Most Beautiful Charts In History

Smoot-Hawley Spiral


The flawed protectionist measure enacted in 1930, known as Smoot-Hawley Act led to decreased international trade and furthered the Great Depression. The full disastrous effects of the act are usually portrayed in economic text books with an ugly spiderweb chart, which serves as a silent testament to the perils of protectionism.

Salyut Cyclogram


Very similar to Minard’s famed charts (see below), this chart is handmade by a Russian cosmonaut, Georgi Grechko. The ‘cyclogram’ shows a 96-day flight of Salyut 6. Some 22 parallel time-series show 1500 sunrises and 1500 sunsets during the flight, a schedule for space walks and baths, and visits of resupply ships bringing equipment, fresh fruit, and gingerbread.

Harry Beck’s London Underground


Before Harry Beck, the underground lines are superimposed on road maps. However, it was Harry Beck who came up with the idea of creating a full system map in color, doing away with the geographical accuracy. Predicting that passengers riding the trains were not too bothered by those accuracies, Beck drew his famous diagram, a cross between a electrical schematic and a map, on which all the stations were more or less equally spaced. Initially scoffed by the authorities, the map gained popularity with the commuters and has since been copied by many underground services around the world.

Orbis Terrae Maps


Describing the world as noted by St. Isidore of Seville in the 7th century, Orbis Terrae (or T and O map) represented the top-half of the spherical Earth–a convenient projection which included only the northern temperate (and inhabited) half of the globe. The T is the Mediterranean, dividing the three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa, and the O is the encircling Ocean. Jerusalem was generally represented in the center of the map. Asia was typically the size of the other two continents combined. Because the sun rose in the east, Paradise (the Garden of Eden) was generally depicted as being in Asia, which was posited at the top portion of the map. The most famous specimen of this T-O map are Mappa Mundi–the maps made during the middle ages.

Nightingale’s Coxcomb


At a dinner party in 1856 that Florence Nightingale met William Farr, the Compiler of Abstracts in the General Registry Office. Together, they complied a mortality table, listing causes of death in the general population–a novel concept popularized by Farr. Nightingale compared Farr’s numbers with her own and created a chart which noted that even in peacetime a soldier faced twice the risk of dying in a given year as a civilian due to bad conditions in barracks. The 1858 graph (now known as “Nightingale’s Rose” or “Nightingale’s Coxcomb”) was a stunning visual graphic that revealed that it wasn’t wounds killing the highest number of soldiers – it was infections.

Playfair Wheat Chart


William Playfair pioneered the first “pie chart” in 1801. It showed that, compared to other countries, the British paid more tax. Altogether, Playfair invented four types of diagrams now taken for granted in statistics: line graph, bar chart, pie chart, and circle graph. One of the first people to use data not just to educate but also to persuade and convince, Playfair compared the “weekly wages of a good mechanic” and the “price of a quarter of wheat” over time in 1821 to cast a light on the straining wheat prices. His overwhelming success in statastics didn’t prevent him from being profiled as “an engineer, political economist and scoundrel”, by Victorian biographers who remembered him mainly for his speculative get-rich-quick schemes.

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign


“The best statistical graphic ever drawn“ noted the statistician Edward Tufte. Indeed, Charles Jospeh Minard (1781-1870) created more than fifty memorable “cartes figurative” but this one [“Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Français dans la campagne de Russe 1812-1813”] depicting the advance into and retreat from Russia by Napoleon’s Grande Armée “defies the pen of the historian by its brutal eloquence.” (Marey, 1878) The map unites six different sets of data: geography, the army’s path, its direction, the number of soliders, temperature (in the republican measurement of degrees of réaumur) and time. [Napoleon entered Russia with 442,000 men, took Moscow with only 100,000 men, only to escape the Russian winter with barely 10,000 soldiers, which included 6.000 returning soldiers from the north.]


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