Joseph Priestley Visualizes History & Great Historical Figures with Two of the Most Influential Infographics Ever (1769)


Not a day now goes by with­out the appear­ance of new info­graph­ics, each of them meant to bring its view­ers a fuller under­stand­ing of a sub­ject or phe­nom­e­non (or con­vince them of an argu­ment) at a glance. Mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy has made it pos­si­ble for us to see, as well as cre­ate, a wider vari­ety of info­graph­ics filled with more data than ever, but their cre­ation as an artis­tic and intel­lec­tu­al pur­suit began longer ago than you might think. Here we have two hand­made info­graph­ics by the 18th-cen­tu­ry Eng­lish poly­math Joseph Priest­ley, notable not just for their ear­li­ness, but for the fact that they remain among the most impres­sive exam­ples of the form.

Priest­ley’s 1769 A New Chart of His­to­ry appears at the top of the post (click for larg­er ver­sion or see this one too). Accom­pa­nied by a descrip­tion and sub­ti­tles, “A View of the Prin­ci­pal Rev­o­lu­tions of Empire that have tak­en place in the World” lit­er­al­ly illus­trates its cre­ator’s view, uncon­ven­tion­al at the time, that to tru­ly under­stand his­to­ry requires more than just exam­in­ing the his­to­ry of one coun­try or one peo­ple. It requires exam­in­ing the his­to­ry of all the civ­i­liza­tions of Earth, which he divid­ed into Scan­di­navia, Poland, Rus­sia, Great Britain, Spain, France, Italy, “Turkey in Europe” and “Turkey in Asia,” Ger­many, Per­sia, India, Chi­na, Africa, and Amer­i­ca.


His ear­li­er A Chart of Biog­ra­phy (1765), a piece of which appears just above, had visu­al­ized not the for­tunes of empires but the for­tunes of indi­vid­u­als, more than 2000 states­men, war­riors, divines, meta­physi­cians, math­e­mati­cians, physi­cians, poets, artists, ora­tors, crit­ics, his­to­ri­ans, and anti­quar­i­ans who lived between 1200 BC and his own day. “What makes this viz espe­cial­ly amaz­ing,” says a pre­sen­ta­tion by Tableau Soft­ware on the five most influ­en­tial data visu­al­iza­tions of all time, “is that we can still learn from it at the aggre­gate lev­el when we com­bine it with the sec­ond part of his two-part visu­al­iza­tion” — the New Chart of His­to­ry.

“Togeth­er, they weave an intri­cate sto­ry. They explain and doc­u­ment both the rise and fall of empires, and the unique thinkers that defined those nations,” the lead­ing lights of the Greeks, the Romans, the Enlight­en­ment, and oth­er civ­i­liza­tions and peri­ods besides. They make his­to­ry, at least as Priest­ley and his stu­dents knew it, quick­ly gras­pable at a com­bi­na­tion of scales sel­dom con­sid­ered before, and one which has influ­enced think­ing ever since about how civ­i­liza­tions grow, col­lapse, expand, and col­lide. After their ini­tial pub­li­ca­tion, the Chart of Biog­ra­phy and New Chart of His­to­ry met with great acclaim and decades of pop­u­lar demand, and they still read as not just his­tor­i­cal, geo­graph­i­cal, and polit­i­cal, but some­how poet­ic — poet­ic in the man­ner, specif­i­cal­ly, of Shelly’s Ozy­man­dias.

You can read more about both charts at MIT’s Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Inter­ac­tive Time­line Cov­er­ing 14 Bil­lion Years of His­to­ry: From The Big Bang to 2015

10 Mil­lion Years of Evo­lu­tion Visu­al­ized in an Ele­gant, 5‑Foot Long Info­graph­ic from 1931

6,000 Years of His­to­ry Visu­al­ized in a 23-Foot-Long Time­line of World His­to­ry, Cre­at­ed in 1871

4000 Years of His­to­ry Dis­played in a 5‑Foot-Long “His­tom­ap” (Ear­ly Info­graph­ic) From 1931

5‑Minute Ani­ma­tion Maps 2,600 Years of West­ern Cul­tur­al His­to­ry

The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy, from 600 B.C.E. to 1935, Visu­al­ized in Two Mas­sive, 44-Foot High Dia­grams

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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