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Infographic of the Day

Infographics of the Day: 12 Data Viz Masterpieces From the 19th Century

BibliOdyssey's lovingly curated collection of 19th-century infographics proves that data visualization is not just a contemporary fad.

  • BibliOdyssey] "> <p>It may look like a mandala, but if you peer closer you’ll see that those are all tiny clocks arranged in a manner "indicating the difference in time between the principal cities of the World and also showing their air-line distance from Washington," according to BibliOdyssey.</p>
  • BibliOdyssey] "> <p>Subtle shadings clearly differentiate various types of geological formations in this map of Pennsylvania. Edward Tufte calls upon references like this to back up his guidelines against using bright primary colors in maps.</p>
  • BibliOdyssey] "> <p>Classic typography and exquisitely detailed illustrations were the hallmarks of 19th century infographics. As opposed to what we often get nowadays.</p>
  • BibliOdyssey] "> <p>OK, maybe this one is a tad bit busy… but it’s the kind of graphic you want to get lost in. If you can read French, there are hours of fun to be had scanning intricate tables of astronomical observations…</p>
  • BibliOdyssey] "> <p>…In this detail from 'Tableau d’Astronomie et de sphère,' we can see illustrated astronomical observations like the tilt of the earth’s axis, eclipse cycles, and phases of the moon. (Look closely: apparently in French, one of the phases of the moon is called "croissant." Yum!)</p>
  • BibliOdyssey] "> <p>Gorgeously detailed and info-dense, this graphic deftly juxtaposes to-scale comparisons of the world’s great rivers and mountains. Edward Tufte rightly waxed ecstatic about it in "Envisioning Information."</p>
  • BibliOdyssey] "> <p>According to BibliOdyssey, "Alexander von Humboldt’s original (and exceptionally clever, for the time) botanical elevation distribution map of Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo appeared in the first decade of the 19th century." (It was published in a "General Atlas of the World" in 1854.)</p>
  • BibliOdyssey] "> <p>This truly "audacious" infographic (in the words of BibliOdyssey) aims to visually summarize all of human history from the time of Adam & Eve (4693 BC, by the Victorians’ ken) to the mid-19th century. Vignettes of notable events (including the biblical flood and the founding of Rome) line the sides of a river of color-coded timelines corresponding to separate civilizations ("Hebreux," "Chinois," "Arabes," etc.)</p>
  • BibliOdyssey] "> <p>"The designer has employed something of a metaphorical display choice: civilisations are presented as a series of rivers -- the widths likely imply the comparative population level of each group versus the world’s population -- which 'flow’ down through history," says BibliOdyssey.</p>
  • BibliOdyssey] "> <p>This crisp steel engraving plots the orbits of planets, asteroids, and comets, as well as a succinct visual primer on atmospheric distortion of the sun’s rays throughout the seasons.</p>
  • BibliOdyssey] "> <p>One of the most intriguing features in this large infographic is an inset depicting the relative size of the sun’s disc as seen from various bodies in the Solar System.</p>
  • BibliOdyssey] "> <p>It’s not exactly politically correct, but the attempt to visually portray the spans of different civilizations across the globe with their relative populations is impressive for the time. (The map notes the total estimated world population at 990 million.)</p>
  • 01 /12 | A Time Table (Mitchell's New General Atlas) 1864

    It may look like a mandala, but if you peer closer you’ll see that those are all tiny clocks arranged in a manner "indicating the difference in time between the principal cities of the World and also showing their air-line distance from Washington," according to BibliOdyssey.

  • 02 /12 | Geological Map of the State of Pennsylvania 1858 (detail)

    Subtle shadings clearly differentiate various types of geological formations in this map of Pennsylvania. Edward Tufte calls upon references like this to back up his guidelines against using bright primary colors in maps.

  • 03 /12 | Visualization of the Earth's Crust

    Classic typography and exquisitely detailed illustrations were the hallmarks of 19th century infographics. As opposed to what we often get nowadays.

  • 04 /12 | 'Tableau d'Astronomie et de sphère' by Henri Duval, 1834

    OK, maybe this one is a tad bit busy… but it’s the kind of graphic you want to get lost in. If you can read French, there are hours of fun to be had scanning intricate tables of astronomical observations…

  • 05 /12 | 'Tableau d'Astronomie et de sphère' (Detail)

    …In this detail from 'Tableau d’Astronomie et de sphère,' we can see illustrated astronomical observations like the tilt of the earth’s axis, eclipse cycles, and phases of the moon. (Look closely: apparently in French, one of the phases of the moon is called "croissant." Yum!)

  • 06 /12 | Comparative Geography (mountains + rivers), 1854

    Gorgeously detailed and info-dense, this graphic deftly juxtaposes to-scale comparisons of the world’s great rivers and mountains. Edward Tufte rightly waxed ecstatic about it in "Envisioning Information."

  • 07 /12 | Humboldt's Distribution of Plants in Equinoctial America, 1854

    According to BibliOdyssey, "Alexander von Humboldt’s original (and exceptionally clever, for the time) botanical elevation distribution map of Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo appeared in the first decade of the 19th century." (It was published in a "General Atlas of the World" in 1854.)

  • 08 /12 | Tableau de L'Histoire Universelle, 1858

    This truly "audacious" infographic (in the words of BibliOdyssey) aims to visually summarize all of human history from the time of Adam & Eve (4693 BC, by the Victorians’ ken) to the mid-19th century. Vignettes of notable events (including the biblical flood and the founding of Rome) line the sides of a river of color-coded timelines corresponding to separate civilizations ("Hebreux," "Chinois," "Arabes," etc.)

  • 09 /12 | Tableau de L'Histoire Universelle (Detail)

    "The designer has employed something of a metaphorical display choice: civilisations are presented as a series of rivers -- the widths likely imply the comparative population level of each group versus the world’s population -- which 'flow’ down through history," says BibliOdyssey.

  • 10 /12 | The Solar System; Theory of the Seasons, 1854

    This crisp steel engraving plots the orbits of planets, asteroids, and comets, as well as a succinct visual primer on atmospheric distortion of the sun’s rays throughout the seasons.

  • 11 /12 | The Solar System; Theory of the Seasons (Detail)

    One of the most intriguing features in this large infographic is an inset depicting the relative size of the sun’s disc as seen from various bodies in the Solar System.

  • 12 /12 | Ethnographic Chart of the World Shewing (sic) the Distribution and Varieties of the Human Race, 1854

    It’s not exactly politically correct, but the attempt to visually portray the spans of different civilizations across the globe with their relative populations is impressive for the time. (The map notes the total estimated world population at 990 million.)

Geeks love infographics. You know it, we know it. But it's easy to forget that data-viz isn't just catnip for the Twitterati — discerning gentlemen and -women 150 years ago loved it, too. BibliOdyssey knows this, and has curated a stunning set of Victorian-era infographics that would make Edward Tufte green with envy. (Indeed, he includes several of them in his landmark book Envisioning Information.)

Given the era's obsession with science and industry, we shouldn't be surprised that citizens of the 19th century had a yen for elegant info-visualizations. The world was at once bigger (because of advances in astronomy and biology, notably Darwin's theory of evolution) and smaller (because of railroads, steam engines, and the telegraph) than it had ever been before — and all that new information needed to be synthesized into easily-understandable forms. (That whole "too much information" thing? Yeah, the 21st century didn't invent that, either.)

So flick through these gorgeous engraved designs and reflect on how much harder it was to make something called an "infographic" when there weren't such things as Photoshop. Oh, and you might want to check out BibliOdyssey's book, too.

Slideshow Credits: 01 / BibliOdyssey; 02 / BibliOdyssey; 03 / BibliOdyssey; 04 / BibliOdyssey; 05 / BibliOdyssey; 06 / BibliOdyssey; 07 / BibliOdyssey; 08 / BibliOdyssey; 09 / BibliOdyssey; 10 / BibliOdyssey; 11 / BibliOdyssey; 12 / BibliOdyssey;

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