Napoleon’s Disastrous Invasion of Russia Detailed in an 1869 Data Visualization: It’s Been Called “the Best Statistical Graphic Ever Drawn”

It’s tempt­ing to asso­ciate data visu­al­iza­tions with Pow­er­Point and online graph­ics, which have enabled an unheard-of capac­i­ty for dis­sem­i­nat­ing full-col­or images. But the form reach­es much fur­ther back in his­to­ry. Fur­ther back, even, than the front pages of USA Today and glossy side­bars of Time and
Newsweek. In 1900, for exam­ple, W.E.B. Du Bois made impres­sive use of sev­er­al full-col­or data visu­al­iza­tions for the First Pan-African Con­fer­ence in Lon­don, with no access what­so­ev­er to desk­top pub­lish­ing soft­ware or a laser print­er.

Almost fifty years before Du Bois turned sta­tis­tics into swirls of col­or and shape, Flo­rence Nightin­gale used her lit­tle-known graph­ic design skills to illus­trate the caus­es of dis­ease in the Crimean War and John Snow (not Jon Snow) illus­trat­ed his rev­o­lu­tion­ary Broad Street Pump cholera the­o­ry with a famous info­graph­ic street map.

Around this same time, anoth­er data visu­al­iza­tion pio­neer, Charles Joseph Minard, pro­duced some of the most high­ly-regard­ed info­graph­ics ever made, includ­ing the 1869 illus­tra­tion above of Napoleon’s march to, and retreat from, Moscow in the War of 1812. View it in a large for­mat here.

Made fifty years after the event, when Minard was 80 years old, the map has been called by the bible of data visu­al­iza­tion studies—Edward Tufte’s The Visu­al Dis­play of Quan­ti­ta­tive Infor­ma­tion—“prob­a­bly the best sta­tis­ti­cal graph­ic ever drawn.” Over at, Joanne Cheng sums up the con­text, if you need­ed a his­tor­i­cal refresh­er: “The year is 1812 and Napoleon is doing pret­ty well for him­self. He has most of Europe under his con­trol, except for the UK.”

Angered by Czar Alexander’s refusal to sup­port a UK trade embar­go to weak­en their defens­es, Napoleon “gath­ers a mas­sive army of over 400,000 to attack Rus­sia.” The cam­paign was dis­as­trous: over­con­fi­dent advances on Moscow turned into dev­as­tat­ing win­ter­time retreats dur­ing which the Grande Armée only “nar­row­ly escaped com­plete anni­hi­la­tion.” So, how does Minard’s 1869 Tableau Graphique tell this grand sto­ry of hubris and icy car­nage? And, Cheng asks, “what makes it so good?”

Cheng breaks Minard’s series of jagged lines and shapes down into more con­ven­tion­al XY axis line graphs to show how he coor­di­nat­ed a huge amount of infor­ma­tion, includ­ing the loca­tions (by lon­gi­tude) of dif­fer­ent groups of Napoleon’s troops at dif­fer­ent points in time, their direc­tion, and the pre­cip­i­tous­ly falling tem­per­a­tures in the stages of retreat. He drew from a list of the best his­tor­i­cal sources he could con­sult at the time, turn­ing dense prose into the spare, clean lines that set data sci­en­tists’ hearts a‑flutter.

Minard began his career in a much more rec­og­niz­ably 19-cen­tu­ry design field, build­ing bridges, dams, and canals across Europe for the first few decades of the 1800s. As a civ­il engi­neer “he had the good for­tune to take part in almost all the great ques­tions of pub­lic works which ush­ered in our cen­tu­ry,” not­ed an obit­u­ary pub­lished in Annals of Bridges and Roads the year after Minard’s death in 1870. “And dur­ing the twen­ty years of retire­ment, always au courant of the tech­ni­cal and eco­nom­ic sci­ences, he endeav­ored to pop­u­lar­ize the most salient results.”

He did so by ven­tur­ing out­side the sub­ject of engi­neer­ing, while using the “inno­v­a­tive tech­niques he had invent­ed for the pur­pose of dis­play­ing flows of peo­ple” on paper, writes Michael Sand­berg at DataViz. In order to tell the trag­ic tale” of Napoleon’s crush­ing defeat “in a sin­gle image,” Minard imag­ined the event as a dynam­ic phys­i­cal struc­ture.

Minard’s chart shows six types of infor­ma­tion: geog­ra­phy, time, tem­per­a­ture, the course and direc­tion of the army’s move­ment, and the num­ber of troops remain­ing. The widths of the gold (out­ward) and black (return­ing) paths rep­re­sent the size of the force, one mil­lime­tre to 10,000 men. Geo­graph­i­cal fea­tures and major bat­tles are marked and named, and plum­met­ing tem­per­a­tures on the return jour­ney are shown along the bot­tom.

This was hard­ly Minard’s first info­graph­ic. In fact, he made “scores of oth­er graph­ics and charts,” Nation­al Geo­graph­ic writes, “as well as near­ly 50 maps. He pio­neered sev­er­al impor­tant the­mat­ic map­ping tech­niques and per­fect­ed oth­ers, such as using flow lines on a map.” (See oth­er exam­ples of his work at Nation­al Geographic’s site.) Minard may not be much remem­bered for his infra­struc­ture, but his abil­i­ty, as his obit­u­ar­ist wrote, to turn “the dry and com­pli­cat­ed columns of sta­tis­ti­cal data” into “images math­e­mat­i­cal­ly pro­por­tioned” has made him a leg­end in data sci­ence his­to­ry cir­cles.

Again, view Minard’s visu­al­iza­tion of Napoleon’s failed inva­sion in a large for­mat here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Flo­rence Nightin­gale Saved Lives by Cre­at­ing Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Visu­al­iza­tions of Sta­tis­tics (1855)

W.E.B. Du Bois Cre­ates Rev­o­lu­tion­ary, Artis­tic Data Visu­al­iza­tions Show­ing the Eco­nom­ic Plight of African-Amer­i­cans (1900)

Napoleon’s Eng­lish Lessons: How the Mil­i­tary Leader Stud­ied Eng­lish to Escape the Bore­dom of Life in Exile

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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