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Infographic of the Day: World-Changing Charts From the Victorian Era

A stunning visualization of the worlds rivers and mountains, from 1853.

Rivers and Mountains

You’d be forgiven for thinking infographics were a modern phenomenon. But they aren’t, and Bibliodyssey has this amazing selection of charts that proves it. The best piece in their collection was created in 1854, and it depicts the longest rivers and highest mountains in the world. The mountains and rivers are arranged in descending and ascending order. This is basically a bar chart, illustrated by hand with a level of polish and precision you’d be hard-pressed to find in this pixel-pushing era.

Here’s a detail of the rivers:


And a detail of the mountains:


This chart isn’t an outlier, not by a long shot. In fact, some of the most famous charts in all of history are from Victorian times. Here’s two worth considering, after clicking on the BibliOdyssey collection.

Edward Tufte calls this one, created by Charles Jospeh Minard in 1869, “Probably the best statistical graph ever drawn.” It depicts Napoleon’s disastrous march on Moscow in 1812, which decimated his army. The wide, tan band up top shows the size of his army, shrinking as it approaches Moscow (the endpoint on the right). The black band shows the size of his army during the retreat; the troops get whittled down to nothing. (The line chart below shows the temperatures at each position.)


A detail (the small tan branch which turns black depicts a portion of the army that turned around, well shy of Moscow. Smart fellows):

Minard 2

Another classic of infographics comes from Florence Nightingale. Though known as a nurse who changed the standard of health care, she was actually a brilliant mathematician, and the inventor of a class of chart called the polar area diagram. Her most famous chart shows the monthly casualties suffered by the British army during the Crimean war:

Crimean chart

What the colors represent: In blue, the deaths from disease; in red, the deaths from wounds; and
black is other causes. Nightingale’s chart proved that the soldiers
were overwhelmingly dying of sickness, rather than war. She presented
it to Parliament–who hadn’t paid attention to stat lists–and ushered
in a new era of modern hygiene, to prevent the spread of disease.

Now, you might wonder why the Victorians seemed to be so damn good at infographics. Obviously, there was a huge fascination with maps at that time. But more than that, remember that charts were enormously time consuming to produce–they might take years of work. A chart maker had to be pretty sure that they were making something truly special, before devoting all that time and care.

For more amazing Victorian infographics, check out BibliOdyssey.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.