This is Victorian data viz at its finest: the Comparative Heights of the Principal Mountains And Lengths of the Principal Rivers in The World.

First published in 1823 by William Darton, this chart by W.R. Gardner rips the mountains from the skin of the earth and re-arranges them in ascending height, while simultaneously doing the same for the globe's biggest rivers, ironing their kinks and curls in order to compare for length.

Not that Gardner got everything right. Not even close.

He didn't even know that the Nile was the longest river in the world.

By modern standards, his knowledge of mountain heights was also pretty spotty: he didn't even measure the six highest mountains in the world.

You won't found Everest or K2 on this chart: if Gardner knew about them, they had yet to be measured.

The chart also shows how high the mountains are compared to sea level, and even includes interesting facts to put the heights in perspective.

Pines, for example, are able to survive at the top of some of the Alps, while lichen will not survive above 18,000 feet.

When looking at this chart, it's shocking to suddenly remember that even two hundred years ago, most of us knew very little about the world we lived in.

When looking at this chart, it's shocking to suddenly remember that even two hundred years ago, most of us knew very little about the world we lived in.

The source of the Nile was still decades away from being discovered.

And most of the tallest mountains were over a hundred years away from being climbed.

This chart is a captivating testament to our passion for seeing the chaos of the world put into a more logical, mathematical order.

That desire may not have changed in two hundred years, but our knowledge of that world sure has.

That desire may not have changed in two hundred years, but our knowledge of that world sure has.

Fascinating Old Chart Maps World's Tallest Mountains, Forgets Mt. Everest

This chart from the 1800s puts the world's biggest mountains and rivers in order. But it kinda omits some stuff.

For the design-minded, is there anything as satisfying as taking an unordered jumble of things and organizing it neatly? From sorting candy by color to artfully arranging trash, the Internet has long enjoyed ordering the world according to some aesthetically pleasing classification, then showing off the results.

We 21st-century meme followers aren't the first to delight in organizing the inherently unorganized, though. Consider this beautifully illustrated chart: the Comparative Heights of the Principal Mountains And Lengths of The Principal Rivers in The World. First published in 1823 by William Darton, this chart by W.R. Gardner rips the mountains from the skin of the Earth and re-arranges them in ascending height, while simultaneously doing the same for the globe's biggest rivers, ironing their kinks and curls in order to compare for length. This is Victorian data viz at its finest.

Not only does it put the size of mountains and rivers in perspective at a glance, but it also shows how high the mountains are compared to sea level, and even includes interesting facts to put the heights in perspective: pines, for example, are able to survive at the top of some of the Alps, while lichen will not survive above 18,000 feet.

What's also fascinating about Gardner's chart, from a modern perspective, is how much he gets wrong. In 1823, the world was still a largely undiscovered place.

The year this chart was published, the six tallest mountains of the world had yet to be discovered or, at any rate, recognized at such. The tallest mountain that Gardner acknowledges is Dhaulagiri. Gardner gets the size right, more or less--he thinks it's 26,468 feet tall, although it's actually a couple hundred feet taller--but there are several taller mountains, including the obvious contenders of Mount Everest and K2.

This was a time in which summits higher than 20,000 feet might as well have been as distant as the mountains of the moon. Although Jacques Balmat and Dr. Michel Piccard had successfully reached the top of Mont Blanch in 1786, all of the taller mountains on this chart would go unconquered until the 20th century. The highest mountain on Gardner's chart, in fact, wouldn't be fully climbed until 1960.

Gardner's tidy flattening-out of the globe's longest rivers also got some stats woefully wrong. Gardner claims the Nile--the world's fifth longest river, according to the chart--to be only 2,686 miles long. In actuality, at 4,258 miles long, it's the world's longest river, but it would be another 40 years before Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke would identify Lake Victoria as the river's source, allowing the Nile to earn that top slot.

This chart is a captivating testament to our passion for seeing the chaos of the world put into a more logical, mathematical order. That desire may not have changed in 200 years, but our knowledge of that world sure has.

(Hat-tip: Bibliodyssey)

[Image: Flickr user Paul K]

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5 Comments

  • Peter Hendry

    Stop criticising it's little faults, it was, and still is an educational masterpiece.
    Get back to your desks and update it NOW!
    A proper digital one would be brilliant for everyone. :)

  • alanomaly

    "When looking at this chart, it's shocking to suddenly remember that even two hundred years ago, most of us knew very little about the world we lived in."

    Really? I look at the exquisite detail on those rivers - with lakes, towns etc marked accurately* - and I'm impressed that all that information and detail was available for one person to research and re-draw.

    * the only reason the Nile is too short is that back then people thought it stopped earlier than it did - the rest is accurate. If anyone wants to mock them for getting that wrong, ask yourself how you would go about organising an expedition to find the source of the Nile, heading south through (what is now) Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda, through desert, jungle and mountains, with no planes, no cars, no portable electrical goods, no modern fabrics (so no lightweight packs or light durable clothes), no maps for much of the journey and - most importantly - no anti-malaria drugs or mosquito repellent...

  • alanomaly

    You want to take a boat with no engine the length of the nile, going against the current, uphill?

    There are some pretty huge waterfalls on the Nile. The ones closer to the source are in mountainous dense jungle.

    You'd have to either try to row your boat up the waterfall, or carry the boat up the mountainside while hacking through uncharted jungle.

    Here's one example of what you'd be up against: http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningz...