Replied to Major Beniowski and the Major System (Art of Memory Forum)
My post on the history of the major system 13 listed Major Beniowski as the source of the name of the Major System.
However, a reader commented with some skepticism that the Major System is named after the Major.
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:
Does anyone have any background info on the origin of the term? Has Tony Buzan ever talked about where he got the name from? I don’t think that Harry Lorayne used the term Major System, but I’m not sure.
I spent some time last night quickly skimming through my copy of Bruno Furst’s You Can Remember (a home study course in 12 booklets, rather than a book) and copies of How to Remember (Greenberg, 1944; I’ve got the 1947 edition) which was later reprinted as The practical way to better memory. In all of them he’s pretty consistent in using the phrases “The Basic List” (for 0-9 letter/numbers) and “The Number Code” to refer to the functionality of the Major System. That I can see he definitely doesn’t use Major System to describe the idea.

Furst doesn’t make any references to prior art or work in the historical record except the one which @Graham has mentioned. It appears on p131 of How to Remember as:

This numerical system has been used by Berol, Roth, Loisette and other writers on the subject, and it seems pointless not to avail ourselves of a tested method which has proved satisfactory for many years.

There’s also a reference on page 56 of How to Remember:

Books of modern times dealing with association-laws, for instance those by Loisette and Poehlmann, are divided as follows in respect to the differences in concepts from a purely practical point of view

I’m digging up copies of David M. Roth’s Roth Memory Course, Felix Berol’s Berol System (which may have included work by his brothers William and Max), and Christof Ludwig Poehlmann aka Christopher Louis Pelman about whom I’ve found a nice trove of material on a related method at I don’t have much hope that any of these references will credit any of their prior sources as most of them seem to have made their livings on their courses and writing and wouldn’t have wanted to “give away their sources as potential competition”.

There is a chance that Major Beniowski was the source of the system for all of these authors given the relatively wide spread nature of his work during his life, his international travel, and the fact that he spoke multiple languages. But at the same time there’s a large number of people using this or similar methods in the 1800’s. Having more direct evidence would be useful. I only became aware of the moniker by seeing it on the Wikipedia page, and previously used the “number system” as Furst did to describe it.

I do notice that Furst uses the phrase “Furst Method” at least once in his correspondence course, but it’s in reference to the Major System and several other peg and related systems (notably not the method of loci in *You Can Remember*). It seems fairly regular for practitioners of this time period who were writing books to use their surname and call it their method.

One interesting case seems to be that of Marcus Dwight Larrow alias Silas Holmes alias Alphonse Loisette (referenced by Furst) who peddled a system for inordinate sums (including to Mark Twain who gave him a testimonial at the time). His system was exposed in a book in 1888 and was interesting or influential enough to have garnered a book review in the journal Science (see: “Loisette” exposed, together with Loisette’s Complete System of Physiological Memory. By G. S. FELLOWS. New York, The Author. 8‡ 25 cents published 20 July 1888).

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

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