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from the collection of Dave Thomson

Mark Twain's Memory Builder Game

On August 18, 1885 Mark Twain patented his Memory-Builder, a game board aimed at developing memory for dates and facts. The game board measured approximately 9 x 13 1/2 inches and about 1/4 of an inch thick. The game and instructions (see below), which were written by Twain, were glued on the top front and back of the game board. The game came supplied with a package of straight pins of different colors. Several models were test marketed in 1891 but failed to capture the public's fancy, possibly because Twain's instructions were too complicated. According to one critic, "The game looked like a cross between an income tax form and a table of logarithms (Meltzer, p. 193)."

For Twain's other writings concerning memory and learning methods, see his essay "How to Make History Dates Stick" online at this site.

Also see the Memory Builder Game at the University of Virginia web site.

game board



1. The board represents any century.

2. Also, it represents all centuries.

You may choose a particular century and confine your game to one nation's history for that period;

Or you may include the contemporaneous history of all nations.

If you choose, you can throw your game open to all history and all centuries.When you pin your fact in its year-column, name the century.


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 (third row 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 compartment--"Accessions"), and say "James I, ascended the English throne, 1603."

This is a game of suggestion. Whenever either player pins a fact, it will be pretty sure to suggest on to the adversary. The accidental mention of Waterloo will turn loose an inundation of French history. The mention of any very conspicuous even 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.


Play turn about. Play by the clock. Make the game a half-hour long; or an hour; or longer, according to mutual understanding.


The upper row of holes in the enclosure of each year in the year columns is for ACCESSIONS (to thrones, presidencies, etc.). Each pin there counts 10.

The second row is for BATTLES Each pin there counts 5.

The third row is for MINOR EVENTS. Each pin in it counts 1.

Minor Events are births, deaths, dates of inventions, and any other facts, great or small, that are datable and worth remembering.


These are recorded at the bottom of the board--the left side for the player using the black pins, the right side for white.

When a player has recorded ten of them, he must relieve the board by taking them all out and preserving the record of that ten by sticking one pin in the group of holes at his side of the board.

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.


At the close of the game the player who has recorded the greatest number of Minor Events (third row of holes in the year compartments) is entitled to add 100 points to his score for it.


BLACK, we will suppose, has scored 10 Accessions (100); 30 Battles (150); 200 Minor Events (200); and 60 Miscellaneous Facts. Totals, 100, 150, 200, 60. Grand total, 510.

White, we will suppose, has scored 6 Accessions (60); 20 Battles (100); 201 Minor Events (201); and 51 Miscellaneous Facts (51). Totals, 60, 100, 201, 51. Grand total, 412. He adds 100 for that extra Minor Event, and wins by 2 points.

MORAL - The minor events of history are valuable, although not always showy and picturesque.


In the ordinary ways, dates are troublesome tings to retain. By this game they are easy to acquire (from your adversary), and they stick fast in your head if you take the trouble to use them a few times in playing the game.

Play all the dates you are sure of, and take sharp note of those which the adversary plays--for use next time.

In your daily reading seize valuable dates for use in the game at night.

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

The most conspicuous landmarks in history are the accessions of kings; therefore thee events are given the first place in the game and allowed to count the most. Battles come next.

When a particular century is chosen for the game, one should not confine it to one country, but throw it open to all countries. If one sticks to that century long enough he will acquire a valuable idea of what is going on in each of its decades throughout the civilized world. The most careless reader of history can name the masters of England who lived and died during Louis XIV.'s long reign, and can list the conspicuously important events that had place in England and France during that period; but to them historic night reigns in the rest of the European world-or nearly that, anyway.

Often one knows a lot of odds and ends of facts belonging in a certain period but happening in widely separated regions; and as they have no connection with each other, he is apt to fail to notice that they are contemporaneous; but he will notice it when he comes to group them on his game-board. For instance, it will surprise him to notice how many of his historical acquaintances were walking about the earth, widely scattered, while Shakespeare lived. Grouping them will give them a new interest for him.

The greatest histories are the reverse of lavish with dates; and so one is sure to get the order and sequence of things confused unless he first goes to a skeletonized school-history and loads up with the indispensable dates beforehand. This will keep him straight in his course and always in sight of familiar headlands and light-houses, and he will make his voyage through the great history with pleasure and profit. Very well, if he will gather his dates and play them on the game-board a while, he may then attack any history with confidence.


There are only two or three good two-handed home-games--and not a single good solitaire game that I am aware of; for cards soon lose their interest when there is nobody but yourself to beat with them. But I find these Dates a very good solitaire game indeed. You can add nothing new to your card game, but you can freshen up the date-fight with new dates every day.


Two may play; three may play; or four may play partners. Long pins and short pins, black pins and brass ones make a sufficient distinction between the players.


One may play the Authors, Artists, Inventors, Scientists, Philosophers, Generals, etc., of all times--each vocation in its turn-naming dates of birth and death, and principal deeds or works.


Penalties should be agreed upon for the punishment of errors, and for repetitions of facts through carelessness.


Cyclopedias, the Almanacs issued annually by the great newspapers, J. S. Oglesby's "Cyclopedia of Curious Facts," etc. These are plenty of convenient sources.

HARTFORD, February, 1891.

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