Several million people have learned the number alphabet. I learned it in 1978 when I read The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas, trying to improve my inadequate memory. This very entertaining and informative book had then sold over a million copies, and by now has sold two. However, it does not give the origin of the phonetic code, and for twenty years I thought it was invented by the memory artist Harry Lorayne. After compiling my first book on this topic in 1997 (Krill's Numberword Thesaurus), I found out that the code is much older than Lorayne. In his book Use your Perfect Memory, Tony Buzan refers to this number memory technique as the Major System. He mentions that the code was introduced by Stanislaus Mink von Wennsshein over 300 years ago, and that it was modified by an Englishman, Dr. Richard Grey in the early 18th century.
I have now had the opportunity to research the history of number codes using the rare-book collections in the libraries of Yale University. The name "Wennsshein" is usually written Wenusheim, but also Weinsheim or Wennsshein, while most authors cite the name as (J.) Winckelmann. In 1648 Winckelmann published a paper in Marburg Germany entitled Relatio Novissima ex Parnassus de Arte Reminiscentiae. Unfortunately, I have not yet seen this original work, which apparently presented the first code in Europe for substituting letters for numbers: 0=t; 1=b,p,w; 2=c,k; 3=f,v; 4=g; 5=l; 6=m; 7=n; 8=r; 9=s. Winckelmann's code was learned by Leibnitz, the German philosopher and mathematician. In 1730 Richard Grey, a doctor of divinity, published the book Memoria Technica, or a New Method of Artificial Memory. His code used both consonants and vowels: 0=z,y; 1=b,a; 2=d,e; 3=t,i; 4=f,o; 5=l,u; 6=s,au; 7=p,oi; 8=k,ei; 9=n,ou. His book was widely available through the 18th century. It was valued not so much for Grey's memory technique, which was terribly difficult to use, but for his compilation of numbers that were important at the time, such as the dates of the Deluge (2348 B.C.) and the Exodus (1491 B.C.).
Winckelmann's code was redesigned by Gregor von Feinaigle, a German monk from near Konstanz. At lectures in Paris (1807) and London (1811) Feinaigle demonstrated his brilliant use of the following code: 0=s,x,z; 1=t; 2=n; 3=m; 4=r; 5=L; 6=d; 7=k,c,g,q; 8=B,v,w,h; 9=p,f. Feinaigle had cleverly rearranged Winckelmann's code to emphasize visual relationships between letters and numbers, but in doing so, he had lost some of the phonetic strength of the original (b=p, f=v). The code was more or less perfected in about 1820 by Aimé Paris, a memory specialist in France: 0=se,ce,ze; 1=te,the,de; 2=ne,gne; 3=me; 4=re; 5=le,ille; 6=je,che,ge; 7=ke,gue;que, 8=fe,phe,ve; 9=pe,be. Other variations of the code have been tried, but are not as convenient or useful.
In the 1840’s the code was used by memory lecturers and authors in many languages – English as well as French, Italian, and German. The leading memory expert in London was Major Beniowski (the "Major"), a Polish refugee who is said to have spoken 18 languages. His book was entitled Handbook of Phrenotypics for Teachers and Students. There were two leading memory specialists in America at that time. Francis Fauvel-Gouraud, a professor from France, who lectured extensively and authored two books: Phreno-Mnemotechny, or the Art of Memory, and The Phreno-Mnemotechnic Dictionary, being a Philosophical Classifiation of all the Homophonic Words of the English Language. It has been written that his memory performances in New York were attented by crowds in the thousands, more than any scientific lectures held in America up to that time. The other notable author was Pliny Miles, who wrote American Phreno-Mnemotechny.
Since the 1840's, the code has been kept alive mainly by lecturers and authors with exceptional memory abilities. They have impressed audiences and readers with their memory skills, but have not managed to make the technique well known or widely used. Their methods of linking short words were just too awkward and difficult. Because I had only an average memory, and an above-average need to remember lots of numbers, I read the available books and began using the code. But I too got tired of having to link the same short words, or struggling to find new ones. Then in 1996, I realized how fun it would be if ALL words could be used. I began compiling a reference book – Krill's Numberword Thesaurus – so that whole sentences could be made for numbers. From this thesaurus I constructed the names Pseudonumerology, Pseudonumer, pseudonumeral and the other special terms (see Glossary). My goal is to get everyone to know the code, and more people to actively use it and enjoy it.
(For links to other internet presentations of the
number code, click here.)