Chart of Biography

Chart of Biography (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Creating a Timeline 

In the early 1700s, time charts were simple, two-column affairs.

You listed the year down the left side of the paper and next to a specific year, an event in that year.

Joseph Priestley, a university professor, decided his history students needed an easier way to grasp the sweep of time and events.

He changed two things about time lines up to that time when he created A Chart of Biography.

He made his chart horizontal, instead of vertical, so you read it left to right, instead of top to bottom.

And, he made the spaces between the years the same size.

Before, if nothing much happened for a span of years, creators might shorten up the space between the years.

Priestley decided each year should take up the same space, so his students could see at a glance when things happened in relation to other events.

In his first chart, printed in 1765, A Chart of Biography, he showed the lifespans, represented by overlapping parallel lines, of 2,000 famous people who lived between 1200 B.C. and 1750 A.D.

Your grandchildren can do the same thing, using the birthdays of family and friends.


  • Graph paper
  • Pencil or pen
  • Optional: colored pens


  • Turn the graph paper sideways
  • Put this year, 2013, on the right-most dark line.
  • There are five light lines between the dark lines. Each line represents one year.
  • Continue to the left, putting the year five years before on each dark line.
  • Thus, from right to left: 2013, 2008, 2003, 1998, 1993, 1988, 1983, 1978, 1973, 1968.
  • Using the birthday year of each family member or friend, draw a line across the graph paper, starting the year they were born.
  • Draw the person’s name above or on the dark line.
  • Grandparents will start off this chart. Just start their lines at the left-most side of the paper.
  • There is room on the graph for 8 or 9 people, if you use the dark lines going from bottom to top, one for each person.
  • Optionally, use different colored pencils for different generations, or different states where people live.
  • Optionally, use all three light lines between the dark lines, going from bottom to top. If it is very crowded, you may want to number the lines and, on the back, list which people the numbers represent.

What Should Happen?

With a simple graph, your grandchildren can see, laid out on one page, everyone’s relative age.

That is, they might know the ages of their parents, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles.

But, they might never have seen their ages in relation to each other.

If they have a brother who is two years older, for example, that is laid out on the graph.

If their parents are two or three or ten years apart, that is laid out on the graph.

Priestley’s view, when he made the Chart of Biographies across a nearly 4,000-year time -span, was that his students could see who the contemporaries of famous people were.

Who might have had a conversation with someone else because they lived at the same time?

Who might have influenced, or contributed to the advances of one another?

Who Did Ben Franklin Have Coffee With?

Older grandchildren, studying history, might create a version of Priestley’s Chart of Biography for a period of history they are studying.

Your grandchild  could pick a period, like the Revolutionary War, to see the relative ages of the major participants, like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

They could include one of the military leaders of our French allies, Lafayette, only 19 in 1776, and under whom my husband’s ancestor, Jean Pierre Couvain, was reported to have served.

After the War, Couvain, his name Anglicized to Covin, received permission to stay in the brand-new United States, after the Battle of Cowpens, in South Carolina.

From there, Covins spread out to Georgia and Texas. Those three states still hold the most Covins, 250 years later.

When did our heroes’ British counterparts, King George and General Cornwallis live? They were both 38 at the outbreak of the War.

Label the dark lines in 10-year increments, instead of five years, to cover a span of 100 years, before and after 1776.

Benjamin Franklin, your grandchildren will quickly see, was quite old when the Revolutionary War started, 70 years at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

His successful efforts to bring the French in on the American side of the Revolutionary War capped a long, inventive life.

James Madison was only 25 when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Thomas Jefferson, author of much of the Declaration of Independence, was 33.

Madison and Jefferson would each go on to become President of the United States, after this formative event in their early adulthood.

Time is laid out before you.


How many people would you include on a timeline with your grandchildren?

What is your favorite period of history?

Have you ever shared this interest with your grandchildren?

To you and helping your grandchildren see time.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”


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