Visualizing History


We frequently hear we live in an ‘information age’.  This is misleading.  Every age is an information age – that’s what an age is, a period defined by new ideas, specifically new ways of recording and storing human knowledge.  A better description for our time might be the ‘synthesis age’, since we now have access to so much information it becomes difficult to know how to sort it and make sense of it.  Our collective challenge is to do something about the information we have.

And there’s so much of it!  That’s where art comes in.  One of the most effective uses of art is to display data in an engaging and powerful way that cuts through to the heart of matters.  Here is an excellent example, with a historical preamble.


Napoleon’s invasion of Russia is difficult to match for its proportion and importance – proportion because an army of roughly a half million in 1812 represented a staggering marshaling of resources, and importance because it would prove to be the Emperor’s undoing (only Case Blue would end up matching it as a great historical turning point, considering its colossal scope and ultimate folly).  To elucidate the scale of suffering in a way no pen of a historian could, Charles Joseph Minard created the above lithograph in 1869.

The brown line shows the initial size of Napoleon’s Imperial Army when he crossed the Niemen river on June 24th, all the way to his arrival at Moscow.  The black line represents his forces in flight, turning back to France.  The graph at the bottom shows temperature as the army retreats, and is meant to be read from right to left (numbers are in the Réaumur scale)  When passing through Moloderno, the army faced temperatures of -37.5 Celsius.  On Minard’s graph (and there are discrepancies among sources), the total returning force is 10,000.

What’s special about the lithograph is that it quickly conveys the enormity of the campaign in very human terms.  Napoleon’s force is whittled down to a mere fraction of its initial strength.  The cost in life is staggering.  One can understand the graph quite clearly without any prior knowledge (well, as long as you read French and understand the legend).  Look closely at what happens when the black line of the retreating army crosses the Berezina River, and you gain an immediate understanding of what fate the freezing water would’ve held for the soldiers.  Minard’s illustrative interpretation provides us with an emotional framework with which to understand the significance of the historical data.

Minard’s lithograph is simple, without being simplistic, sophisticated without being complicated.  It achieves its aim by stripping away all the extraneous information and presenting the most important facts (initial troops, troops at Moscow, troops upon leaving Russia) with forceful impact.  It is easy to read yet compelling.  For these reasons the print has been hailed by some as the ‘greatest’ info graphic of all time.  I’m not sure whether it deserves that title, but it was certainly highly original in its time, and I believe because of its clarity and beauty is still more worthy to command attention than many business intelligence graphs seen on the web, and elsewhere, today.

One Response to "Visualizing History"
  1. I take it that the above graph was original, a first use of art to describe information in a dramatic way. Of course the image is powerful because it by-passes language and left brain, and relates immediately to right brain and limbic system of emotions: hence the intense impact. The picture is worth a thousand words!

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