By Whitney Anne Trettien on February 15, 2010
Recently, I looked at the origins of the timeline in eighteenth-century information visualization. Today: the nineteenth century and Charles Minard.
Minard was a French civil engineer, known today almost entirely for his Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l”Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813 (1869). Perhaps the first flow map ever produced, this elegant yet simple graphic visualizes human movement across time and space, correlating the number of troops and their location to temperature, represented by the line at the bottom of the chart.
It”s perhaps not surprising that today thinkers like Edward Tufte, who describes the Carte as perhaps “the best statistical graphic ever drawn” (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 40), are returning to Minard for inspiration. Much like the information visualizations now being developed for multimodal, multimedia digital environments, Minard”s Carte uses space to map multiple variables, thereby transforming the two-dimensional axis of Priestley”s charts into a gestalt field whose meaning emerges through a network of relationships rather than one-to-one correspondences. In an essay that echoes the motives and concerns of most digital humanists today, Minard writes:
The great growth of statistical research in our times has made felt the need to record the results in forms less dry, more useful, and able to be explored more rapidly than numbers alone; thus, diverse representations have been imagined, among others my graphic tables and my figurative maps.
In giving to statistics a figurative direction, I have followed the general impetus of the spirit of graphic representations.
Today figures apply to everything: the announcements of sale of rural and urban properties, of buildings, of clothes, are always accompanied by plans and drawings; in big criminal trials the plan of the arguments is put under the eyes of the jurors. The [shopkeeper’s] book of the day’s sales is more the work of the lithographer than of the literary man. In his fables, la Fontaine made animals speak; we wish, even more, that Granville had drawn their likeness. In the expectation of publication, a photographer is attached to every expedition; it is not only books of science which, as has been sometimes seen in the past two hundred years, did not carry even on the pages of the text the image of the subjects they treated. In a word, the illustration usurps everything, and in rendering statistics figurative, I have satisfied the need of the day.
— Minard, “Graphic Tables and Figurative Maps” (1862), translated by Edward Tufte
What strikes me most about this passage, particularly in the context of the Carte“”s relevance for digital visualizations, is how deeply Minard roots his work in his contemporary media milieu. In fact, he explicitly marks online casino australia his work as “satisf[ying] the need of the day.” While we look back and see a visionary born before his time, Minard himself struggled to find fresh new ways of representing data in an already image-rich culture overwhelmed with information.
I debated whether or not to include the Carte in a history of timelines, since, if anything, it exposes how simplistic our typical two-dimensional, unidirectional representation of time is. Nonetheless, as a figure who theorized his own work within a broader media ecology, Minard continues to teach us not only about visualization, but about how to engage with new literacies for interpreting information humanistically.
Minard”s insights were recognized and acknowledged by several of his contemporaries, most notably Étienne-Jules Marey.
Marey is now best known for his chronophotographic gun, a rifle-shaped camera capable of taking twelve frames a second, as well for advancing the study of movement in time through photography (a field known as chronophotography, famously practiced by Marey”s contemporary, Eadweard Muybridge, who was, oddly, also born in 1830 and died in May of 1904).
It”s perhaps appropriate, then, that Marey, inspired by Minard, also experimented with the graphic representation of time. In La Méthode graphique dans les sciences expérimentales et principalement, Marey graphs the overlapping reigns of monarchs along a horizontal axis illustrating the years 1660 to 1860:
Though more conventional than Minard”s flow map, Marey”s timeline is reminiscent of a much more mundane visualization: train time tables. As railway systems began linking farflung cities during the nineteenth century, the problem of graphically depicting multiple pathways converging and diverging at a single point became very real, and the need for standards and synchronization was urgent. (Marey even cites a train table in his book.)
While the history of time itself is outside the scope of this post — see Stephen Kern”s excellent The Culture of Time and Space, if you”re interested — it”s worth emphasizing that the visual literacies we develop, promote and draw upon in our academic work have practical consequences. Visualizations are not produced and disseminated in a vacuum, but are supported by a networked infrastructure that includes our conventions, our cultural metaphors, institutional standards, and the representative nature of the data itself. By confronting examples from the past, even in a simplistic, teleological history such as this, we can more clearly articulate the framework from which we operate in the present, and make more conscious, informed design decisions for the future.
- This post is heavily to Michael Friendly”s Gallery of Data Visualizations. His paper “Revisions of Minard,” Statistical Computing and Graphics Newsletter 11.1 (1999), is recommended for those with an interest in Minard. Also see his page on Minard.
- This post is also indebted to Tufte”s pages on Minard. Tufte”s website is a goldmine of information on graphic representation.
- For a more general collection regarding the history of information visualization, see “Milestones in the History of Thematic Cartography, Statistical Graphics and Data Visualization,” run by Michael Friendly and Daniel J. Denis. Note the use of a SIMILE Timeline to visualize the database!
- Martyn Jessop, “Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 23.3 (2008): 281-293. Institutional access required.
- Some of Marey”s texts and images are digitized and available here.
- Marey”s Animal mechanism: a treatise on terrestrial and aërial locomotion is available via Google Books.