1801 newsletter: Special Times archive edition

Hello everyone. This newsletter is here to champion innovative and fun ways of communicating information. I want to keep doing that, but change lies ahead. There will be a slightly different focus — on how stories are found, as well as how they‘re visualised. There might be a new section on datasets, for example, and no more Food 4 Thought. I’m very keen to hear suggestions about what I should do. So please DM me on Twitter or email me at peter.g.yeung@gmail.com. While imagining this future, I looked to the past and explored the archives of The Times, which was launched in 1785, and my findings are in this special edition of the newsletter. If you want to have a look yourself, you can search them here.

But before we start: I had a front page investigation in The Times on Saturday, working with my colleagues Chris Hutchinson and Basile Simon on a cool tool to go with it, so please take a look. (P.s. sign up to this newsletter if you haven’t already)

ELECTIONS, DEAR BOY

Elections are a prime time for data visualisation — they’re very newsworthy, there’s (usually) years of warning, and there’s a lot of data to play with. So that’s where I’ll begin. First up: There’s a lovely line chart in one newspaper from 1983. It shows the results of Britain’s general elections since 1900, with annotations along the way and even images of the relevant prime ministers. Strangely, the graph’s background is 3D.

I found an amazing map from 1895, which is basically a cartogram with each constituency of equal size. They call it the “simplex chart”. Symbols show the different types of borough. It was made by Major Ross-of-Bladensburg, which is epic.

The Times has also been repping “interactive” journalism for many decades now. Evidence of that is these two maps, published before and after the 1950 election. The one on the left is blank so that as the results came in readers could “fill in the results with letters or colours”. The map on the right shows a lovely choropleth, with various levels of shading direction and thickness.

Another excellent example is from 1970, where the results are neither shown as cartogram nor choropleth, but using symbols on top of the familiar geographic map: circle, square and diamond.

TIMES ARE CHANGIN’

But elections weren’t the only time for experimentation. I found plenty of maps that were interesting both for visual and historic reasons. And to be honest, maps were easier to find because words like “chart” and “graphic” were often used in other circumstances. I also assume that the terminology for the latter may well have changed a lot over the years — if I knew how graphics were referred to in the 1920s, that would have made it easier.

Anyway, below is a map of trade between the Commonwealth, with Britain obviously at the centre. The black arrows one way show exports, the white arrows the other show imports. The width of said arrows is also sized relative to the amount of trade. I would like to name it the “Tarantula Map” for obvious reasons. A stacked bar chart in the bottom right corner specifies the exact figures.

Next up is a map from 4 November 1920, showing the ballot results for a proposed miners’ strike. The geographic areas of coal across the UK are shaded in, while a small table by each region shows how the support for the strike was decisive.

And I supposed much like the role of 360 video or special VR projects, maps can provide a sense of a place when you are not able to visit it. This map from 1916 shows the layout of the German trenches in France, various types of line — dotted, striped, double — conveying the position of the battle.

The same goes for this image of the moon from 1960. There’s nothing particularly special about the visual aspect — though I do like the line from north to south. But it reveals the hidden side of the moon, according to the Praesidium of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. “Some of them commemorate pioneers of mathematics, science, and exploration,” the caption notes.

The weather forecast has always lent itself well to visualisation, as this map from 1912 shows. It’s essentially a secondary layer on top showing the rainfall across Britain, with the scale of percentages showing denser patterns with higher percentages.

A rare creative splurge saw the British Empire shown as if some sort of radical Soviet design. In typical Anglocentric fashion, it shows the distance everything is from London. Without getting into too much cartographic theory, I think it interestingly explores the subjectivity of all maps. It’s accompanied by detailed text: “Two objects have been kept in view: 1) To state clearly and simply certain facts. 2) To present a portion of those facts in a somewhat unfamiliar shape, with a view to making their real meaning clear.”

The last map is an article from 1967 that uses the map as the key argument: why Britain should switch to the metric system. “The adoption of the metric system by Britain is an essential part of the larger task of aligning United Kingdom standards and practices internationally.” It’s bold message. While the admittedly large landmasses of Canada and the US use the imperial system, the vast majority of Europe and the rest of the world use metric, and the map shows this better than words could.

UNCHARTED TERRITORY

While many of the graphics used in The Times have in the past between simple line and bar charts — as is the case today — there’s certainly been experimentation. This “synoptical chart of military operations in Natal” from 1899 is one example. The date is shown on the y-axis whereas distance is shown on the x-axis. “As a perpendicular lines passes through the scale of time only, it follows that the force represented by it is in a state of immobility,” it notes. “The geographical terms of north, south, east, and west have no bearing on strategy, and are not considered in this diagram: the important factors of proximity and position in relation to the front or rear of the British force being alone regarded.”

Here’s a nice little line chart from 1924 showing the levels of ultraviolet rays across locations in London such as Hampstead and the Strand, each month period separated into its own block. It shows a very clear trend.

Another is just great storytelling, showing the stark impact of increased control on alcohol drinking. It reminded me of the heatmaps in this wonderful WSJ piece on vaccines.

There’s also a mad line graphic dated October 1965 about share prices in the 1960s, that uses about as many annotations as ever I’ve seen and a logarithmic scale. It’s not something I could ever imagine being allowed into the paper these days.

Here’s a full-page graphic on economic indicators from 1933 — eat your heart out FT.

Another gem from the 1960s shows the roll-out of the metric system. It’s something of a mix between a table and a graphic, with the various stages of the programme in a list, and the progression of them over time and stage of progression alongside.

This is a small multiple chart of world trade, both imports and exports broken down between groups like Latin America, the Commonwealth etc. Quite a cute design, and lovely range of patterns as ever.

A rather intriguing depiction of the 18 French governments in the Fourth Republic from 1957 works as a sort of heatmap. The prime minister’s party is the one with a darker shade, with other ministers in lighter shade. Notes on the right give context to the changes in government.

The last one is this wild kind of treemap visualisation showing the relevant voting blocs for the 1918 general election. Boroughs, counties, countries and universities are all shown with various sizes, subgroups within them shown as smaller. I quite like it.

And so, brings the end of my exploration of The Times archive — for now. Do let me know what you thought. And have a search around by yourself at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/archive/. Tell me if you finding anything cool. Do sign up to this newsletter if you haven’t already. Thanks for reading.