains after substracting browser title and tool bars and Wikipedia navigation bars, etc.

There are several arguments to not define an upper image size as strict limitation:

  • Charts should be designed with conceptual boundaries in mind.
  • The default screen size is a moving target , the average user will have yet a larger screen for his next computer
  • Most browser offer the option to show the content full screen (F11 in MS Explorer and Firefox)
  • Wikipedia will move towards scalable vector graphics (SVG) graphics in the probably not so distant future. SVG graphics have better rendering quality and are always scalable, so that charts can then be resized down to any screen size anyway. EasyTimeline is ready for this transition to SVG, in fact already stores a copy of each chart in SVG format.

In extreme cases the user may be offered the option to view a chart as one huge image, that requires scrolling in two directions, or as separate segments (probably presented below each other, so vertical scrolling remains). A good example of this, in another field of knowledge, is en:Isotope_table (complete) versus en:Isotope_table (divided).

Visual organisation On large complex timelines it probably makes mores sense to divide the infomation into visual layers, so that the viewer can concentrate on one aspect at the time (see example Roman Empire below, where military and other events are separated from each other. In fact more layers might be needed. Writers and thinkers are not included yet. Also the timeline would become more informative when large and lasting developments were outlined (as briefly as possible). Another method to group related info is to use colored bars, e.g. red for military conflicts, green for culture, blue for poitics, etc. This might work better on medium complexity charts where separate layers would be mostly empty. Also on a timeline that sketches all major civilizations from the last 4000 years, it would make sense to keep highlights, like new inventions, close to the bar that shows in which period a civ. existed.

Case study[edit]

Rise and Fall of Empires Here are some thoughts about a timeline that would be positioned very high in the GUT hierarchy, in other words with a very broad scope in space, time and topical coverage, let us say a timeline that covers all major civilizations in the last 4000 years. How would such a timeline be organized? What topics should it contain? Maybe it would only list all major civilizations and the period in which they existed, together with some crucial technological and science advancements? Would there be a geographical dimension? This is often seen: timelines contain one column for each major region in the world and distribute civilizations and events accordingly. One problem is that every division of the world into regions is arbitrary, and may fit well to one section of the timeline but much less in another section. For instance a division of world events per continent is highly arbitrary: the concept of continents is relatively new, few civilizations experienced expansion patterns that followed continental boundaries, in some old eras most large scale developments (from which enough evidence has survived to our time to study it in some detail) seemed to be concentrated in one or two continents.

Warning: the following section is probably more food for thought than practically feasible

A second related, partly spacial, aspect to timelines is this: on a world scale civilizations grow and wane in 'importance' or 'strength' over the centuries, measured in area they inhabit, number of people under their rule, command of natural resources, internal organisation, etc. This dynamic gets lost when for instance this very high level timeline just presents a red bar from 753 B.C. till 476 A.D. with 'Roman State' in it (not to mention the East Roman Empire, which under a different name survived for another 1000 years). It would be nice if the timeline could convey a sense of the growth and decline of a civilization or empire. Rome was just a city state with some local dominance in its first century of existence. It took another couple of hundred years to reach full control of the area now known as Italy and yet another huge timespan to reach its full extent for which it became famous.

This all gets lost in


One way to indicate rise and fall is with shades of color, where the full saturation indicates 'at maximum power'.



Yet another option would be to vary the width of the bar according to the relative importance of the Roman state per period.

Clearly doing so for all civilizations in the chart would be a massive undertaking, and possibly too ambitious for the moment, still nice to philosophize about. It is not doable to compare civilizations from different periods in terms of relative power over their neighbours. How much more powerful was France under Napoleon compared to Babylon during its time of glory? So perhaps color shading or bar width should only express the relative power of a civilization in a certain period compared to the maximum power that it ever achieved.

As a very rough indicator one might compare land area under control, but 1000 square miles highly populated fertile land does not compare well to a same area of semi arid land with few people living on it, not to mention abundance or lack or natural resources, relative level of technological and other advancement of conquered people versus conquering people, etc. So trying to weigh the importance of a civilization per period is not exact science. In fact this same problem occurs in an historical atlas (or geographical atlas for that matter). One tends to see an empire that is twice as large as its neighbour in terms of land area under control as twice as succesful, which is often a visual illusion.

Still it might be way better than nothing to use the relative size of the Roman Empire, compared to its maximum extension, as a visual clue for its place in history. In fact it is relatively easy to collect figures like this for well documented empires. Areas the size of a country were added to the empire in one sweep. All years are known with enough accuracy, land areas can be estimated by comparing them to modern countries and use figures of those as basis for an estimation. Then again this approach may fail miserably with civilizations that are far less well documented or for which documentation is not readily available. Without a certain level of consistency this approach would fail and only cause confusion (maybe a timeline dedicated to one civilization could feature a bar like this as extra).

Presentation Specifics[edit]

"User Interface"

The user interface will resemble that of "Google Earth", but lineal instead of spherical. The default timeline will be that of the most relevant known astronomic events, from the Big Bang to present day. More detailed data will be shown as the user amplifies a given region of the timesline. A side menu will display all timelines available at each scale factor. The user will select the desired timeline(s) on the menu, arrange them (if necessary) in the desired vertical sequence and continue using the amplify/reduce tool. Superposition of timelines with color and transparence controls will also be available.

Example timeline[edit]

This chart is a reformatted version of en:Template:Roman_Empire. Links on this charts are not working here on meta.

Let me first state that the original template is very impressive already, a very nice example of how a major period can be visualized in a graphical timeline. This is why I chose it as a model for the project, and tried to optimize it in some aspects.

See template discussion page for comments about the layout and a comparison with the original chart.

Related projects/references[edit]

See also[edit]

Presentation about EasyTimeline at Wikimania 2005 (abstract, slides, speaker notes)