The Five Graphs That Changed the World: See Groundbreaking Data Visualizations by Florence Nightingale, W. E. B. DuBois & Beyond

Almost two and a half cen­turies after its first pub­li­ca­tion, Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Caus­es of the Wealth of Nations is much bet­ter known as sim­ply The Wealth of Nations. Had he writ­ten it today, the text itself, which runs between a for­mi­da­ble 500–700 pages in most edi­tions, would also be con­sid­er­ably short­er. It’s not just that writ­ers in Smith’s day went in for length per se (though many now read as if they did), but that graphs had­n’t been invent­ed yet. Much of what he’d dis­cov­ered about the nature of eco­nom­ics could have been expressed more con­cise­ly — and much more clear­ly — in pic­tures rather than words.

As it hap­pens, the kind of infor­ma­tion­al graphs we know best today would be invent­ed by Smith’s fel­low Scot William Play­fair in 1786, just a decade after The Wealth of Nations came out. “Data visu­al­iza­tion is every­where today, but when Play­fair first cre­at­ed them over 200 years ago, using shapes to rep­re­sent num­bers was large­ly sneered at,” says Adam Ruther­ford in the Roy­al Soci­ety video above.

“How could draw­ings tru­ly rep­re­sent sol­id sci­en­tif­ic data? But now, data visu­al­iza­tion has become an art form of its own.” There fol­low “five graphs that changed the world,” begin­ning with the map of water pumps that physi­cian John Snow used to deter­mine the cause of a cholera epi­dem­ic in 1850s Lon­don, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture.

We’ve also post­ed W. E. B. Du Bois’ “hand­made charts show­cas­ing the edu­ca­tion­al, social, and busi­ness accom­plish­ments of black Amer­i­cans in the 35 years since slav­ery had been offi­cial­ly abol­ished.” The oth­er world-chang­ing graphs here include Flo­rence Nightin­gale’s “cox­comb” that showed how unsan­i­tary hos­pi­tal con­di­tions killed more sol­diers dur­ing the Crimean War than did actu­al fight­ing; the so-called Kallikak Fam­i­ly Tree, a fraud­u­lent visu­al case for remov­ing the “fee­ble-mind­ed” from soci­ety; and Ed Hawkins’ more recent red-and-blue “warm­ing stripes” designed to present the effects of cli­mate change to a non-sci­en­tif­ic audi­ence. Using just blocks of col­or, with nei­ther num­bers nor text, Hawkins’ bold graph harks back to an ear­li­er gold­en era of data visu­al­iza­tion: after Play­fair, but before Pow­er­Point.

via Aeon

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Art of Data Visu­al­iza­tion: How to Tell Com­plex Sto­ries Through Smart Design

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

Kurt Von­negut Dia­grams the Shape of All Sto­ries: From Kafka’s “Meta­mor­pho­sis” to “Cin­derel­la”

A Pro­por­tion­al Visu­al­iza­tion of the World’s Most Pop­u­lar Lan­guages

The 1855 Map That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Dis­ease Pre­ven­tion & Data Visu­al­iza­tion: Dis­cov­er John Snow’s Broad Street Pump Map

The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy Visu­al­ized

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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