(Clockwise from top left): Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Meriwether Lewis, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Frida Kahlo and Mark Twain. (Clockwise from top left): Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Meriwether Lewis, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Frida Kahlo and Mark Twain. (Clockwise from top left): Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Meriwether Lewis, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Frida Kahlo and Mark Twain. (Photo: Wikimedia)

8 famous visionaries who kept a journal

From Einstein's travel records to da Vinci's wondrous illustrations, these personal documents add dimension to some of history's biggest names.

The practice of keeping a diary or journal goes back hundreds of years, with the earliest known example coming from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Such an art of jotting down thoughts and daily musings has been found to be beneficial for everything from depression to organization and stress. Not surprisingly, this cathartic exercise is also good for your memory, allowing the recollection of events and ideas that might otherwise be lost.

Below are just a handful of visionaries across a wide spectrum of professions who benefited from the practice of keeping a diary. More than a historical record, these pages offer rich insights into the personal lives of figures who in their own unique way helped to transform the world.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein's travel diaryAlbert Einstein's travel diary to the United States recorded his experiences abroad from November 1930 to June 1931. (Photo: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Before his death in 1955, Albert Einstein bequeathed his entire literary estate to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an institution he helped found in 1925. Among the 80,000 scientific and popular writings, drafts, lecture notes and notebooks were also the famous physicist's travel diaries. Recorded between 1921 and 1933, they offer personal and amusing insights into Einstein's experiences traveling to places like Japan, Israel and the United States.

But you don't have to travel to the Mediterranean to browse Einstein's papers. A decades-long joint digitization effort between the Princeton University Press and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem recently went live online, giving those curious about all aspects of Einstein's legacy an opportunity to explore over 5,000 documents covering the first 44 years of his life.


Marie Curie

Marie Curie NotebookMarie Curie's notebooks are so radioactive that they must be kept in lead-lined boxes. (Photo: Wellcome Trust)

In order to leaf through the notebooks of Marie Curie, a pioneering scientist in the study of radioactivity, you'll require special clothing and a liability waiver. In the course of her research, the French chemist exposed herself daily to radiation, often carrying bottles of polonium and radium in the pocket of her coat. As a result, her journals, notes and personal possessions are so radioactive that it will be thousands of years before anyone will be able to safely peruse them without protection.

Today, the notebooks containing Curie's groundbreaking research are held in lead-lined boxes at France's Bibliotheque National. She died in 1934 at the age of 66 of aplastic anemia, thought to be caused – you guessed it – by radiation exposure.


Mark Twain

Mark Twain notebookSam Clemens, aka Mark Twain, as a young man in 1857 kept a detailed notebook from his days learning how to pilot boats on the Mississippi. (Photo: The Bancroft Library Exhibits )

American author Mark Twain, aka Sam Clemens, started a lifelong love affair with pocket notebooks after being told to keep one handy while apprenticing to be a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. For the next several decades of his life, he would fill at least 50 such notebooks with musings on politics, religion, people, jokes, personal moments and other anecdotes.

In 1971, the Bancroft Library at the University of California took possession of a massive lot of Twain's original writings and correspondence, including more than 12,000 letters, 600 unpublished literary manuscripts and journals written between 1855 and 1910. A large portion of these materials has been digitized for perusal online at the Mark Twain Project site.


Charles Darwin

darwin notebookCharles Darwin kept numerous notebooks to record his discoveries and thoughts on everything from his first sketch of an evolutionary tree (left) to important books to read (right). (Photo: Public Domain)

From his time aboard the HMS Beagle, a five-year expedition that helped lay the groundwork for his theory of evolution, Charles Darwin made it a habit to keep notebooks to record his thoughts and observations. The journals, labeled simply on their covers as A, B, C, D and so forth, spanned everything from early sketches of an evolutionary tree to notes on geology, new species and personal musings on family and friends.

Today, the tens of thousands of papers and notebooks left behind by Darwin can be researched online. Digital collections, featuring more than 195,000 pages and more than 5,000 illustrations, are currently available from both Darwin Online and through the University of Cambridge in England.


Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark notebookThe notebooks of Lewis and Clark, an American historical treasure, contain more than 1 million words documenting their expedition across the American west. (Photo: Library of Congress)

From May 1804 to September 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led an expedition covering more than 8,000 miles across previously unexplored regions of the American West. Under the orders of President Thomas Jefferson, the pair was instructed to keep detailed notebooks recording the people, species and geography encountered.

Today, the 18 field journals of Lewis and Clark are held in preservation at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Measuring 4x6 inches, they contain a wealth of details covering everything from weather and temperatures to sketches of plants, Indian artifacts and copious maps.


Thomas Edison

Thomas EdisonThroughout his life, inventor Thomas Edison jotted down ideas and thoughts in personal journals. (Photo: Edison and the Rise of Innovation)

The most productive inventor in American history, Thomas Edison was also a prolific note-taker, leaving behind more than 5 million pages at the time of his death in 1931. The notebooks, roughly 6x9 inches and averaging 285 pages each, record in minute detail everything from his business dealings to ideas for future inventions and patents.

For over 30 years, the task of preserving Edison's extensive paper legacy has fallen to a team of full-time editors and scholars at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Initially transferred to microfilm, the papers are now scanned and uploaded into what's become a massive online repository of Edison's life. Currently, the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project contains nearly 175,000 searchable document images.


Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo JournalFrida Kahlo used her diary to sketch out ideas, some of which were eventually reworked into larger pieces. (Photo: Banco de México)

From 1944-54, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo kept an illustrated diary filled with personal musings, poems and conceptual designs for future works of art. More than any other diarist on this list, Kahlo complemented her personal feelings of loneliness or jubilation with dramatically colorful illustrations.

The diary is both beautiful and tragic, with many of the pages in the later years of her life depicting tears over relationships and her own deteriorating health. In 2005, Carlos Fuentes published a full-color recreation of Kahlo's 296-page journal containing more than 70 watercolor illustrations.


Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da VinciOver 7,000 pages of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings, ideas, and natural inspirations have been preserved. (Photo: The British Library)

Considered one of the greatest artists and intellectuals of the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci's legacy has been preserved in more than 7,000 pages of notes and illustrations. The notebooks cover everything from the flow of rivers to optics, astronomy and architecture. Because he never intended them for publication, the pages also feature little personal reminders about day-to-day tasks and purchases. For instance, in an inventory of his clothes, he showed a special preference for pink tights.

In 2013, the British Library published a digitized, beautifully rendered copy of da Vinci's 570-page "Codex Arundel, containing many of his most famous drawings and creations. Spanning over 40 years of his life, the Codex is considered one of the most important and visually intriguing notebooks of da Vinci's career.

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