The History and Evolution of the Major System for Memorizing Numbers
This is the history behind the development of the major system over the past few hundred years. I’ve also provided downloads of the original memory systems which are in the public domain. If you see a mistake below or have more information, please leave a comment. Also, visit the wiki page that is linked to at the bottom of this post.
Edit: see also this historical perspective.
From Wikipedia: “Pierre Hérigone (1580–1643) was a French mathematician and astronomer and devised the earliest version of the major system.”
I couldn’t find the details of the system, but apparently he used both consonants and vowels in Latin and French.
Update: There is a brief description here:
[He] introduced a code by which numbers were translated into words to aid memorising them. The code was as follows: 1 = p, a; 2 = b, e; 3 = c, i; 4 = d, o; 5 = t, u; 6 = f, ar, ra; 7 = g, er, re; 8 = l, ir, ri; 9 = m, or, ro; 0 = n, ur, ru. So to remember a number such as 314159 one produced a word such as ‘cadator’ which then translated back into 314159. The assumption here was that ‘cadator’ was easier to remember than 314159.
Stanislaus Mink von Wennsshein
From Wikipedia: “The major system was further developed by Stanislaus Mink von Wennsshein 300 years ago.”
His system, published in 1648, is online here, but it’s in German. Here is a screenshot of one illustration:
From Wikipedia: “In 1730, Richard Grey set forth a complicated system that used both consonants and vowels to represent the digits.”
At this point in history, the system still uses both consonants and vowels, but interestingly it alternates consonants and vowels almost like the Ben System:
1 = b, a
2 = d, e
3 = t, i
4 = f, o
5 = l, u
6 = s, au
7 = p, oi
8 = k, ei
9 = n, ou
0 = z, y
Some examples of usage that he gives are:
10 = az
325 = tel
381 = teib
1921 = aneb
1491 = afua
I haven’t read the whole book, but it seems like he is just making nonsense words, not images. Download a PDF of his book here: Memoria Technica [7 Mb]
Gregor von Feinaigle
From Wikipedia: “In 1808 Gregor von Feinaigle introduced the improvement of representing the digits by consonant sounds…”
This is the first version that starts to look like the modern Major System. He assigns the following letters to digits:
1 = t
2 = n
3 = m
4 = r
5 = l
6 = d
7 = c, k, g, q
8 = b, h, v, w
9 = p, f
0 = s, x, z
I uploaded a PDF copy of his book here: The New Art of Memory [14 Mb].
I’m editing this post again (January 22, 2014) with a few updates. I wanted to mention Aimé Paris who modified Gregor von Feinaigle’s system to create what we know as the modern major system. It seems that he was the person who first published it in the modern form, so it might even be accurate to call it the Paris System. You can read his book here.
Some people believe that Major Beniowsky is the “Major” in the major system (but see the comments below for an alternate opinion). His book, The Anti-Absurd or Phrenotypic English Pronouncing and Orthographical Dictionary, contains the modern version of the major system. You can download the book for free here.
I’ve edited this post (Jan 15, 2013) to add Francis Fauvel-Gourad. He
published the first version of used Aimé Paris’ version of the modern Major System in his 19th century book Phreno-Mnemotechny.
The Wikipedia article says that the major system in its current form was popularized by Harry Lorayne. EDIT: The version of the Major System that he popularized appears to be
Francis Fauvel-Gourad’s Aimé Paris’ system.
I think individual people also modify the system for their own use. I use a modified major system for consonants where 6 is “b” because they look similar.
See also the memory wiki page for the major system, because it has additional information, including some notes about other early writers like Ernest E. Wood.