University of Oregon

The Pleasures of Memory

If you are lucky, in a dusty used book store or flea market, you may someday happen upon a copy of Mark Twain's Memory Builder, a history game developed by Samuel L. Clemens in the mid-1880s and debuted in 1892, an obscure treasure by one of America’s great writers, an old game of memory almost entirely forgotten today.

Twain’s game was little more than a cardboard score sheet, a set of instructions, a pamphlet filled with historical facts, and a box of pins. Yet the idea of this game consumed the attention of America’s great humorist for two years, including those heady months in 1883 when he was finishing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That summer, he quit writing every day at 5:15 pm, then burned midnight oil working on his memory game.

What is Mark Twain’s Memory Builder? It is a kind of knowledge game. Players take turns stating historical facts and dates, earning scores. The player with the most points wins. Twain’s description of the game and his rules printed on the back of the game board, are funny—not a surprise, given the author—but game play lends itself to more sober exchanges of historical information.

You stick a pin in 64 (in the third row of holes in that compartment—“Minor Event,” and say “Shakespeare born, 1564.” Or pin 76 in that compartment—“Minor Event”), and say “Declaration of Independence, 1776.”
You stick a pin in 15 (second row of holes in that compartment—“Battle”, and say “Waterloo, 1815.”
You stick a pin in 3 (first row of holes in that compartment—“Accessions”), and say, “James I. ascended the English throne, 1603.”

In nineteenth-century America, history classes were notoriously heavy on names and dates. To many students, studying history seemed little more than dull memorization. In many classrooms, it was.

Mark Twain thought this was a shame. Twain loved history and exulted in its imaginative landscapes. And, as he watched his young daughters learning history from their governess in the early 1880s, he thought he might do something to make memorizing names and dates a little less punishing.

Sixteen years ago when my children were little creatures the governess was trying to hammer some primer histories into their heads. Part of this fun--if you like to call it that--consisted in the memorizing of the accession dates of the thirty-seven personages who had ruled England from the Conqueror down. These little people found it a bitter, hard contract. It was all dates, and all looked alike, and they wouldn't stick. Day after day of the summer vacation dribbled by, and still the kings held the fort; the children couldn't conquer any six of them.

It was not a question of forgoing memorization. Twain believed that educated people should know their history. And for Twain, as for his contemporaries, knowing history meant memorizing historical facts—lots of historical facts. It’s just that Twain thought that a little more enjoyment might be breathed into the whole affair.

Twain’s first stab at the problem, in the summer of 1883, was an outdoor game he made up for his young daughters. Twain measured 817 feet of the driveway near his house at Quarry Farm on a scale of one foot to the year, and hammered pegs in the ground at the start of each British monarchy down to the present day. The first peg was planted at 1066 for William the Conqueror. At the other end of the driveway was 1883. Twain’s daughters raced from peg to peg shouting the names of the English monarchs and chasing apples thrown by their father. The outdoor game turned out to be good fun.

When you think of Henry III. do you see a great long stretch of straight road? I do; and just at the end where it joins on to Edward I. I always see a small pear-bush with its green fruit hanging down. When I think of the Commonwealth I see a shady little group of these small saplings which we called the oak parlor; when I think of George III. I see him stretching up the hill, part of him occupied by a flight of stone steps; and I can locate Stephen to an inch when he comes into my mind, for he just filled the stretch which went by the summer-house. Victoria's reign reached almost to my study door on the first little summit; there's sixteen feet to be added now; I believe that that would carry it to a big pine-tree that was shattered by some lightning one summer when it was trying to hit me.

Soon, Twain was at work on an indoor version of his history game, and the project consumed him. Twain first worked up rules for play with a cribbage board and deck of cards; then he began to design his own game boards. On good days, Twain was sure that he was onto something grand and lucrative. On bad days, and especially after some disagreement with his publisher, he despaired that the game wasn’t working and might never work.

For two years, Twain tinkered at his history game, eventually settling on rules and a layout. He filed for a patent on October 9, 1884. After some back and forth with the Patent Office on possible resemblances to an existing Centenary Game patented by Victor Klobassa in 1875, Twain received patent no. 324,525 for a “Game Apparatus” on August 18, 1885.

Twain fancied himself an inventor, and this was not his first patent. Fourteen years earlier, in 1871, he received patent no. 121,992 for an adjustable garment strap. In 1873, he received patent no. 140,245 for a self-pasting scrapbook that eventually sold more than 25,000 copies, becoming the most profitable of all of Twain’s books during his lifetime.

Twain’s enormous investment in the famous Paige Compositor, an ambitious mechanical typesetting machine, had a less happy result. James Paige’s apparatus was a failure, the revolution in printing that Twain envisioned never took place, and Twain’s investment was lost.

In 1885, Twain got the patent he sought for his game, but it wasn’t until 1891 that he came back to the history game. That year and the next, he worked with his publisher, Charles L. Webster and Company, to produce a commercial version under the title “Mark Twain’s Memory Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of Facts and Dates.”

Twain and his publisher wrestled over details. Twain wanted the game board to be backed with cork, but the publisher opted for cardboard. Twain was so disappointed by the flimsiness of the board that he briefly threatened to remove his name from the product. In 1892, Mark Twain’s Memory Builder appeared.

The game, Mark Twain’s Memory Builder, is a simple, handsome little set. It includes a game board, a box of pins, and a pamphlet of historical names and dates largely researched by Twain’s brother, Orion Clemens, called “Facts for Mark Twain’s Memory Builder.” The board is 9 x 14 inches and ¼ inch thick. On the front is a playing surface; on the back, the rules. The printed surfaces are simple white paper with black ink attached to the cardboard by dark tape folded around each edge.

The rules of the published game are simple in concept, though successful play by Twain’s original rules often requires a good deal of historical knowledge and some imagination. Twain’s explanation on the back of the board is laced with characteristic humor, meandering some along the way.

Many public-school children seem to know only two dates—1492 and the 4th of July; and as a rule they don’t know what happened on either occasion. It is because they have not had a chance to play this game.

The game may be played by one or more players who test their knowledge against one another. In essence, game play proceeds by turns as each player names a historical event and its date, which are then checked by an umpire or by a competitor. Different categories of events earn different scores. Naming an “Accession”—when a monarch took the throne or an elected leader was seated in office—scores ten points; “Battles” score five points; “Minor Events” and “Miscellaneous Facts: score one point each. The game ends at a predetermined score or after a certain period has elapsed. The player with the most points wins.

Miscellaneous Facts are facts which do not depend upon dates for their value. If you know how many bones there are in the human foot (whereas most of us don’t), you can state the number and score one point. Populations, boundaries of countries, length of rivers, specific gravity of various metals, astronomical facts—anything that is worth remembering, is admissible, and you can score for it. If you explain what England understands by it when a member of Parliament ‘applies for the Chiltern Hundreds,” do it and score a point. Waste no opportunity to tell all you know.

The game board of the Memory Builder is a score sheet with 100 individual boxes representing 100 years. The boxes are simply labeled with the numbers 1 to 100, so that the game may be played for any century. In an eighteenth-century game, for example, box number 11 would stand for the year 1711. Alternatively, players may allow events from any century, in which case, 11 would stand for 1511, 1611, 1711, and every other year ending in 11. Score boxes are subdivided into rows for different categories of events: accessions, battles, and minor events. A separate scoring area at the bottom of the game board is reserved for miscellany. When a player correctly names the date for an event, they stick a pin in the game board in the correct year and category to mark their success. Twain was right: cork would have made a much more durable game surface than cardboard.

Like many educational games, Twain’s game doesn’t scream fun. Players name historical events and get points. But Twain thought there was more to it. He called the Memory Builder a “game of suggestion,” and he imagined that players would stimulate each other’s recall.

This is a game of suggestion. Whenever either player pins a fact, it will be pretty sure to suggest one to the adversary. The accidental mention of Waterloo will turn loose an inundation of French history. The mention of any very conspicuous event in the history of any nation will bring before the vision of the adversaries the minor features of the historical landscape that stretches away from it.

As with other history games from the period, the game board might also serve as a space of visual association: a pin planted in box 92, scoring points for Columbus’s arrival in the New World might very well stimulate an association with the French declaration of war on Austria in 1792, for example. The very fact that the board showed 100 years at a time was important. Many history textbooks and mnemonic systems from the period encouraged students to imagine history in terms of century units. When he was a child two centuries earlier, Johann Sebastian Bach, had studied history from a book by Johannes Buno that provided a cartoon for each century to make them easier to remember. The 400s were represented by a dragon, the 1400s by a flask. The “Polish-American System” developed by the Polish war hero, Josef Bem, in the 1830s and popularized in the US by the transcendentalist Elizabeth Palmer Peabody in the 1850s, required students to paint century grids with a kind of coded semaphore representing historical events. In the 1880s, exactly when Twain was working on his game, the Canadian educator Nelson Loverin even developed a mechanical version of the Polish-American system.

Twain also imagined that the rules of the history game could be tweaked to produce different kinds of challenges. He suggested one such “augmentation” himself: award 100 points to the person who records the highest number of “Minor Events,” despite giving only one point for each such fact during the play of the game, producing a kind of tortoise-and-hare effect, a bit like recognizing both high and low cards in poker.

Twain made a strong distinction between his game and other board games then on the market. Others had historical subjects; but according to Twain they did not challenge the faculty of memory. On May 19, 1885, in his response to a patent examiner who compared Twain’s game to Klobassa’s, Twain made his case. In the first place, Twain wrote, Klobassa’s board looked nothing like his own. Twain’s was a grid; Klobassa’s was a circle divided by radial lines. Moreover, in Klobassa’s game, one moved tokens on a game board. In Twain’s, one stuck a pin in the board on each move. Klobassa’s was a dice game. Twain’s was a game of knowledge.

Klobassa distinctly states that ‘any numbered balls or dice may be used’ and his is evidently a board for a game of chance or luck, more or less a gambling apparatus. Applicant’s game is one in which great skill is required, and to play the game perfectly, both skill and knowledge. It is no chance game at all, and can be played only by persons having a thorough knowledge of history. There is not a single feature common to applicant’s game board and the one shown in reference with the exception that both have numbers, and that both are boards, that is all.

Klobassa’s may have been a game of chance, but Twain’s invention erred in the direction of being no game at all. If one had few historical facts at one’s disposal, the game was impossible to play. If one took no pleasure in exercising one’s faculty of memory, it was possible to play but impossible to enjoy.

These factors conspired to limit the game’s success. By 1892, when the Mark Twain’s Memory Builder appeared on the market, Twain was a famous and popular author. And, as the success of his self-pasting scrapbook demonstrated, a good invention paired with Twain’s name could be a potent commercial combination. But Mark Twain’s Memory Builder saw no such success. It got some press and sold some copies. Twain doesn’t appear to have lost money on the game, but in the market, the game was a failure.

Difficulties with the Memory Builder didn’t dim Twain’s interest in the idea of a history game, though, and in the decade after it was published, Twain continued to refine his ideas about history and memorization. In 1899, he revisited the subject in a new essay “How to Make History Dates Stick”—published posthumously in Harpers—reviewing his ideas on the history and memorization, going all the way back to the outdoor game and advancing in new directions, emphasizing the importance of pictures and visual memory.

Dates are hard to remember because they consist of figures; figures are monotonously unstriking in appearance, and they don't take hold, they form no pictures, and so they give the eye no chance to help. Pictures are the thing. Pictures can make dates stick. They can make nearly anything stick--particularly IF YOU MAKE THE PICTURES YOURSELF. Indeed, that is the great point--make the pictures YOURSELF. I know about this from experience.

The article began with some stories about Twain’s own memory—or lack thereof, as Twain thought his own memory was quite bad. He recounted several of his attempts to create memory systems to help himself when speaking in public. “How to Make History Dates Stick,” brimmed with Twain’s characteristic humor. In it, he bemoaned his own difficulties remembering things, dates above all. Over the years, he said, he had devised numerous aids and expedients. At one point, when he was having trouble committing a speech to memory, he came up with the idea of writing hints in ink on the tips of his fingers so that he could easily refer to them while he talked. This backfired. He remembered the speech but irritated the audience, which had trouble understanding why the esteemed speaker kept idly gazing at his fingernails.

Thirty years ago I was delivering a memorized lecture every night, and every night I had to help myself with a page of notes to keep from getting myself mixed. The notes consisted of beginnings of sentences, and were eleven in number, and they ran something like this:
Eleven of them. They initialed the brief divisions of the lecture and protected me against skipping. But they all looked about alike on the page; they formed no picture; I had them by heart, but I could never with certainty remember the order of their succession; therefore I always had to keep those notes by me and look at them every little while. Once I mislaid them; you will not be able to imagine the terrors of that evening. I now saw that I must invent some other protection. So I got ten of the initial letters by heart in their proper order--I, A, B, and so on--and I went on the platform the next night with these marked in ink on my ten finger-nails. But it didn't answer. I kept track of the figures for a while; then I lost it, and after that I was never quite sure which finger I had used last. I couldn't lick off a letter after using it, for while that would have made success certain it also would have provoked too much curiosity. There was curiosity enough without that. To the audience I seemed more interested in my fingernails than I was in my subject; one or two persons asked me afterward what was the matter with my hands.

The solution, Twain discovered—or rediscovered, since in a sense he was only rearticulating principles of classical mnemonics—was to lay down a strong system of visual association and commit that to memory. He began doing this for his speeches, and then applied the method to the harder subject of chronology. The key to all of it, Twain argued, was doing it yourself. It was not enough to use someone else’s system. That could help, no doubt; but to really commit something hard to memory you had to invent your own system and affix the dates in question to it.

It was now that the idea of pictures occurred to me; then my troubles passed away. In two minutes I made six pictures with a pen, and they did the work of the eleven catch-sentences, and did it perfectly. I threw the pictures away as soon as they were made, for I was sure I could shut my eyes and see them any time. That was a quarter of a century ago; the lecture vanished out of my head more than twenty years ago, but I would rewrite it from the pictures--for they remain. Here are three of them:
The first one is a haystack--below it a rattlesnake--and it told me where to begin to talk ranch-life in Carson Valley. The second one told me where to begin the talk about a strange and violent wind that used to burst upon Carson City from the Sierra Nevadas every afternoon at two o'clock and try to blow the town away. The third picture, as you easily perceive, is lightning; its duty was to remind me when it was time to begin to talk about San Francisco weather, where there IS no lightning--nor thunder, either--and it never failed me.

In his article, Twain gives numerous examples of his own mnemonics, funny combinations of verbal and visual play. For the chronology of English kings, he created pictographs based on alliteration: the Henrys are hens, the Stephens are steer, the Williams are whales, and the Edwards—feet tipped up on their chairs, pens in hand, and malice in their eyes—are editors. Twain writes,

Edward I.
That is an editor. He is trying to think of a word. He props his feet on a chair, which is the editor’s way; then he can think better. I do not care much for this one; his ears are not alike; still, editor suggests the sound of Edward, and he will do. I could make him better if I had a model, but I made this one from memory. But is no particular matter; they all look alike, anyway. They are conceited and troublesome, and don’t pay enough. Edward was the first really English king that had yet occupied the throne. The editor in the picture probably looks just as Edward looked when it was first borne in upon him that this was so. His whole attitude expressed gratification and pride mixed with stupefaction and astonishment.

Of course, Twain was poking fun, but even his jokes are mnemonic devices. Twain really wanted readers to see how the image of an editor propped up in a chair might remind them that Edward I was “the first really English king that had yet occupied the throne.” The same goes for Edward II.

Edward II.
Another editor. That thing behind his ear is his pencil. Whenever he finds a bright thing in your manuscript he strikes it out with that. That does him good, and makes him smile and show his teeth, the way he is doing in the picture. This one has just been striking out a smart thing, and now he is sitting there with his thumbs in his vest-holes, gloating. They are full of envy and malice, editors are. This picture will serve to remind you that Edward II was the first English king who was DEPOSED. Upon demand, he signed his deposition himself. He had found kingship a most aggravating and disagreeable occupation, and you can see by the look of him that he is glad he resigned. He has put his blue pencil up for good now. He had struck out many a good thing with it in his time.

And, for anyone who might confuse the first two Edwards with the third, Twain gives one more mnemonic. This one, he says, he drew even worse than the others, but that didn’t matter, he said. The point of making historical pictures is to help us remember, and getting it a bit wrong in an interesting way is more useful that watching someone else do it right. This is what is called inspiration, he says—getting something wrong in a good way. And so it is that he gives us his mangled impression of Edward III, or “Edward the Critic”:

Edward III.
He has pulled out his carving-knife and his tomahawk and is starting after a book which he is going to have for breakfast. This one’s arms are put on wrong. I did not notice it at first, but I see it now. Somehow he has got his right arm on his left shoulder, and his left arm on his right shoulder, and this shows us the back of his hands in both instances. It makes him left-handed all around, which is a thing which has never happened before, except perhaps in a museum. That is the way with art, when it is not acquired but born to you: you start in to make some simple little thing, not suspecting that your genius is beginning to work and swell and strain in secret, and all of a sudden there is a convulsion and you fetch out something astonishing. This is called inspiration. It is an accident; you never know when it is coming. I might have tried as much as a year to think of such a strange thing as an all-around left-handed man and I could not have done it, for the more you try to think of an unthinkable thing the more it eludes you; but it can’t elude inspiration; you have only to bait with inspiration and you will get it every time. Look at Botticelli’s “Spring.” Those snaky women were unthinkable, but inspiration secured them for us, thanks to goodness. It is too late to reorganize this editor-critic now; we will leave him as he is. He will serve to remind us.

In some ways, Twain’s 1899 reflections represented a new direction for him. From a visual point of view, the Memory Builder was as spartan as you could imagine, a simple grid with numbers and dots. The cartoons of 1899 were raffish and funny. But even in this later reflection, Twain had not given up entirely on the notion of systematically representing dates. Here, he tried to improve on the original system. Twain suggested that to remember a monarch’s reign, a student might draw a cartoon of the Edward the Editor variety. Then she or he could copy out that same image repeatedly, one cartoon per year of a reign, and pin them up in order, zigzagging at each point of regime change. This would have the effect of reinforcing the mnemonic through repetition while also creating a spatial analogy of the length of reigns, as if the kings had marched in procession “out of the Ark and down Ararat for exercise and are now starting back again up the zigzag road.” Be careful, though, writes Twain, “do not mark on the wall; that would cause trouble.”

Start with William the Conqueror.
Take your pen now, and twenty-one pieces of white paper, each two inches square, and we will do the twenty-one years of the Conqueror’s reign. On each square draw a picture of a whale and write the dates and term of service. We choose the whale for several reasons: its name and William’s begin with the same letter; it is the biggest fish that swims, and William is the most conspicuous figure in English history in the way of a landmark; finally, a whale is about the easiest thing to draw. By the time you have drawn twenty-one whales and written “William I.—1066-1087—twenty-one years” twenty-one times, those details will be your property; you cannot dislodge them from your memory with anything but dynamite.

Twain’s earlier games emphasized abstraction and numbers. The new games were pictorial. They were also creative and playful, fulfilling the promise of the humor Twain showed in the rules for the Memory Builder, which was hard to reproduce in game play itself. Twain’s late reflections on memorization stake out a very different direction from his earlier thought which tended toward visual structures, repetitive practice, competition, imagination, and toward iconology and narrative. In some ways, the late reflections are a critique of the early ones.

When we play Twain’s game, we are in a position to consider what works and doesn’t work in Twain’s designs as well as to reflect on the distance between our world of learning and that of Twain. In part, what we notice when we play—particularly if we use the pamphlet of facts that Twain included with his game and that we have reproduced in the World History game on this website—are the predispositions of the historiography of the period. Europe and North America are massively overrepresented, as are men, as is political history. One can easily quantify these prejudices simply by categorizing and counting. Elementary school students in the nineteenth-century United States knew more about minor battles in Thirty Years War than they did about recent history in Africa or Asia. But it’s not just the content of historiography that is foreign to us, it is also the very notion of what studying history is about. For nineteenth-century teachers and students, it was importantly about knowing facts.

In some ways, it’s simply a challenge to play Mark Twain’s Memory Builder. You need to know a lot, and you need to enjoy showing it off. By themselves, those things aren’t game-killers. Any number of difficult, show-off trivia games have succeeded over the years. Twain’s game, though, requires a high degree of self-direction and initiative in addition to knowledge of trivia. Modern quiz games such as Trivial Pursuit, test your knowledge but provide all of the questions and all of the answers, too.

Twain knew that a fully open game might be a challenge, which is why he asked his brother, Orion Clemens, to develop “Facts for Mark Twain’s Memory Builder.” Twain imagined that players might study the pamphlet then play the game to test their memories. (In our electronic version of the game, we have followed Twain’s advice, given in the game rules, and supplemented Twain’s pamphlet, which only lists “Accessions,” with entries for the categories of “Battles” and “Minor Events” drawn from history books and encyclopedias from Twain’s time.)

Twain’s approach—providing material to turn the Memory Builder into a trivia game—doesn’t seem wildly off base. There are many successful games that ask players to learn some information and to deploy it, but Twain’s basic rules lack nuance, and unless played with great wit, it is easy to see how it might devolve into a dull back-and-forth of factual statement. Of course, even a simple version of the game would allow for elements of strategy: players, for example, might want to exhaust their opponents’ subjects of strength before going too deeply into their own.

One can imagine many creative augmentations along the lines of Twain’s own suggestions. A successful play might earn a player another turn, while a miss might lose one. There might be ways to steal pins from an opponent or to earn challenge questions to reduce an opponent’s score. Questions could be posed by the umpire for all players to answer. Years could be put out of play once named. Who knows, a computer version could be constructed that presented players with a quiz on the facts in Twain’s pamphlet or on the facts of Twain’s life itself!

But innovate as we may, we are in the end left with Twain’s game itself, what we have presented here as option 1: Twain’s original rules. And, we admit that it is not that easy to play unless you are a real history buff. Mark Twain’s Memory Builder is designed for players who have a lot of chronological information at their fingertips already.

With Internet search engines at our fingertips on computers and smart phones, we live in a world of ready reference. Twain still lived in a world of artificial memory. In a sense, rather than a “memory builder,” Twain’s game was a “memory exerciser.” And if the game was fun, that’s where the fun could be found.

Today, Twain’s game challenges us in new ways. Above all, it compels us to recognize that for all of his humor and familiarity, Mark Twain comes from a world foreign to us. Even if he didn’t score his biggest success with his history game, Twain believed in it, and it gave him great pleasure to imagine playing it. Can we feel that way about memorization today?

[Daniel Rosenberg 2013 Time OnLine]