Historical Research: Timeline Construction & Chronological Identification

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the construction of historical timelines and historical chronology. We will learn how historians engage in this process and why it is important.

What is a Historical Timeline?

This is not a trick question: what is a historical timeline? Maybe you have some idea. Maybe you remember being in school and seeing in your textbook a line dotted with important dates and terms. For many, this is probably the image that comes to mind.

A historical timeline is a method of highlighting important historical dates, terms, figures, and events in a chronological fashion. Historical timelines can be very broad or very specific. For example, a massive and broad historical timeline might deal with the whole of human history, marking important dates and eras, while a specific timeline might deal with just a few years, such as World War II between 1939-1941. Some timelines might relate to only political events, while others might include only wars. So you can see, timelines are customizable. They can be created for custom purposes. The possibilities for timelines are nearly endless: a timeline of the French Revolution, a timeline of the Great Depression, a timeline of the Soviet Union, and so on and so forth.

This timeline, created in 1765, captures some of the empires of the world

Many timelines are broken down into periods or eras. For example, a broad timeline of human history might include the Ancient Age (from 3600 B.C. to roughly 500 A.D), the Middle Ages (500 to 1500), and the Modern Age (1500 to the present). Timelines show us the chronology of historical eras. Chronology is simply the order in which events take place, from first to last. Obviously the discipline of history is built on chronology, and understanding events from a chronological perspective is vital to the discipline.

This timeline relates to the Turkish War of Independence

A historical era is a particular period of time classified as a whole because of commonalities. For example, the Great Depression took place between the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the outbreak of World War II, and was marked by economic depression. Economic depression was the commonality. The Progressive Era during the early 20th century in the United States was marked by the commonality of social reform movements.

Constructing a Historical Timeline

Okay, so let's pretend you are a history professor and you need to construct a timeline. Let's say you're teaching about the American 'Roaring Twenties.' How you go about constructing a timeline? It's pretty easy actually. First, you would draw out of that brain of yours all of the super important events that took place during the 1920s. These would be things like the Scopes Trial in 1925, the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, obviously the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and many other events. Now you only have so much space on your timeline, so you would need to pick only the most important or critical events. You would then place these events in chronological order, from first to last as they took place throughout the 1920s. Whether your timeline was drawn on a chalkboard or designed on a computer program, you would find a way to mark these events on your timeline, and depending on space, you might provide a quick explanation or description of the event.

That's basically it. Pretty simple, eh? It is, but remember often times there is debate among historians as to what is important and what is not. Also, an event might be important in one type of timeline, but not for another. In a World War II timeline, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would definitely be important, but it probably would not show up on a timeline of the history of the earth. This is where context comes in. Your events must be listed in appropriate context to the timeline.

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