The Major System (some historical background)

I couldn’t find an email address for Tony Buzan, but his book from 28 years ago (Master Your Memory, 1st edition) is evidence that the term “Major System” was used in the sense of the “most important” system. For example, on page 8: “It is this system that has been used by most of the world’s top mnemonists and memory performers.” No mention of Major Beniowski anywhere.

The current references to “Major” Beniowski as this system’s namesake would seem to be unsupported. It’s a slightly different phonetic key, Beniowski wasn’t well known, there’s no evidence of a direct link, and so forth.

But times have changed, so the original meaning - the most important number code - no longer applies, or at least it’s debatable. Also, for 70 years before Feinaigle (and even for many years afterwards), it was Richard Grey’s entirely different code that was in general use, in English-speaking countries.

Anyway, one thing is certain: the term “Major System” causes lots of confusion! For example, on page 164 of Moonwalking with Einstein, the author Joshua Foer writes: “I used a technique known as the ‘Major System,’ invented around 1648 by Johann Winkelmann…” - and lists the following:

0 = s
1 = t, d
2 = n
3 = m
4 = r
5 = l
6 = sh, ch
7 = k, g
8 = f, v
9 = p, b

Never mind that he left out 2 important phonemes (z = 0, j = 6) that are always included, and some others (th, ng, ʒ) that are usually part of the modern version. The important point is that the code published by Winckelmann in 1648 was very different:

0 = d, t
1 = b, p, w
2 = c, k, z
3 = f, v
4 = g
5 = l
6 = m
7 = n
8 = r
9 = s

This seems to be a distant precursor of today’s so-called Major System, but the differences are large. Also, this code was used alphabetically, not phonetically.

One naming convention employed in the past was to call systems after the writers who first published them. In this case, Winckelmann published it in 1648, but another memory expert, Johannes Buno, published it first in 1647. So I call this the “Buno-Winckelmann System.”

Buno and Winckelmann knew each other, and they had the same teacher, Johann Balthasar Schupp, but it’s very unlikely that any of these three scholars “invented” this particular alphanumeric code. Especially given that Winckelmann described ten different number-encoding techniques in his 1648 book. This was just one such code, and not necessarily his favorite. (He was mostly a follower of Giordano Bruno.)

Number-letter codes go all the way back to the ancient Greeks, and were used subsequently in many cultures and places, including in Europe. The whole idea of “invention” in this area is highly dubious, unless there is specific evidence that points to originality.

I call the Major System the “Feinaigle-Paris System” (“Feinaigle” because his followers were the first to publish it, and “-Paris” because of Aimé Paris’s genuine improvements for consonant phoneme pairs). The minor variations that are language-specific can be ignored.

We have no idea if Gregor von Feinaigle had any direct knowledge of the Buno-Winckelmann System. Feinaigle (b. 1760) was a Cistercian monk for 15 years, before his monastery was permanently closed and he started teaching mnemonics to the general public. On the other hand, Winckelmann (mainly a historian) and Johannes Buno were secular scholars, from the previous century. So Feinaigle’s background was quite different, and any claim of a direct connection between these systems is simply conjecture, at least until some concrete evidence has been discovered.


Good points. The ancient Greeks and Hebrews used letters as numbers, so someone must have figured it out a long time ago.

Attic numerals were written with the first letter of the name of the number:

Wordplay and lack of paper should have led someone to figure it out at some point. :slight_smile:

There is also the Katapayadi system from India that is at least 1,300 years old.

More history:

I’ll link to this thread from the blog post.

The term “Major System” is confusing today because it’s used in two very different ways:

    • meaning the “Feinaigle-Paris System” or some close variant (0 = s, z; 1 = t, d, th; 2 = n; 3 = m; 4 = r; 5 = l; and so on).
    • meaning many other systems that fully encode numbers, whether a consonant system like Winckelmann’s (1648), or even vowel-consonant codes like Hérigone’s (1634) or Richard Grey’s (1730).

Therefore, using definition no. 2, the Dominic System and the Ben System are just new versions of the “Major System” - which seems remarkably unclear, as basic terminology.

By the way, a fun fact about the “Buno-Winckelmann System” (pub. 1647) is that it was based on alphabetical order, and so it was directly related to the alphanumeric systems found in other cultures (Greek, Hebrew, Islamic, etc.):

1 = B, p, w
2 = C, k, z
3 = F, v
4 = G
5 = L
6 = M
7 = N
8 = R
9 = S
0 = T, d


Maybe we could figure out a better term for the larger group.