One of the first American attempts to map the census, published just as the nation descended into Civil War appears in the lower right-hand corner of the famous portrait of Lincoln announcing his policy of emancipation to his cabinet.

Emma Willard’s “Picture of Nations” (1835)

Among the most prolific and influential educators of her time, Emma Willard spent decades experimenting with the visualization of information. Here is one of her most ambitious efforts, a chart that traces the advent of civilization across time and space.

Emma Willard’s “Picture of Nations” (1835)

A detail.

Charles Joseph Minard’s “Carte figurative et approximative des quantites de COTON BRUT” (1866) [Library of Congress]

Charles Joseph Minard is still hailed for by Edward Tufte for his astonishing visual depiction of Napoleon’s campaign to Russia in 1812. Prior to that, he used similar techniques to represent the dramatic shift of the cotton trade from the American South to India and Egypt during the Civil War.

Walter Houghton’s “Conspectus of the History of Political Parties and the Federal Government” (1880)

With the United States’ centennial in 1876, many were inspired to look back on the nation’s first century. A Midwestern educator constructed this elaborate history of political parties in 1880.

Walter Houghton’s “Conspectus of the History of Political Parties and the Federal Government” (1880)

The width of the line represents the power of the party at that moment in time. Notice the flurry of activity in the 1850s.

United States Coast Survey, “Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the United States” (1861) [Library of Congress]

Early in the 19th century, European social scientists began to experiment with mapping data about crime and literacy in order to make sense of the growing complexity of urban life. The American census offered a gold mine of information to be mapped, once the techniques to do so had been mastered. The ability to translate population and other quantitative data into cartographic form opened up a world of new questions about the spatial distribution that exploded in the decades after the Civil War.

United States Coast Survey, “Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the United States” (1861) [Library of Congress]

This was among the first American attempts to map the census, published just as the nation descended into Civil War. The map riveted the nation, and even commanded the attention of President Lincoln (notice that it appears in the lower right corner of the famous portrait of Lincoln announcing his policy of emancipation to his cabinet [see first slide]). In one glance, the slave map conveys a complex picture of the variation within the South.

Francis Amasa Walker, “Map Showing the Ratio of the Foreign to the Aggregate Population” (1874) [Library of Congress]

After the war these maps of data were advanced by Francis Amasa Walker, the superintendent of the census, who convinced Congress to fund his effort to map the Ninth Census of 1870. Look closely: This map uses shading to represent the ratio of the foreign born to the general population but also the density of the general population. Here lies the origin of GIS thinking.

Francis Amasa Walker, “Chart Showing the Ratio of Church Accommodation to the Total Population over 10 Years of Age” (1874)

Walker not only broke new ground in mapping data, he devoted himself to graphic representations in an effort to make the census relevant. Aided by the masterful color lithographer Julius Bien, his chart of religious observance conveys reams of data into a single image with a measure of both art and whimsy.

Francis Amasa Walker, “Chart Showing the Ratio of Church Accommodation to the Total Population over 10 Years of Age” (1874)

A detail.

Alexander von Humboldt, “Carte des Lignes Isotherms par M.S. de Humboldt” (1817) or “Chart of equal temperatures”

Weather maps are among the most mundane elements of the news today, but they represented a crucial breakthrough in the early 19th century. Alexander von Humboldt introduced the concept of charting average temperatures in 1819, which enabled natural scientists to think about the weather in terms of patterns. The need to map weather was especially urgent given the assumption that many deadly epidemics, including cholera and yellow fever, were caused by climate, humidity, and other elements of the environment.

Alexander von Humboldt, “Carte des Lignes Isotherms par M.S. de Humboldt” (1817) or “Chart of equal temperatures”

Here, Alexander von Humboldt’s introduction of “isolines” to represent lines of average temperature opened a world of inquiry. The chart does not just represent data, it is the data. Without this ability to collapse information into the form of patterns, the vast recorded temperature data was of limited use. It paved the way for the modern weather map.

U.S. Army Surgeon General, “Hyetal or Rain Chart: Mean Distribution of Precipitation for the Year” (1855)

The drive to map weather yielded the first map of rainfall in the United States in 1855. It captivated the attention of a nation that was just beginning to turn its attention to a West whose climate and arability remained largely unknown.

Charles Hitchcock and William Blake, “Geological Map of the United States” (1872)

The work of the chromolithographer Julius Bien is nowhere more appreciated than in his execution of the geology of the United States. Not the first geological map, it persists to this day in glorious color, mapping the unseen strata below our feet.

11 Of The Most Influential Infographics Of The 19th Century

Think of infographics as a modern-day obsession? Not even close. Cartography scholar Susan Schulten gives a brief tour of the 19th century’s most astonishing charts.

We live in a world steeped in graphic information. From Google Maps and GIS to the proliferation of infographics and animated maps, visual data surrounds us. While we may think of infographics as a relatively recent development to make sense of the immense amount of data available on the Web, they actually are rooted in the 19th century—a fact that I write about in my most recent book.

[John Smith’s "Historical Geography" (1888) portrays a country driven by two fundamentally different ideals: the avaricious slaveholding South and the God-fearing, righteous North.]

Two major developments led to a breakthrough in infographics: advances in lithography and chromolithography, which made it possible to experiment with different types of visual representations, and the availability of vast amounts of data, including from the American Census as well as natural scientists, who faced heaps of information about the natural world, such as daily readings of wind, rainfall, and temperature spanning decades. But such data was really only useful to the extent that it could be rendered in visual form. And this is why innovation in cartography and graphic visualization mattered so greatly.

[Emma Willard’s "Chronographical Plan," or "The Tree of Time" (1864) attempts to "impress upon the mind" of her young students the logic and order of U.S. history.]

The following survey of early information contains examples that are by no means intuitive or clear—some are downright chaotic—but they stand out for their attempt to integrate more than one class of information or tell a complex story in a single picture. They skim the surface of a much larger reorientation toward visual and graphic knowledge that has become all but assumed today.

This is an adaptation of material appearing in Susan Schulten’s new book, Mapping the Nation. Click here to buy it. To read her civil-war blog on The New York Times, click here.

Add New Comment

10 Comments

  • Not A PoME

    Sorry. Not to be the ugly American... But fast company IS a US publication.

  • Daniel McBane

    I agree with the other commenters that the presentation is somewhat unfortunate. Just based on that map of the US alone, which is brilliant by the way, I'm pretty sure I want to see more (like a similar map from the southern perspective), and I feel a couple of high resolution pictures would have been perfect. That way people like me who aren't familiar with the book can get a better idea if it's really worth purchasing.

  • Best Guest

    For most articles, I don't mind the size, but this time it's completely impossible to really grasp all but a few of these images.

    FYI, I did find this URL for the one I was most interested in, the history of the American political parties:
    http://ia700703.us.archive.org...    (page 6)

  • Mjankus

    I hope the book is better designed than the presentation here; because none of the graphics are large enough or zoomable for any chance to really understand the explanation in the text, which seems to ignore some of the examples shown.

    Strikes me as a little futile to tell us that the web is a graphical medium and then offer nothing more than glorified thumbnails to demonstrate the fact.

    How am I supposed to use this post in deciding whether to buy this book, or even discuss it with associates or students? "Uh…looks like it could be really neat!"

  • Mark Rojas

    agreed, that is how all the photo slideshow presentations are on this site.

    But for this case I imagine they may have had some limitations because of book publishers.

  • Abigail Murison

     
    I agree 100%. Maps of the US are fascinating ... if you live there. For the rest of the world, not so much.