(Above) Color-linked pie and bar charts illustrate the causes of death in Switzerland from 1890-1894 (Swiss Statistical Office).
Looking back into history many infographic styles originated from detail-oriented professionals such as lawyers, meteorologists, surveyors, and nurses. Often a single graphic represented the culmination of a life’s work of research and involved extensive personal commitment to produce.
In Golden Age of Statistical Research, Michael Friendly gives a thoughtful and richly illustrated overview of the time period between 1850 and 1910 – when government was beginning to collect census data on population (mostly for tax and voting purposes), and science needed to clothe the “dry bones of statistics in flesh and blood” in order to communicate with the general public. Below are a few classic and beautiful examples of how visualization makes information come alive.
The line graph, pie chart and bar graph were all invented by a single person: the economist and engineer William Playfair, who was an early pioneer of representing time as a graphic linear progression. For the next hundred years, statistics would still be communicated in tables; “drawing” data had not yet become common (1). Below is a chart called Inquiry into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Wealthy and Powerful Nations, where revenue (red) and population (yellow) are compared between different countries. Playfair then draws a diagonal line showing proposed taxation rates.
The first person to understand that land is formed in layers was a canal builder and mineral surveyor who travelled Great Britain helping farmers improve agricultural drainage. Canals were a significant way small towns remained competitive at this time. William Smith then spent 15 years compiling this information into a single map that launched a new branch of science: stratigraphy. The gradients and colors of the map demonstrate that strata are angled below the surface, which was previously understood by miners, but never studied on a grand national scale. The idea that natural resources emerge in a predictable pattern above ground was revolutionary (2).
Florence Nightingale was “arguably the first to use [polar-area diagrams] and other statistical graphs for political persuasion and popular impact”. In 1858, her Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East, “showed immediately to the eye that most of the British soldiers who died during the Crimean War died of sickness [shown in blue] rather than of wounds [shown in red] sustained in battle or other causes [black]” paving the way for improving sanitary conditions. At this time the advancement of color lithography opened many doors for communicating visual information (1).
The “best example of a scientific discovery achieved almost entirely through graphical means” is the discovery that pressurized air circulates clockwise in the northern hemisphere (1). Sir Francis Galton collected weather data in December 1861 – barometric pressure, wind direction, wind speed, temperature – collected three times a day for 300 locations. He studied this data by creating stamps for each weather condition, distilling the information into a single two page diagram showing “something that was totally unexpected, and purely the product of his high-dimensional graphs” (1).
Charles Joseph Minards famously used graphics to tell the story of the loss of life during Napolean’s military campaign defying “the pen of the historian in its brutal eloquence” (1). In his words, “not only do my maps speak, but even more, they count, they calculate by the eye” (1). Below is another of his graphics: a two year comparison of the cotton trade between the US and Europe, before and after the Civil War.
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- Friendly, Michael. “The Golden Age of Statistical Graphics.” Statistical Science Statist. Sci. 23.4 (2008): 502-35. Web.
- Winchester, Simon, and Soun Vannithone. The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.