Saturday, 1 December 2018

Data man

Charles-Joseph Minard wasn't the first data graphics designer to utilise flow maps, on page eight there is what's considered the first, an 1837 map showing railway traffic in Ireland designed by Henry Harness. Minard (1781-1870) is usually considered to be the person who really developed the flow map and chart idea in the eighteenth century and this fascinating book has the complete collection of his statistical graphics: sixty-one in all.

Minard was alive during a huge change in technology with the expansion of rail and maritime transport, the telegraph and other machines that were changing peoples lives in Europe. Industry produces statistics and Minard, though trained as an engineer, thought this sort of data would be better understood in a visual format. The book has plenty of maps (all in color) that show how he developed his flow ideas and intriguingly how data dictated the geography of Europe in his work. For example, map forty-one  about the export of coal from England in 1860 has a flow width so large that the English Channel is far wider than reality. This is because, on the original printed map, one millimetre represented five thousand tonnes. All the flow maps in the book have information presented in this tight, precise style.

One really nice feature in the book are several sequential series of maps, pages fifty-three to sixty-one has maps showing the transport of fuel in France from 1845 to 1860 using six maps (plus two enlargements to study the detail) and they clearly show how Minard interpreted the increase in fuel transport.

Though nothing to do with Minard there are some odd data details here and there throughout the pages. Great ports of the globe from 1861 has proportional circles scaled to the amount of tonnage in each port.  Liverpool, London and Constantinople handled the most but tiny Saint Helena (where Napoleon was exiled) in the south Atlantic and incredibly remote handled more tonnage than Baltimore or Halifax in Canada.

The book is beautifully produced from Minard's originals held by the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees in Paris and though all the work is in French the panels of text on the maps and charts have all been translated and the author has written lengthy captions to each illustration. Needless to say there is a reproduction, over a spread, of Napoleon's  disastrous 1812-13 Russian campaign.

Information designers and the general reader will find The Minard system a  worthwhile visual treat.

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