Gregor von Feinaigle

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Gregor von Feinaigle (1760–1819), was a German mnemonist and Roman Catholic monk who developed an early version of the Major System.


Feinaigle was born in Ueberlingen (Margraviate of Baden) on 22. August 1760.

Very little other is known of his early life except that he entered the Cistercian monastery at Salem located along Lake Constance. Obligated to flee the monastery with the other monks due to the Napoleonic invasions, he became an itinerant professor in Karlsruhe, Paris, London, Glasgow and Dublin.

Feinaigle visited Paris in 1806, and delivered public lectures on local and symbolical memory, which he described as a ‘new system of mnemonics and methodics.’ He was accompanied by a young man who acted as interpreter. Count Metternich, the Austrian ambassador, and his secretaries followed the whole course of lectures, and spoke in highly laudatory terms of the system, which, though novel in its applications, was founded on the topical memory of the ancients, as described by Cicero and Quintilian.

Feinaigle was exposed to much criticism and sarcasm in the press, and was ridiculed on the stage by Dieulafoy in a farce called ‘Les filles de mémoire, ou le Mnémoniste.’ By way of reply he gave on 27 February 1807 a public exhibition to an audience of about two thousand persons. He did not himself appear, but was represented by twelve or fifteen of his pupils, who gave illustrations of his art. Afterwards he went on a lecturing tour through various parts of France.

Early in 1811, he came to England and delivered lectures at the Royal Institution and the Surrey Institution in London; and at Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. The fee for attending a course of fifteen or sixteen of his lectures was 5l. 5s., and this sum was paid by crowds of pupils, for Feinaigle made a mystery of the details of his method, and was in consequence denounced in some quarters as an impostor. He gained, however, many devoted adherents. The Rev. Peter Baines, afterwards bishop of Siga, introduced his system of mnemonics and also his general plan of education into the Benedictine college of Ampleforth, Yorkshire, and a society of gentlemen founded a school near Mountjoy Square, Dublin, which was placed under Feinaigle’s personal superintendence and conducted on his principles. He died in Dublin on 27 December 1819.

Memory System

Gregor von Feinaigle’s memory system consists of two complementary methods, intended to apply both to the learning of history and geography as well as that of mathematics and languages.

Memorization of Facts and Events

Gregor von Feinaigle invited his students to imagine a set of rooms in which is deposited in the form of symbols, elements which we want to remember. Each piece contains a number of symbols arranged to tell a little story.

Here is an example of one of those pieces which is used to remember a historical fact. During the campaign of Egypt, led by Napoleon, the treaty between General Kléber and the Gran Vizier is approved by the Cabinet of London:

Mnemonic diagram - Gregor von Feinaigle.png

The vertical line on the left, surmounted by a crewcent, symbolizing the Vizier. The vertical line in the middle, marked with a sword, represents Kléber. They are connected by two oblique lines which show him shaking hands. Egypt is symbolized by the pyramid placed on the ground. On the right, the Cabinet is represented by a rectangle within which a ship symbolizes the city of London.

Memorizing Numbers

Gregor von Feinaigle’s version of the Major System is:

1tOne vertical line
2nTwo vertical lines
3mThree vertical lines
4rThe letter r is found in the word \“four\” (or quatre in French, vier in German, etc.)
5LL resembles Roman numeral L (50)
6dd is like a backwards 6.
7K, C, Q, GK looks like two 7s back to back
8B, H, V, WB resembles 8. V and W are phonetically similar to B
9P, FP resembles 9 backwards. P and F are phonetically similar.
0S, Ç, Z, XThe number zero resembles a grindstone, which produces a hissing sound

To form a word from a figure, each number is converted into a consonant, and then vowels are added. Examples:

  • 34 = MR = mare, Mary, etc.
  • 140 = TRS = torso, terrace, trance

Longer numbers can be made into multiple words.


The major exposition of his system is in The New Art of Memory (1812).

The full title of the book is The New Art of Memory, founded upon the principles taught by M. Gregor von Feinaigle, and applied to Chronology, History, Geography, Languages, Systematic Tables, Poetry, Prose, and Arithmetic. To which is added some account of the principal systems of artificial memory, from the earliest period to the present time; with instances of the extraordinary powers of natural memory.

John Millard, assistant librarian to the Surrey Institution, was the editor of this work, according to Thomas Hartwell Horne, who was Millard’s brother-in-law, and who helped him with notes of Feinaigle’s lectures. Other treatises on the system were:

  • Notice sur la Mnémonique, ou l’art d’aider et de fixer la Mémoire en tout genre d’études, de sciences, ou d’affaires, par Grégoire de Feinaigle, Paris, 1806
  • Mnemonik oder praktische Gedächtnisskunst zum Selbstunterricht nach den Vorlesungen des Herrn von Feinaigle, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1811