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.
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 of his early Major System
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]
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.
Dan 19 Sep 2021
I've always wondered why you need any system at all. Dominic O'Brien suggests this is just the initial scaffolding and once you permanently associate the number with a person the is no need for the system. Why not just make the 110 most easily and quickly recalled images your pegs? Then just make the list in no particular order. Then memorize it off the list drawn up. Or 310 for competition level. You certainly can't form the pegs on the fly ala Harry Lorayne.
Josh 19 Sep 2021
I think there can be other benefits to a phonetic system though. My system isn't finished yet, but I'm already using the same images for specific sounds (names and language). Also, it has about 2800 images, so I need a reference until they are completely embedded in my brain. :)
Towfer 19 Sep 2021
Mike Curtis 19 Sep 2021
Not often mentioned but.. In Polish, the pronunciation of some letters changes if they happen at the end of the word. eg. klub has the 'b' pronounded as 'p' since it is at the end of the word. If you look at the modern Major system, b and p both represent the same digit. So maybe parts of the structure of Polish is embedded in that system.
Josh Cohen 19 Sep 2021
"B" and "p" are two variations of the same consonant. "B" is voiced (uses the vocal chords) and "p" is unvoiced (only air is being expelled). Many languages switch these pairs around.
Example from English: "t" and "d" can be switched around in different accents -- for example: "water" vs. "wadder".
Here are some more examples:
Voiced Unvoiced ------------------------------ b p d t z s zh sh (Jacques / shell) dj ch (George / church) g k (green / cat) v f
(It's a table of consonant sounds, not letters, so the letters won't match.)
Depending on the mouth shape used when producing the consonants, different consonants or letters can be switched with each other -- for example: b/v in Hebrew and Spanish.
Norbert 19 Sep 2021
Great summary, thank you! To complement it, here is Hérigone's system:
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
Chris Aldrich 19 Sep 2021
While researching the links between mnemonics and shorthand, I just came across "A complete guide to the improvement of the memory or the science of memory simplified: with practical applications to languages, history, geography, music, prose, poetry, shorthand, etc." written by James Henry Bacon and published by Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, London. https://archive.org/details/b21293405 (Third Edition, 1890). The major system appears on page 59, though it has a few transposed letters/numbers compared to more modern versions of the system.
Isaac Pitman, who published the book, was also the inventor of Pitman shorthand which was introduced in 1837 and is structurally similar to the Major System.
The book seems to be based on Bacon's prior work "The Science of Memory Simplified and Explained: Or, A Rational System for Improving the Memory, Etc" written in 1861.
Josh, if you feel it appropriate, you can also add the book above to https://artofmemory.com/blog/free-books-on-mnemotechnics/
Sheldon 19 Sep 2021
This is a fantastic website, but there are several important errors on this page. For example, is there really any evidence that the "Major" system was named after Major Beniowski? I've never seen any proof of this, and it seems highly unlikely, for the following reasons: (a) Then wouldn't it be called the "Beniowski System"? (And if he'd been just "Mr. Beniowski", would anyone call it the "Mr. System"?); (b) Beniowski was a fairly obscure character in the history of mnemonics, compared to Feinaigle, Paris, et al.; (c) There are significant differences between Beniowski's phonetic key and the most popular one today: i.e., Beniowski used /h/ and /w/, which means he wasn't following Aimé Paris directly; and (d) MOST IMPORTANTLY, Tony Buzan was calling it the "Major System" at least 30 years ago, but only in the sense that it's the "major" (primary, etc.) system for memorizing numbers - there was no mention whatsoever of Beniowski. (Of course examples of "minor" systems would be shapes, 2 = swan, and rhyming, 2 = shoe.)
Here's a great, short bio of Major Bartlomiej Beniowski: http://www.chartists.net/insurrection/major-bartlomiej-beniowski-chartisms-military-adviser/
Josh Cohen 19 Sep 2021
Thanks for the thoughts on it. I've updated the post to mention your comment, and also started a forum thread to discuss the Major System and Major Beniowski. We can continue the discussion in the forum, and I'll keep updating the post as we discover new information.