4 historical infographics that changed the world

Infographics are hugely popular, thanks to the internet and social media, but they are definitely not new. It is impossible to say exactly when the first ever infographic was created: one could even argue that ancient cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs or the tapestry of Bayeux are a form of infographics — graphical representations meant to transmit information. However, starting in the 17th century many great examples of infographics and data visualizations emerged that had an impact on the world. Here are four of them!

Ancient cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the tapestry of Bayeux

On sunspots (Christoph Scheiner, 1626)

Christoph Scheiner was a Jesuit priest and scientist from the region we now know as southern Germany. By his early thirties, he was already somewhat of a celebrity, thanks to his invention of the pantograph, a device to duplicate plans or drawings to an adjustable scale. In 1624 he moved to Rome, where he started writing down his many observations of sunspots in a massive book called Rosa Ursina sove Sol. The book is laced with images such as the one shown below.

Rose Ursina sive Sol, Christoph Scheiner (1626)

In this image, Scheiner depicts the shape and location of a large sunspot on several days over a period of two weeks in May 1625. By drawing these different shapes and locations together on one diagram of the sun, it becomes visual how they move over the surface of the sun over the course of a few days. Furthermore, it is clear how the spot moves faster when located near the center of the solar disc. Both these observations prove that the sun is in fact a sphere rotating around a central axis. The drawing, which can be considered an early infographic, makes this particularly obvious.

Cholera map (John Snow, 1854)

For our next infographic example, we jump forward in time by two centuries. John Snow (not to be confused with the protagonist in a famous series of fantasy novels) was an English physician who is seen as one of the most important advocates of medical hygiene. When an outbreak of cholera struck the Soho neighbourhood of London, he used the location of the different identified cases to draw the map below.

Detail of London cholera map, John Snow (1854)

Snow used this map to demonstrate how the majority of cholera outbreaks were located around a single water pump located on the corner of Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) and Cambridge Street (now Lexington Street). His study convinced the local authorities to disable the pump in question by removing its handle, even though the method of infection was unsure at the time (the germ theory of disease had not yet been developed).

Even though it is unclear if disabling the pump was the key factor in preventing the disease, this map shows the power of a strong data visualization when it comes to telling a story and convincing people. Today, a statue of a pump without a handle, and a pub called ‘John Snow’ remind visitors of Broadwick Street of this historic event.

Causes of mortality in the army in the east (Florence Nightingale, 1858)

We all know Florence Nightingale as the famous British nurse, often called ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, for her nightly rounds of visits to wounded soldiers. But she was far more than that: she was also an important social reformer, writer, and statistician. After her gruesome experiences during the Crimean war (1853–1856), she wrote down what she learned in multiple books, for example Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army, which she sent to Queen Victoria. The book contained the following diagram:

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, Florence Nightingale (1858)

Note that the use of pie charts was still relatively new at the time, so it was quite revolutionary that Nightingale took it a step further by extending the size of the slices. Such a diagram is now known as a Nightingale Rose Diagram, or a polar area diagram. The blue wedges on this graphic represent the deaths of soldiers caused by preventable diseases, while the red and back wedges represent other causes (e.g. wounds).

These diagrams show that the large majority of deaths were not directly related to the war itself, and could in fact be prevented. But especially in winter, these diseases hit the soldier population very hard. Because these diagrams are so simple to read, they could be easily understood by Members of Parliament or civil servants, who would otherwise have been unlikely to read or understand traditional statistical reports. One year later, Nightingale was elected the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society.

La Campagne de Russie (Charles Minard, 1869)

The 19th century was definitely the time when datavisualizations and infographics really took off. And no overview of historical infographics would be complete without the visualization by Charles Minard, a French civil engineer who started his own private research after his retirement. He is most famous for the way he represented numerical data on graphical maps. Take, for example, the following figure, depicting Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign in the winter of 1812:

Charles Minard (1869)

Don’t be fooled by the chart’s apparent simplicity: it contains a wealth of detailed information about the campaign as it moved from Kaunas in the West (the second largest city of current Lithuania) to Moscow in the East, and back. The most obvious is the width of the colored line, representing the amount of soldiers present in the French army. 422,000 men left Kaunas in June. By the time they arrived near Moscow, in September, only 100,000 of them were left due to the Russians’ scorched earth tactics. And then the retreat to Europe (the black line), through the freezing cold of winter, still had to start. You can see the amount of troops decrease at every river crossing, until only 10,000 return safely to Kaunas in December.

Near the bottom of the infographic, you can see some important dates and the temperature the soldiers had to suffer, as low as -30° Réaumur (equal to -37.5°C). The tragic losses due to lack of supplies, fights, low temperatures and partizan attacks are remarkably clear thanks to this highly ingenious chart. Not without reason, Minard’s work is often cited as a key moment in infographic development.


To wrap up this post, I’d like to give you a final example of a historical visualization which maybe did not have a big impact on the world, but which shows that, even in 1885, people understood how graphics could be used to incorporate a ton of information in a limited, manageable space.

Train timetable, E.J. Marey (1885)

The visualization above is a graphical timetable for the trains running between Paris and Lyon, constructed in 1885 by the Frenchman Étienne-Jules Marey, a true Homo Universalis: scientist, physiologist, photographer, inventor,… Although it looks a bit messy on first sight, the relatively small graph shows the daily timing for 25 different trains and 13 different stations. On the left, the timetable starts at six in the morning, at half past six you can see the first train of the day leaving Paris.

At a glance, you can compare the relative speeds of the different trains (looking at the slope of the lines) or see which trains stop in which stations. If you want to catch the last night train of the day from Paris to Lyon, make sure to be at the station at 10:40pm!

The examples above prove that data visualizations and infographics are nothing new, but have influenced and inspired people already for centuries! Do you have more exciting examples? Feel free to send them to me, or share them in the comments below!

Originally published at baryon.be on April 16, 2017.