Roots of visual mapping

Tree of Porphyry – 3rd century CE

The first use of a visual layout of information that I have seen mention of is the Tree of Porphyry – a form of presentation of a taxonomy that embodies a hierarchy, much as a mind map does. Porphyry of Tyre was a Greek philosopher who lived from c.233 to c.309, C.E. . This particular example is from a Philosophy course at the University of Washington.

No examples of such diagrams by Porphyry survive, if indeed he made them at all. Nor do texts exist that mention that he made them.  The earliest use of them that we know of are by Boethius, mentioned later.

The Great Stemma – before 472 CE

This is an extraordinary combination of a timeline and 15 “family trees”. It represents the progression of generations mentioned in the Bible, from Adam and Eve, to Christ.  Here is a modern reconstruction by historian Jean-Baptiste Piggin, that re-assembles sections in the codex into a continuous chart:


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Its many provenances are too complicated to include here, so to follow them further, you will have to go to  Jean-Baptiste’s site where they set out in great detail.  Clicking the above image will take you to a legible, fixed-size image.  Here, however, is a zoomable, flash-based version.

To give some idea of how the modern work relates to the codex, here is a small portion and notional reconstruction:


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Boethius, Arbor Porphyriana – circa 520

The version below is another modern reconstruction by historian Jean-Baptiste Piggin, of a diagram by the Roman philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, based on copies of the original manuscript In Isagogen Porphyrii Commentum.  The original manuscript is lost but the copies that are exist are considered reliable.

Boethius, circa 520 Porphy Stemma

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More detail of this can be found here.

Cassiodorus – 562 / 692(?) CE

Then from Alex Gooding’s blog, this graphical representation of the outline of the Bible:

Gooding dates this to 692 CE, quoting a BBC programme, but Jean-Baptiste Piggin has pointed out to me that the 692 Bible, produced in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in which it appears, is a copy of one by Cassiodorus from 562 CE.  As the earlier work is lost, we cannot conclude for sure that this diagram was included in the original volume, but Piggin, a specialist in the subject, believes it was and provides reconstructed examples such as this:


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and Jerome’s classification of scripture, from the Institutiones of Cassiodorus:


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and says he is “pretty certain that Cassiodorus did them himself.” This is covered in great detail here.

Mediæval Arabic

I can’t put a date to these other than to guess from the illumination style, but I believe they trace ancestry.


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Ramon Llull 1232 – 1316

This Majorcan philosopher was a keen user of visual techniques. One of his works (below left) was The Tree of Sciences, Ramon Llull: Ars Magna (1350) which, while not radial, did use the tree as a metaphor.  On its right is the Ars Magna, a ‘logical machine’ with rotating disks with which he explored logical syllogisms.


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Leonardo da Vinci 1452 – 1519 (Not really!)

Often quoted as an early mind mapper, not least by Tony Buzan, but I haven’t seen any examples.

Can anyone point to any images showing that da Vinci did anything like mind mapping?  Of course he illustrated his notes profusely, but we would need to see branching or tree-like diagrams showing how topics are connected before we could claim he did any kind of mind mapping.

Paganini – 1527

Next, from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana we have this example from a 1527 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy published by Panganino & Alessandro Paganini:

This is part of a section labelled a ‘moral schema of Hell’.

d’Anguerrande – also 16th century

Then, from a “Treatise on the virtues of excellence, and how one may acquire them.” by d’Anguerrande published some time in the 16th century:

This is from the Bibliothèque nationale de France.  Here we see the use of radiant organization of nodes, colour and single-word branches so familiar to Buzan mind mappers.

Isaac Newton 1643 – 1727

Sir Isaac Newton seems to have come close to originating concept maps:


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John Bunyan – 1664

This visual organiser from John Bunyan, he of Pilgrim’s Progress fame, is yet another religious one.

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Charles Darwin – 1837

This may be the most important mind map ever drawn, though some might dispute if it is really of the same type as other maps here.  It is Darwin’s Tree of Life, his first thoughts of an evolutionary tree that shows notionally the relationships that he was beginning to feel might exist among species:


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(Syndics of Cambridge University Library)

Jacques Raverat – 1924

Then from R. Clariana, I learnt of this reference, what is effectively mind mapping as described in 1924.  It is an excerpt from a letter written by Jacques Raverat to Virginia Woolf, dated September 1924 from Vence, (in the south of France, just 10 miles north of Nice):

My dear Virginia, one of the things I find most difficult about writing is that it has to be essentially linear. I mean you can only write or read one thing at a time, and even memory doesn’t alter this fact. Now that’s not at all the way my mind works. When you write a word like “neopaganism,” for instance, it’s as if you threw a pebble into a pond. There are splashes in the outer air in every direction, and under the surface waves that follow one another into dark and forgotten corners of my past. You are not only a writer, but a printer, and you’ll see how difficult it would be to represent this odd phenomenon. One could perhaps, in the middle of a large sheet of paper, write the word “neopaganism” and then radially bits of sentences like this:

  • Shame at the absurdities of my youth.
  • Apologies if they really annoyed you.
  • But almost impossible to believe that you can have taken them seriously.
  • A desire to defend it.
  • A desire to counterattack. Etc. Etc.

And all this you see simultaneously, though even so it’s only what happens on the surface. [as reported on NPR on May 23, 2004 by LINDA WERTHEIMER, host].

I would say that’s close to modern mind mapping, though it’s just a verbal description – we do not know if Raverat went on to put it into practice.

Charles Williams – 1931

Next, my thanks to M.H.F. who commented against my “Who invented mind mapping” article that a novel published in 1931 in England included this conversation:

Mightn’t it be a good idea if everyone had to draw a map of his own mind – say, once every five years? With the chief towns marked, and the arterial roads he was constructing from one idea to another, and all the lovely and abandoned by-lanes that he never went down, because the farms they led to were all empty?”And arrows showing the directions he wanted to go?” Quentin asked idly.

“They’d be all over the place,” Antony sighed…

Google tells me the book was Charles Williams’ “The Place of the Lion”. Interesting hints and use of the words, but an early example that’s suggestive of visual mapping rather than being an actual example. Getting from that description to an actual practical mapping style is quite a step.

Walt Disney – 1957

Then there is a facinating business map from the great Walt Disney. I use the term business map with care. Although it looks very much like a concept map, I wouldn’t classify it as one, because instead of showing how concepts are linked and describing the relationships, it shows how business units of The Walt Disney Company contribute to each other’s activities. I wouldn’t myself call it a mind map either.

Aside from its sparkling clarity of business vision, it is interesting because of its date, 1957: Before Cornell University and Novak did their ground-breaking work on concept maps, before Buzan had turned his Mind to Mapping and even before Idea Sunbursting.

I came across this on Peter Duke’s site, dukeMedia. He saw it presented by a senior Disney executive.

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Evelyn Wood – 1968

The next date I have is 1968.  That is when “John” (aka ‘bjrg’) attended the second Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics course held in Australia.  And Evelyn Wood “had been running her course in America for several years prior to it getting to Australia.”  This involved mapping the contents of material using “a technique identical with mind mapping in appearance.”  He describes it like this:

Read a chapter as quickly as possible, not focusing on individual words but making visual sweeps of up to several lines at a time and even backwards (!) pacing oneself with a finger using curving sweeps down the page. Then quickly draw a map outlining the main concepts. THEN, rereading the material repeat the procedure again and again.

However, every time you drew a map you had to turn it face down and start a new one following the next reading, repeating everything you recalled and mapped and then adding new material. This whole procedure was repeated under timed conditions. So you had multiple readings of the same material at high speed and multiple recall procedures of the same material and multiple hand drawn maps of the basic content. At the end your reading speed was calculated and you completed a questionnaire on the content as a test.

There was a lot of public interest because President J F Kennedy was supposed to have completed the programme.  As a result, John (bjrg, not Kennedy) was interviewed by a newspapaper at the time – he still has the clipping.

Now, isn’t that interesting . . . because recently (Jan 2011) a study reported that Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping but here we have a method that combines mapping and testing.

Tony Buzan – 1974

In 1974, BBC TV ran a series by Tony Buzan called Use Your Head.  This introduced the term “Mind Map” for the first time as far as I have been able to find. But Buzan must surely have been working on this for a while, if the BBC were prepared to let him loose on a TV series.

There was a book of the same name.  Here is the very first illustration from that:

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(According to the book credits “The diagrams … are by Brian Mayers Associates.”)


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