Ever since humans began using their minds to master their environment, the possession and use of an excellent memory has been crucial for anyone rising to positions of command and respect. No great leader in human history was reputed to have a bad memory. As a matter of fact, the people who are looked down upon by history, aside from not having good leadership skills, often were the ones with poor memories: Generals who didn’t remember the mistakes of previous battles, Kings who forgot their own legal codes, Emperors who were oblivious to the members of their court. History forgets those who forgot.
The Greeks were first, as in so many things, to actually create techniques to train and develop the memory. About 500 BC there was a poet named Simonides. On one occasion he was hired to give a performance at the home of a wrestler who had just won at the Olympic games. The wrestler was giving a party to celebrate his victory. After reciting poetry, Simonides was having his meal when a message arrived saying that two men wanted to see him outside. No sooner had he stepped out of the house than the ceiling collapsed, killing everyone inside. The bodies had been so mutilated by the accident, that nobody could recognize who had been at the party. However, during his poetry reading, our man Simonides had observed the positions of all the guests and by looking at all the appropriate places he was able to identify the bodies. But this got him thinking. He figured that if this worked for people and places, then why not for objects, names or even ideas.
The next big step in memory came with the Romans. It turns out that when they weren’t having wild parties, or throwing Christians to the lions, they were developing memory systems. They had an eye for the dramatic and so developed what were called Memory Theaters. These Memory theaters were like Simonides’ system, but they were able to pack a whole lot more complex information into them. Not only did they figure a way to memorize a list or group of people or things, but they also came up with a way to remember specific details about each person, or object; even details about the details. These Memory Theaters were a real hit in the Roman senate, where Senators liked to show off by recounting at length all the sordid details of their opponent’s lives.
Eventually the use of memory techniques would reach its zenith in the middle ages. People in the middle ages were nuts about memory systems. It seems to have had a lot to do with the scarcity of paper, but there were other reasons as well. Complicated systems in religion, law, government, business, and what we would nowadays call ‘media’ were developing. In short, there was a lot to memorize. Everything in European culture of the time reflected people’s efforts to organize information in their heads. Cathedrals, with their painted frescoes and stained glass windows were systems for memorizing the Bible, the Saints and the teachings of the church. Illuminated manuscripts were vivid and colorful representations which helped in the retention of information. One of hottest selling books of the period was a book called Ad Herrenium, a treatise on memory. The use of color and rhyming were new devices brought in to augment the ancient memory systems. Merchants and businessmen memorized enormous poems, hundreds of lines long, which contained all the rules of business and codes of conduct. Traveling storytellers called Jongleurs, who were basically the news anchors of the middle ages, would often get together for memory competitions called ‘puys’, where they challenged each other to tests of skill. It was by no means a mere novelty trick, like memorizing who won the world series, or the jousting match of 1069. It was one of the most practical skills anyone could have and it was used in every facet of life.
Eventually, the memory techniques of the ancients and medievals were abstracted and systematized by some very clever thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries, making it very easy to use memory systems much faster and on a wider range of subjects. In 1753 this new, sophisticated science was named mnemonics. Mnemonic, by the way, is Greek for the science or study of memory. Simonides’ system for memorizing dead wrestlers was refined into what is called the Chain system by a man named Henry Herdson. And the Roman theater was later refined, using Herdson’s techniques, into the Peg system, a very useful system for storing and quickly retrieving information from large bodies of knowledge, such as catalogues and schedules.
Also during this period a fellow by the name of Stanislaus Mink von Winkelmann developed what is often considered to be the single most powerful memory tool ever devised: the Phonetic Index. It was later revised in the 18th century by an English scientist named Dr. Richard Grey and it hasn’t been improved upon since.
For the last two centuries there have been refinements but no real major developments in memory systems themselves, beyond the development of new applications for the ages-old techniques.