Who invented mind mapping

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This comes up from time to time – usually in the form of “Buzan didn’t invent mind mapping”. After publishing this article, some very interesting comments came in, and these are shown below.

I’ve seen comments around the web that say that Tony Buzan didn’t invent mind mapping. What he did, they say, was to take a quite well-known technique (going back many hundreds of years according to some sources), narrowed it down with his ten rules and ‘invented’ a name, which he then trademarked (but see below for more about the mark).

He then marketed this very successfully through BBC programmes (which is where I first encountered it in the 1970s), books and lecture tours. I had heard of and used spider diagrams long before that, though. The fact that we don’t hear much mention of “idea sunbursting”, a similar technique apparently, but we do hear about Mind Mapping all the time is a tribute to his marketing skill and proselytizing. And this skill has brought the technique to very many people who benefit from its use today and perhaps would not have paid attention to it if they had seen only black and white spider diagrams.

What does it take to “invent” a technique? Is it to define it narrowly, give it a new name and claim that anything similar that doesn’t obey the rules is not the same thing? Maybe. It’s a point of view…

If he had tried to patent it, would ‘prior art’ have made the patent application fail? Maybe. It’s a point of view. After all, just what can and cannot be patented has changed (especially in the USA) over recent years, so perhaps the absence of a patent is because it wasn’t possible to patent an idea in the 1960s or 70s.

We often read references to historical users of mindmapping-like techniques. The classics are Porphyry of Tyros (3rd c.) Ramón Llull (13th c.), Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Winston Churchill. Now, I’d love to see actual examples done by these great figures. If anyone can help with a link to one, please let me know (Vic at this domain). Some of these are “classic” references because at one time, Buzan mentioned them himself on his website, so others picked them up.

More recent claims for academics in the 1960s, M. Ross Quillian and Dr Allan Collins, as originators would be interesting to illustrate with authetic material, and I shall be searching something out to add here. Should be easier than the historical examples, though I notice that Wikipedia has had “citation needed” against that information for some time (still does in April 2008).

The trademark question is easier to resolve. Often you’ll see disclaimers on mind mapping web sites that say something like “Mind Mapping, Mindmap and Mind Map, and are registered trademarks of the Buzan Organization”. At one time, that seems to have been the case in the UK and USA for the classes software, educational services and publications. But as Euan commented below, objections were lodged and never successfully challenged, so only one general mark survived and that in just a single class. At the time of writing (April 2008) MIND MAPS is registered to the Buzan Organization under “Organising and conducting courses in personal and intellectual awareness and methods of self-improvement; all included in Class 41”. That appears to be it for the general mind map area though the organization has registered specific own-product related marks.


Updated with the latest on trademarks after a check of the USPTO and UKIPO records.
17th April, 2008 With thanks to Euan

From Roy: As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, I’ve heard reference to Idea Sunbursting and would like to find some substantial material on it. If anyone can help, please contact me – roygrubb at this domain.


euan at 3mrt dot com 2008-04-15 12:56:43
In 2006 Tony Buzan tried to trade mark in the UK the use of the term mind map for use in computer software and verious other classes. At the same time he and his organisation sent threatening emails and communications to our customers claiming to own the trade mark. We raised an objection to his trademarking the name given it was a a fairly generic term and its origins certainly pertained to the end of the 19th century at least. The Buzan organisation persisted in their actions and after 18 months lost. We were awarded costs, which Buzan paid and the term Mind Map and associated terminology can be used in computer software and publications without infringing any trade marks. I hope this helps.

swanweyr at comcast dot net 2008-04-19 18:59:50
Mind map is only one of many terms or synonyms used to describe a technique developed much earlier -see Ausubel, Novak… Recombining words for a name does not constitute “inventing” in my mind although I certainly appreciate his efforts in popularizing the idea. See comments regarding the history at http://users.edte.utwente.nl/lanzing/cm_home.htm. Here the distinction is minor (to me). A mind map is one concept (and can therefore be hierarchical) versus a concept map which is more than one and typically relational. Buzan commercialized an approach, perhaps, but he certainly wasn’t the first to develop or particularly extend the approach, the theories, or even the design techniques. Just re-packaging, a common approach to developing new products. (And by the way, I appreciate the effect you have made in collecting the applications and annotating!)

vic at mind-mapping dot org 2008-04-20 00:36:14
Yes, I think we’re mainly in agreement. Maybe my oblique way of writing (”it’s a point of view”) concealed that fact that it is not my point of view!

I think some of Buzan’s rules brought something new, and they can _sometimes_ be beneficial, but it is telling that mind mappers in business generally abandon most of his rules (except the one about developing one’s own style). The Buzan rules work better for their use in early education than anywhere else in my 30+ years of spidergram, concept mapping and mind mapping experience in business, and as a parent.

An earlier commenter here, Euan, says he will send me an example of “origins certainly pertained to the end of the 19th century at least” and I look forward to the opportunity to make that public.

I’m sure the Lanzig site would have continued to improve and be updated, had he lived, and it was a valuable early web source. But I think he omitted to mention the most important distinction between mind an concept maps: The relationship phrases. His concept map example shows them, but he didn’t mention them and wrote only of network vs. tree as the differentiator.

For me, the relationship phrases are what make concept maps valuable in creating knowledge. They make the map testable and objective, where a mind map can often be a matter of opinion, and more a subjective view. For personal work – helping me get my thoughts in order, planning a project, organizing a large volume of computer files – I prefer mind maps. In a consulting project where I’m the member of a group trying to formalise knowledge spread amongst several parties, concept maps can be valuable.

It is unfortunate that, due to what is presumably a language slip, Lanzig’s frozen pages continue to perpetuate the myth that Buzan “copyrighted mind mapping”. I’ve often seen that repeated despite it being meaningless. What he actually did, I have learned from Euan, was successfully register a trademark for one term (”Mind maps”), for its use in one class (self-improvement courses and related activities). Of course, every mind map that Buzan draws and publishes is his copyright, but equally all mappers’ original maps are their own copyright.

I’ve had some of the seminal papers on concept maps here for a while.


m dot h dot f at tele2 dot fr 2008-09-14 09:33:36
Here’s an extract from a novel published in 1931 in England, it’s in the form of a conversation between two people :

“Mightn’t it be a good idea if everyone had to draw a map of his own mind – say, once every five years? With the chief towns marked, and the arterial roads he was constructing from one idea to another, and all the lovely and abandoned by-lanes that he never went down, because the farms they led to were all empty?”

“And arrows showing the directions he wanted to go?” Quentin asked idly.

“They’d be all over the place,” Antony sighed…

vic at mind-mapping dot org 2008-09-14 22:41:02
Thanks for that, M.H.F. I hadn’t seen it before. Google tells me the book was Charles Williams’ “The Place of the Lion”.

Interesting hints and use of the words, but suggestive rather than actual visual mapping. The 1957 Walt Disney almost-concept-map example is the earliest visual map in the modern style I’ve found so far but I keep looking. I have added your reference to that page as well, thanks.


jonathan dot soroko at gmail dot com 2008-12-01 07:06:33
I don’t wish to weigh in strongly on the question of the legal ownership of intellectual property. I will add to the mix that I first encountered diagrammed abstract reasoning in a book called The Universal Traveler in the early 1970’s in the United States. Also – although it was based on a geographic map – it was used for analytical purposes – John Snow’s Broad Street/Soho cholera map was made in 1854, and later revised. Edward Tufte talks about the map in at least two of his four books.

vic at mind-mapping dot org 2008-12-01 09:14:33
Thanks for weighing in Jonathan. I don’t know The Universal Traveler, but the reviews on Amazon make it look interesting – I’ll try to run down a copy.

Yes, the pump/cholera case is in Tufte’s Visual display of quantitative information, and is covered in more detail in his Visual Explanations. I would hesitate to link it to mind mapping, though.

The scatter of cases on the map of the cholera cases with the public pump near its centre led him to suspect the pump as a cause. His investigation and reasoning about the proximity to the pump of a brewery, where few workers came down with cholera (because they got free beer and didn’t need to drink the water) was ground-breaking, based on a visual mapping of cases. (You know all this, of course, I’m filling in for others.) But it’s literally mapping – geographical as you say. Wouldn’t you regard this as a statistical map of data, from which he drew ideas, hypothesized and tested exceptions, rather than a mapping of the relationships of topics or concepts?

Another early one I like is a late 1800s attempt to fit concepts to an imaginary landscape: http://www.greenchameleon.com/gc/blog_detail/mapping_knowledge_management/


Karen (rochester2003 at hotmail dot com) 2009-05-24 22:00:32
Vic, you asked for illustrations of early mind maps. I have spent hours looking (for my Masters in Ed). Found some -see Reese 1980, Niiniluoto 1984 and Mason 2004, cited by Ahlberg, 2007. ALso download Ahlberg, M. (2007). “Concept maps, mind maps and other similar graphic knowledge representation tools”. http://www.helsinki.fi/people/mauri.ahlberg accessed 21/5/09. I have not yet authenticated any of this as yet! I am also interested in seeing and reading about early graphic organisers. Regards, Karen, Melbourne, Aust. vic at mind-mapping dot org 2009-05-25 05:58:27
I have come across the Ahlberg, Karen, but have not yet had the chance to look at the books he quotes.

Very recently I found a presentation that does include some very early mind-map like images that I had not seen before. They are in a slideshow by Geoff Cain Unfortunately Geoff did not give the source references on the slides. If the images were a little sharper to allow examination of what is intended it would be good, as well. I think they would be worth investigating.

For me, the most interesting early diagram so far is the 1957 Disney one that pre-dates Quillan, Novak and Buzan’s thinking in this field.


innovationcoach at mac dot com 2009-11-10 14:32:22
Let’s be honest here, none of these other techniques mentioned are anything like Buzan’s Mind Maps certainly not the Tree of Porphyry or the Walt Disney thing. Yes they are all Graphical Organisers but they are not what Buzan developed. We might describe a Gorilla as “chimpanzee-like” but they are not the same as they each have different characteristics and we might describe some Graphical Organisers that pre-date Buzan as Mindmap-like but that does not mean the same. I have yet to see (correct me if I am wrong) a Graphical organiser that pre-dates Buzan where the words and images ARE ON THE BRANCH rather than at the end of branch (a key factor in the information absorption and recall)

geoff-cain at redwoods dot edu 2010-12-16 13:30:56
I know this is now ancient history but I did up-date my presentation and added all of the references. At the time I did the last presentation on concept maps, I was more interested in making the connection between concept maps and brainstorming with a particular audience of instructors than writing a formal paper. The latest presentation is more complete. http://cain.blogspot.com/2010/11/concept-maps-visual-pedagogy.html vic at mind-mapping dot org 2010-12-16 23:04:47
Thanks for that update Geoff. A fine and far-reaching presentation!

I see you’ve bought into the Brain’s claim to be 3D – I could never see that. I switched to Topicscape when its first public beta came out because it presents a 3D scene and supports instant zooming which I find appealing and very useful. And when they went over to using Google Earth style controls, they overcame the usability problem that their original idiosynchratic controls had. I use it almost daily.

The Second Life 3D mind maps didn’t really take hold did they? I was disappointed about that.

On the history of mind mapping, there’s also an interesting MindMeister map developed by Pascal Venier and other contributors here: http://www.mindmeister.com/56337457/visual-mapping-timeline


johnhere at tpg dot com dot au 2011-01-12 00:36:02
I first encountered the memory recording technique identical with mind mapping in appearance in 1969. It was taught as part of the Evelyn Wood speed reading course. It was used to recall the content of anything that had just been read. I spontaneously used it for creative thinking at the time. It was such an obvious thing to do. I suspect many other people did the same. Tony Buzan has a legion of co-creators.

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