• HISTORY: Graphics journalists in history

Infographics have existed from the moment when cavemen and women drew their stories on the walls of their homes. Graphics predate words and what we know as writing. About 5,000 years ago, Egyptians developed the first calendar to represent time. They also drew maps to chart the flooding of the Nile River.

It isn’t hard to find many examples of where graphics have been used to represent information throughout history. The following are a few of the people who have been instrumental in development of modern graphics journalism.

Leonardo da Vinci

A page from Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. Note how he integrated graphics and text.

A history of infographics ought to mention Leonardo da Vinci, not because he was an innovator in this area, but because he is a precursor of the idea of grahics journalism. Da Vinci was a keen observer of the world around him, and he filled hundreds of pages of journals with those observations. But he used both graphics and text. Da Vinci drew and wrote as ideas came to him, and he tried to represent the information he had in any way that made sense. He used a graphic if a graphic was called for and text when it was necessary.

Rene Decartes

More directly affecting the development of today’s charts and graphs was the work of French philosopher and scientist Rene Descartes, who lived during the first half of the 17th century. One of Descartes’ many achievements was the development of a system of analytic geometry. He used numbers to describe the position of a point on a surface and developed a system of horizontal and vertical intersecting lines known as a Cartesian grid. The grid allowed scientists to plot statistical information, and it forms the basis of many charts and graphcs that we use today.

William Playfair

One man whose name is almost unknown to us stands out as having the most direct influence on the way that charts and graphs appear today. That man is William Playfair, a Scottish-born writer and scientist born in 1759. Playfair gathered political and economic information in as systematic a way as he could for the time in which he lived, and in 1786 published a book entitled  The Commercial and Political Atlas.

Included in this book were 44 charts, most of which plotted information over time. They were the first line or fever charts used to represent this kind of information. One of these charts used bars extending horizontally across the page to present information about Scotland’s imports and exports.

In explaining why he developed this graphic representation, Playfair wrote:

The advantage proposed by those charts is not of giving a more accurate statement than by figures, but it is to give a more simple and permanent idea of the graduate progress and comparative amounts, at different periods, by presenting to the eye a figure, the proportions of which correspond with the amount of the sums intended to be expressed.

In 1801, Playfair published a book in which circles represented amounts, and in 1805 he published another book in which a circle is divided with lines extending from the center. Thus, the pie chart was born. From Playfair’s works come the three basic types of charts that we use today to present numerical data: line charts, bar charts and pie charts.

Charles Joseph Minard

One of the most striking graphics of the 19th century was done by Charles Joseph Minard, a French engineer, who in 1861 plotted the progress and dissipation of NapoleonÕs army when it invaded Russia in 1812. The chart brilliantly plots six variables: the size of the army, its location, the direction of its movement, the time of its movement, and the temperatures it encountered.

John Snow

Sometimes, an informational graphics can save lives, literally. Dr. John Snow proved that in 1854 when central London experienced an outbreak of cholera. In searching for a way to arrest the spread of the sickness, Snow, a local physician, took a map of the area where the deaths occurred and plotted with dots the residence of everyone who had died of cholera. He also marked the location of the public water pumps in the area. His map indicated that many of the deaths were clustered around the Broad Street water pump. Upon discovering this, he had the handle of the pump removed and thus ended the cholera that had claimed more than 500 lives in that area.

Medical researchers have used maps ever since to track the spread of disease and to indicate where public health efforts should be concentrated.

This module was adapted from information in James Glen Stovall, Infographics: A Journalist’s Guide, Allyn and Bacon, 1997.

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