Tinderbox Use Cases as Tool for Science and Technology Historical Research?


I’m a science and technology (S&T) consultant and S&T historian. My typical projects involve collecting facts about a technology, how it works, how it is deployed, who’s developing/using it, its technical maturity, etc., and crafting a roadmap/schedule/cost estimate to mature the technology to a certain level.

On the software side, my workflows typically involve DEVONthink Pro and DEVONagent Pro for info mining along with some combination of Zotero, OmniOutliner, iThoughtsX, Scapple, Aeon Timeline, and Scrivener (the specific packages and their sequencing dependent on the project). I’ve tinkered a bit with Obsidian and TheBrain, but never really put much effort into learning or utilizing them for serious work. I very occasionally use BBedit for writing plaintext stuff. I recently acquired Hookmark but have spent no time with it as of yet. All of this in the way of background and context for my question.

I’m a Tinderbox neophyte. I purchased Tinderbox 3 years ago and have episodically investigated using it for various professional consulting projects since that time. Alas, every time I’ve attempted to employ it for a serious professional project with a serious deadline, I’ve ended up abandoning it because the learning curve is (for me) so steep and the incremental benefits so questionable, that I couldn’t justify the expenditure of time. I’ve always found a way to do the job I had to do, much more efficiently via other means.

Since purchasing Tinderbox I’ve periodically visited this and other Tinderbox forums to either seek solutions to my Tinderbox issues, or simply to observe how other folks are using Tinderbox. I’m always amazed at the brilliance of many of you who frequent these discussions. However, in all honesty, I also have the impression that some Tinderbox users really are more interested in and enamored by the “process” of using Tinderbox than they are in its use as an everyday production tool in a professional setting. This may very well be an incorrect impression, but it is my impression nevertheless.

I’m currently conducting research for a book I’m writing on the history of one small piece of the Manhattan Project. This book project is a very different animal than my other professional activities. I have a strong sense that there is a Tinderbox “pony in the pile” if I can just dig it out. My growing “knowledge garden” for this project is populated with facts about individual people and their interpersonal relationships; human organizations; places; S&T challenges, discoveries, and developments; WWII events; dates (lots of dates!); decisions; successes; failures; cause and effect relationships; timelines, etc.


I would like to hear from Tinderbox users who have employed Tinderbox in a professional setting for projects similar to my new book project. In other words, can you simply share with me your “Use Case” for a specific project you’ve done where you had a story to discover and tell, and analysis to complete, but you did not have the leisure of wandering endlessly and aimlessly through your knowledge garden? I’m not looking for a detailed treatise or a “defense” of Tinderbox. Just some simple anecdotal instances of how Tinderbox has been used in professional and academic setting and why the user made the choice to use it.

Oh, one more thing, I’m acutely aware that “Tinderbox is not for everyone.”. But that statement is true about every software package.

I guess, at the end of the day, I’m looking for hope that the effort to learn and apply Tinderbox in my field and (especially) for this new book project will be justified by the benefits of doing so. Otherwise, I’m beginning to wonder if its time to remove Tinderbox from my “dock”.

Cheers and thanks so much for those of you who have the patience to engage with me on this subject.


Hi @Sherrell, great to see your post.

As I’ve shared in the growing list of Tinderbox and knowledge videos, I’ve been producing over the years, Tinderbox has become the central hub to all my professional (consulting and teaching) and personal work. I do everything with it: research, study, explore, write, and publish. I’m currently working on

  • completing my doctorate dissertation
  • teaching a course on strategic mobile marketing for CalPoly (managing all lectures, announcements, assignments, group projects, grading, teaching assets, guest speakers, etc.)
  • writing an industry report on digital identity & personal data
  • working on three books
  • coordinating events
    • programing a virtual forum on digital identity and personal data for March/April
    • programming an industry event in London on May 21st (coordinating the agenda and over 50 speakers)
    • hosting the weekly Tinderbox meetup
    • coordianting webinars and podcasts
  • constantly learning and improving my writing, storytelling, research, and use of command line, RegEx, HTML, CSS, and other tools

With Tinderbox and the family of tools surrounding it, you get into it what you put into it.

Here are some initial thoughts I’d like to leave you with. First, start using Tinderbox. Drop in notes (both in outline view and map view); don’t worry too much about structure and appearance. While you’re doing this, focus on your objective: what are you trying to accomplish (again, focus on the what, not the how). Second, focus on learning about prototypes (and the idea of inheritance) and attributes. Then, focus on action code and linking. Finally, focus on export code. While you’re doing all this learning, trust that the end is achievable (even if it feels impossible); it will all be ok and totally worth it. Rely on the community to help you.

Where do I start this learning? First, I encourage you to watch several of my/our videos. Next, you can look at aTbRef Site Map, but it may be hard to wrap your head around until you have context and reason to jump into this.

DM me if you want to schedule a one-on-one call. I can demo some of what I’m doing.

1 Like

Jorge Arango’s new book Duly Noted has some reasonable discussion of Tinderbox for planning a large piece of writing.

McPhee’s Draft No. 4 doesn’t use Tinderbox, but it’s a nice description of how I use map view to think about structure.

Keep in mind that, if you have actual specific questions, this forum is currently very good and very fast.

1 Like

Hi Sherrell

I don’t have time for a long response but your impressions of Tinderbox matched mine so closely I felt I have to contribute a little.

I work as a director of a financial services company and for 13 years I taught a post graduate course twice a year. The course was related to my day job but I started to use Tinderbox as simple note taking app to support my new academic role. I wanted a way to gather and organise my thoughts and research.

At first I just used it like yellow sticky notes stuck to my computer. It does a great job of that, but over time I developed greater needs to organise ideas and keep track of my two different lives. As those needs became apparent I would research how to fix the problem of the day.

Over the past 15 or so years I have gotten to the point that enough solutions to problems of the day piled up to give me decent skills in Tinderbox. I didn’t work on a organised attempt to learn Tinderbox, I just used to help me sort out each day’s tasks.

Now I use it to keep a daily journal. It’s a catch all for the stuff that happens day to day that I don’t want to forget. I also open up a new Tinderbox file when I have a project that looks like it’s going to run for a while. Some of those project files go on for years, some get abandoned in a short period of time when the project fizzles. I use those project files not only to manage the information related to them, I use them to communicate aspects of the project to collaborators or other stakeholders. Usually that means showing map views with links to show how the project fits together.

The artisan software group has been successful in putting the suite of DevonThink, Scrivener, Tinderbox etc on a lot of computers and I find that they work very well together. I would also recommend you examine Hookmark and Bookends if you are doing anything academic.

In summary Tinderbox can be everything from yellow sticky notes to a full information management suite. Don’t get too overwhelmed by the “Pro’s from Dover” who can make it sing and dance. Use if for your current requirements knowing that as your requirements grow there is enough power in Tinderbox that you won’t outgrow it.

Good Luck


Hi Sherrel, so many thanks for starting this thread. I work on a number of things that require collating different types of information and I do see great value in Tinderbox, but I share the same experience as you mention—getting to the last mile requires sooooooo much effort that it makes it a challenge. I understand the difficulties in making the program available to so many different use cases, and I also understand that there’s a lot of quirky legacy stuff in there, and I soooo much appreciate the great help in the forum, from Michael Becker, Mark B., Mark A., and so many others… but, I can’t take a year out to learn RegEx, HTML, etc., and even doing something as simple as printing what I have means trolling through hours of Michael’s great videos to figure out—trial-and-error style—to getting something done, which again implies learning an entirely different skill set than what’s in my head when I’m doing research or writing notes. Which isn’t the point of Tinderbox at all.

And unfortunately I do need to regularly print out things, as I’m not working on big screens, and there’s things a couple of layers down that I need to have to hand… So, yeah, I feel Sherrell’s pain and wish there were some simple tings to get basic functionality of things like printing and exporting—without having to learn RegEx, HTML, etc…

Having said all that, I do think Tinderbox is an outstanding product—I’ve had it on my computer for years and do understand its qualities, though I suppose I keep up my subscription in the hope that this sort of thing gets resolved. For me, Markdown was great to see implemented—but my issue is getting even the outline view or sections of the outline to print logically (for some reason I think it’s coming out white text-on-white background, so I have to figure out what’s causing that—I should have just a vanilla installation, sigh), without having to learn embedded formatting commands… I agree that Michael Becker’s computational gymnastics in getting all sorts of lookups can happen well enough and is fantastic, but it’s very hard if you don’t have a background in computing and the time or bandwidth to go through all of the coding (I don’t want to bother these good people here for such simple things). So, getting the Markdown out easily would be great, but sometimes there are other formatting codes that need to happen, and it can’t be that I need to export to Scrivener or something each time I want to print!

My own field of activity is climate change and sustainable development, which has to deal with sorting through lots and lots of data to create lots and lots of different types of content—so the thread about Historical Research is very much something I can lean on. My antennae are definitely up, and I hope I’m missing something really straight forward!

1 Like

No it doesn’t.

File ▸ Print prints the text of any note.

Want to print the text a bunch of notes? Select them, copy the text, paste it into your word processor, and print.

Want to print a section, or everything? File ▸ Export ▸ As Text, open in your word processor, and print.

I could go on…

But, rather than trolling for hours through Michael’s excellent videos, why not ask the question here?

I can’t take a year out to learn RegEx, HTML, etc

When I was an undergrad, I marveled that my Physics instructor (PhD Cornell) had never been taught matrix math. He had to learn.

Regular Expressions are roughly as fundamental to computing as matrices are to physics. They are, however, a LOT easier to learn. There is really no alternative to regular expressions, while Schrodinger did show that you could avoid matrices if you prefer integrals.

HTML used to be important for Tinderbox export. That hasn’t been the case for years, unless (of course) you need HTML for some reason. The sort of HTML you’re likely to need for use with Tinderbox shouldn’t take you more than an afternoon to pick up — perhaps two or three if you need elaborate styles.


Hi, and thanks, I’m always amazed at how quickly things get looked at here, and it’s really appreciated. I attach a couple of screenshots of what I get when I do File - Print (I tried that before posting—please be sure!).

What I’m getting seems to be white-on-white text, so it’s illegible… I guess I could do something so that I can then pass it to a Markdown (or whatever) editor so that then I can have a clearer look, but for the moment using Tinderbox even as an outliner is challenging—though I definitely understand the value of helping align thinking.

Dark mode artifact — never, as it happens, reported.

Workaround: File ▸ Export ▸ Outline and open the outline in your favorite word processor.

I think I’m going to drop out of this thread for the time being. Have fun, everyone.


Markdown is ‘coding’ (its just HTML mark-up done a different way). My irony meter is overloading.


My .02 on this good topic…

Approaching Tinderbox with the thought to learning how to use it WELL for your upcoming project is akin to learning how drive a Ferrari Testarossa to fetch milk from the local supermarket.

Many of us who’ve been working with Tbx for several years (has it really been that long, lol) have typically found a good level of success by breaking the job (as any big and complex job, really) into digestible tasks. Learn a little, use a little, come to the forums when you are blocked, and forge onward, keeping your eye on your broader goals.

The beauty of Tbx lies in the solid assumption that the several remarkable resources available for it (The Tinderbox Way, aTbRef, @satikusala’s many tutorial videos, the weekly meetups) are always at hand to help learn or copy workarounds from others/elsewhere, which itself serve as learning opportunities.

In summary, as @satikusala suggests - start using Tbx for a few basic functions. Get familiar with the environment, get comfortable learning to use the tool in a way you’re comfortable with. Just because you’ve replaced shears with a hedge-trimmer, try to resist the temptation to shape your hedgerow into a leafy menagerie. The individual skills (learning to use Markdown, RegEx, and even Action Code) are actually not specific to Tinderbox - but learning a little RegEx, for example, can go a LONG way in leveraging Tbx’s powerful capabilities.

  1. With regard to @Sherrell’s big question: personally I use Tinderbox a little like a Zettelkasten for pretty much any function - projects for creative writing, projects for poetry, for life management, and so on. Its capabilities and flexibility far exceed anything I might throw at it. My projects typically go through more than one “total meltdown restructure” during development; at each turn, Tinderbox (and the user community!) is right there with me.

  2. Tinderbox excels in the realm of ‘incremental formalization’ - jot down first, organize later. Further, nothing you put into it, either in terms of content or technical “coding” etc skills, is ever lost.

  3. Although you will always find ready answers to specific questions here on the forums, please understand that many seasoned users might be leery of helping you evaluate how you might use a screwdriver/electric drill/chainsaw. Therefore, I highly recommend that you do yourself the favour of spending an afternoon or two on the forums. Your project is likely going to be one of a few years’ duration. Perhaps it deserves at least a week researching what you’ll be taking on this expedition. If after a few days rummaging through past posts you haven’t been able to determine promising starting points, examples, and inspiration for learning how best to use this tool, then perhaps it really isn’t for you.

Good luck on your project, and - if it applies to you - your Tinderbox journey.


To all who have responded so far… Thank You for your insights and counsel…
A few specific responses…

Michael: I may reach out to you if I decided to incorporate Tbx into my workflow for my book project - or I may reach out to you to gain input that would help me make a decision… Either way, I appreciate you offer…

Eastgate (if you’re still here): Tks for the recommendation for Duly Noted. I’ll pick it up, though I’m pretty familiar with various note-taking approaches including the Big Z.

Paul: Tks for sharing your experience. I do wonder though, given the SPECIFIC tasks I have to accomplish (collecting historical facts about people, places, things, and events), assimilating them, distilling them, drawing observations from them), and end goal (a book telling the story in a readable manner), how to translate your experience to my needs. Allow me to give an example: Let’s say, for example, my story has 100 different people in it. Each of these people have a bio (a set of facts that are their life from birth to death). These 100 people’s lives intersected at various points in time and space, and in various contexts, to discuss ideas and conduct physical activities. Some of those physical activities produced tangible physical widgets that were used by other people over many years to do a variety of different things and to contribute to a variety of scientific discoveries and technological innovations. SO… how do I begin taking notes in Tbx? Do I define a “People” or “Bio” prototype that I used to create bios for each person, or do I just create a separate note for each fact I gather about a person? I guess I’m in a quandary relating to the appropriate level of “granularity” and “simplicity” in my notes. My intitution tells me “the more granular the better”. But then, being the Tbx novice I am, I worry about how I would ever, for instance, have Tbx collect and assimilate 50 granular notes about a person to synthesize that person’s bio/vita. I don’t want to unwittingly start down a path that will force me to spend time I don’t have to extract the end value I need from my notes… This same granularity issue relates directly to the story I need to tell relating to several scientific concepts, technological advancements, etc. (I HOPE ALL OF THIS IS MAKING SENSE!)

Gilberto: Your printing challenge is a great illustration of one of my fears about Tbx… You experienced a real bug. The Tbx “Help” doesn’t address the issue. Finally, you come to the user forum, which is clearly being employed as an alternative to publishing comprehensive user documentation. You ask a question. You are basically told, “Yes, but there’s several workarounds” - which require you to invest even more time to learn how to do something the package should reasonably be expected to do in the first place. So, to put it in basic engineering and economic terms, the “value proposition” for Tbx is vague at best. This DOESN’T mean it’s not real. Just that it requires a tremendous helping of “faith” to launch down the Tbx path if you need a tool to get a job done quickly and efficiently without obligating yourself to an unquantifiable commitment to trial and error learning while your customer waits… I can’t afford to be a perpetual “beta tester” of Tbx. I AM NOT FLAMING TBX here. It is obviously a brain numbingly sophisticated and powerful piece of software. Just sharing a sincere concern and hoping I’m missing something.

Archurrh: Very thoughtful response. Thank you. But to pull the string on your “learning how to drive a Ferrari Testarossa to fetch milk from the local supermarket” analogy,… why would the parents of a 16 year allow their new driver to take the Red Bird out to the supermarket? Wouldn’t it be wiser for them and more helpful to their teenage to give him/her the keys to the Corolla? It will do the job easier - just not as quickly and without the style. Perhaps I need to be looking for a Corolla instead of a Ferrari for my “milk run”?

Start by making Notes about persons. Create a User Attribute $Person (type: Set) and populate that Attribute accordingly depending on which Person or Persons are referred to in that particular Note. As your study gets more complex, you can add further User Attributes - if their educational qualification matters, then create an Attribute $Qualification. If you need to list which particular seminars they attended, create $Seminars and populate it (again, use Set type, which can accommodate multiple seminars). When you get to which technologies they contributed to, create $TechContributions and populate. And so on.

If you are broadly separating Persons according to type (Scientist, Marketer, Financier) you might opt to create separate $Prototypes for each of them, and set $Color/$Shape assignments depending on their area of specialization.

Now you can use Outline View, Agents, and more to group, sort, and link your Notes.

This is just one way to skin it.

edit: As an example, if you have a $Person Attribute value “JohnWSmith”, and create an Agent to find and collect all Notes which contain the value “JohnWSmith” in the $Person Attribute, the Agent will create and regularly update a Container which holds aliases of all Notes where $Person value satisfies that search criterion.


I’m going to embrace your recommendation as a trial exercise. Going to create new (global?) user-defined attributes: $Person, $StartDate, $EndDate, $Event, $Location, $Citation, $LocationInCitation, $MyObservation. Or similar attribute titles. I created the $Person attribute in the Attribute Browser for a single note. I have to turn it on/make it visible individually for every note I create in order to populate the field. CORRECT?

Edit: But now I see there’s a Prototype Reference. I’ll have to figure out whether to populate all of the Reference Prototype Attributes for each reference/citation, or just use a Zotero-like unique name for each reference I cite in Tbx and somehow link it to Zotero or some other reference management software… My biggest workflow challenge would be integrating Tbx with DEVONthink Pro and Zotero or another citation management package…

Thanks, Art!

You’re welcome, Sherrell :slight_smile:

Some points:

  1. All Attributes are basically Global.

  2. The Built-in Attribute list include commonly used ones such as $StartDate, $EndDate, etc. One useful tip is to keep this page handy aTbRef Site Map. and do a search before creating your User Attributes. Generally the built-in Attributes are preferable over creating one of your own, for a few reasons - one of which is mentioned in the next point.

  3. Citation management in Tinderbox is quite powerful with built-in support for popular citation apps. I don’t use this particular feature, but there’s a ton of related documentation, videos, and posts on the forum. Example - from eastgate.com: “Tinderbox provides a built-in prototype for references, with fields for author, title, publisher, and so forth. Better still, Tinderbox can automatically create a reference note simply by ⌘-opt-dragging a reference from Bookends. And since Bookends can automatically import books from the Library of Congress, Amazon, or university libraries all over the world, you don’t need to enter anything manually: just import the reference, drag it into Tinderbox, and you’re done.” So no need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to Attributes; plus the intrinsic ones are oftentimes linked to other apps and related usage scenarios, will pop up in related code, and so on.

  4. Viewing Attributes in the Attribute Browser - no need to set these up individually. You can do this globally 1 of 2 ways:

  • Go to the Document Inspector (Cmd-3). Click on the “System” tab. Next to the magnifying glass, type in “DisplayedAttributes”. When the “Attribute” field shows “DisplayedAttributes”, go to “Default” and type in whatever Attributes you’d like to see whenever you create a new Note (see pic as example). Use only the Attribute Name (no need for the $), and separate with semi-colons (no spaces required between them). Thereafter, ALL Notes created in the project will automatically show those fields. You can change the Default values at any point, and subsequent Notes will be created with those updated Attributes displayed in the Attribute Browser.
  • Specific DisplayedAttributes can be set per Prototype, just as any other Attribute values such as $Color, $Size, $Xpos, $Ypos, or any of your User Attributes. This can be very powerful, so that your Engineers can be defaulted to show different Attributes in the Browser from your TechConcepts, and so on.

1 Like

I think that’s more than a bit unfair. First, the “value proposition” (apart from being a tired old boomer term with no meaning) for Tinderbox is a highly sophisticated set of tools that are available for the user to explore working through projects from as simple as to-do lists to drafting mutli-volume works of philsophy. The slate is blank, build your own adventure. The challenge, apparently, is the user who shows up expecting a lovely automaton and gets what appears on first glance to an empty workbench. Unlike most of the highly opinionated junk sold today as “tools for thought”, this one is almost without opinion because it relies on what’s going on in the users head to guide the outcome.

Also, the designer has never promised or promoted Tinderbox as software built for “printing”. Instead, there is, as always, a very sophisticated set of export tools that can be molded to whatever purpose you want. But the user has to bring the purpose and work the tools. That’s the rationale of the product.

Sorry for the rant, but fretting about printing is missing the forest for the weeds. It’s a bit like being gifted an IBM Osprey and responding “that’s nice, but does it print”?


I’d firstly add an endorsement to all of @archurhh’s comments above, to avoid repetition.

FWIW, the fact that Tinderbox and Bookends have good interaction rests on two different developers agreeing to make mutually beneficial changes to their app. This isn’t a given when working cross-app. But, you’re using Zotero which doesn’t have a pseudo-protocol for local links (e.g. a zotero://... method) and has no developer as such, being a FOSS project (I think!). But people in the Zotero community may have developed plug-ins for that purpose (perhaps this?) so it’s worth asking in the Zotero community. Note: don’t use/know the app but there are users here( @satikusala?).

Stepping back, and following the point @archurhh rightly makes about not trying to do everything at once, do you need all the reference info in your TBX document. If—see above—you can link a Tinderbox note to a Zotero ref via a weblink (local or via the web), do you need to store it twice. Clicking a link to get to the info should be as fast as switching to another note. Plus, you might want to be viewing the reference alongside, not instead of the note using the reference.

Noting that you know you’ve “100s” of items (notes) in context, this suggests Map view may give you limited tractability , but only due to the volume of data. Once you can’t easily ‘read’ the map’s contents—i.e. you have to zoom out to much for legibility—do consider other views as well.

Choice and scope of prototypes is both personal and contextual to the task at hand. Experiment, and be comfortable to fail occasionally. That sounds counter-intuitive but the strong support for incremental formalisation, and to do-over, in Tinderbox is powerful, even if the promise only makes sense once you engage with it.

Tip: don’t rush to make a baroque structure of prototypes. They fulfil two (three?) different purposes whose salience varies by the work going on at the time. Simplistically they both visually style a note and set the Displayed Attributes, i.e the otherwise hidden attribute you want to see. Separately, $Prototype values is a really quick way to query for notes of a given type. BUT, don’t feel need to do all these things at once. For instance, it might be useful to have a number of different people-type attributes that need different (attribute) data captured/displayed. That can include a $PersonType user attribute that store the prototype’s name. Once input is done and you’re thinking of export, e.g. making a book, then the notes with different person-types prototypes can be assigned a common prototype, their derivation safely stored in $PersonType. This makes it easy to find/use all person type notes whilst not losing their more granular provenance.

And, that’s onlyone approach to that issue. The point of writing it out here is that unless you definitively know the end structure, don’t rush to guess: sort the later part out … later. Atypically for software, Tinderbox is very supporting of allowing later re-factoring. Compare that to an app using a relation database under=pinning—it would be much harder even if at al possible.


Awesome quote!!!

And another one!

1 Like

Or, keep one prototype $Person, create an attribute $Type and have action code work on off of the values of $Type. This would make search and other manipulations easier.

1 Like

In my opinion, store an manage all your citations in Zotero. Only bring them over to Tindebox when you want to take notes on them. Again, maintain Zotero as your primary reference manager. Use a $CitationKey and action code to have TBX automatically tag the notes that relate to this caution. Absolutely install Better Bibex for Zotero. I have SEVERAL videos on Zotero and Tinderbox interaction. Happy to have one-on-one with you.

My background is not in academics but in financial analysis. I was therefore fascinated to see “value proposition,” something I’ve considered a serious business/marketing concept, dismissed upthread as a “tired old boomer term with no meaning.” Ouch!

As we all know, Tinderbox is complex. It’s also unique. Those two characteristics make weighing its value proposition–the benefits it brings to the table relative to its costs and to its competitors–a daunting task for a newcomer. Trying to do so is perfectly valid, I think, not to be interpreted as unfairly casting aspersions.

The specific suggestions that have emerged upthread in response to provocative and thoughtful questions have been helpful to me.

For me Tinderbox has been most useful in organizing and extracting themes from masses of textual data, such as emails. Also in extracting and summarizing numerical values from online posts, and displaying them graphically.

I haven’t produced fancy “printed” output (yet). But I dare to say, with the possible exceptions of sound and video, whatever output is indicated Tinderbox can produce, often more easily than anticipated.

I think of flexibility as a huge part of TB’s value proposition, both on the benefit side (other tools can’t match it) and on the cost side (learning curve).

1 Like