Data visualization is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, artists and historians, educators and scientists have been creating illustrations to better communicate complex information. From Emma Willard’s “Picture of Nations” to Dimitri Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, historical infographics continue to inspire and educate today. Here is a look at some of the most influential and beautiful infographics from the 19th century.
Emma Willard’s “Picture of Nations,” 1836
Source: David Rumsey Map Collection
Emma Willard was a pioneer in women’s education: a powerful force of reform on many fronts. She believed that, if given the opportunity, women could surpass their male counterparts in the fields of math, philosophy, history, and science. But traditional finishing schools for women refused to teach these subjects. So, Willard founded her own women’s school, designing the curriculum herself. In the process, she developed new ideas for using data visualization as a learning aid; explaining concepts in history, geography, and politics with large, ornate illustrations. According to Susan Schulten, Professor of History at the University of Denver, “Willard used the spatial dimension of the American past to engage students, develop their memories, integrate history and geography, and — most importantly — to consolidate national identity.”
Walter Houghton’s “Conspectus of the History of Political Parties and the Federal Government,” 1880
Inspired by the United States Centennial in 1876, Walter Houghton created this stunning visualization that maps the history of political party action over the preceding century. Line width correlates with power: the thicker the line, the more influential the party was at a given time. Back then, his use of timeline width as a tool to depict quantity was a relatively new idea. Today, it’s a common technique in graphic design.
Charles Darwin’s “Evolutionary Tree of Life,” 1859
Source: On the Origin of Species
Charles Darwin was the first to use the tree of life to illustrate evolution, and that makes sense, since evolution as we know it today was his idea. This depiction rested on a great metaphor: as the tree grows and branches, so do the many ancestral lines of living things. “The Evolutionary Tree of Life” was the only illustration in his seminal work, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection.
The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. […] As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.
– Charles Darwin, 1972
Charles Joseph Minard’s “Carte Figurative et Approximative des Quantites de Coton Brut,” 1869
Source: Library of Congress
Charles Joseph Minard was a pioneer in the use of infographics to depict complex statistical and engineering data. In his “Carte Figurative des Pertes Successives en Hommes de l’Armée Française dans la Campagne de Russie 1812-1813,” he famously brought those skills to military history, creating stunning line overlays that depict Napoleon’s campaign to Russia in 1812. But that’s not all. Minard managed to illustrate several complex variables at once: the size of the army, the coordinates of the army as it moved, the location of the army on various dates, the direction in which the army traveled, advance and retreat, when units split off and joined up, and the weather throughout. This is a very early example of a flow map: a common design tool in modern graphics. Minard used similar techniques to depict the shift of the cotton trade during the Civil War (in the image above): from the American South to India and Egypt.
Dimitri Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, 1869
Source: Time Magazine
Perhaps the most important data visualization of all time, Dimitri Mendeleev’s periodic table does more than illustrate the elements: it illustrates how they interact. Elements in the same column share characteristics, so even the novice chemist can predict how a string of elements will behave based on a single experiment. She can determine the electron configuration in an atom’s outer shell by counting rows and columns. She can predict size, weight, and electronegativity. She can even predict chemical reactions between elements based on their relative positions. Mendeleev’s schema is just as clever and elegant today as it was the day of its invention in 1869. It is one of science’s most important tools: a visualization that fundamentally changed how science is understood and how it’s taught.
The modern periodic table:
Anni Murray is a writer, editor, multimedia artist, amateur mycologist, and biology student. She is currently working on Prism, a speculative science fiction story cycle. Follow her on Twitter.