The Infographic Forefather (1842)

Posted: November 12th, 2012 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

In November 2011, I wrote a post on the recent and astonishing popularity of these long graphical strips, commonly known as infographics. In the same post I showed 42 samples that people submitted to Visual Complexity over the period of roughly a year (see sample below).

It’s particularly interesting to recall that less than four years ago the term infographic used to cover any type of chart, graph, diagram, histogram, table or illustration conveying a specific data attribute. We called it simply, an information graphic. But over the past few years, the expression has become closely associated with a long vertical table encompassing a variety of graphical elements, such as maps, uncanny clip art, miscellaneous charts, large text and bulky numbers. This association is currently so strong that it seems almost impossible to keep the two concepts apart. Consequently, the recent outburst of popularity of infographics has caused the emergence of various companies dedicated almost exclusively to the production of this type of graphic for private clients, institutions, blogs, and mainstream media; making it arguably one the strongest economic forces within the information design landscape.

But as with many other types of contemporary graphics, the idea in itself is not entirely novel. The papyrus roll from Ancient Egypt, the direct ancestor of the modern book, is conceivably also the ancient forefather of modern infographics. Consisting of papyrus sheets pasted edge to edge with a slight overlap, the text and graphics was set out in columns, and drawn up at right angles to the edge of the rolls. Even though most papyrus were meant to be read from left to right, unrolling them as the reader went along, some also explored a vertical top-down linear narrative. This concept was further propelled across Middle Age Europe, where scholars were at loss trying to integrate all the new knowledge coming from the ancient world, and biblical exegesis was evolving from a simple allegorical division to a complex analytical process. During this stage we can witness a variety of parchment scrolls employing a diagrammatic representation of  biblical tales, family trees, systems of law, knowledge maps, amongst many other topics. On the left we can see two compelling medieval specimens. The first on the left is a small part of a remarkable genealogy of Christ from circa 1130-1205, while the second is a depiction of the genealogical tree of the House of Habsburg, circa 1540.

But out of all the cases I’ve seen in the past, the chart below is perhaps one of the best examples of a prototypical infographic and a strong progenitor of such a concept, abundantly explored in the last few years. This 19th century piece is showcased in the magnificent book The Cartographies of Time, published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2010.

Printed by Joshua Himes in 1842, A Chronological Chart of the Visions of Daniel and John, integrates the visual logic of the timeline, chronological calculus and apocalyptic symbolism in a single scheme. The final date in the left-hand column, 1843, indicates the coming of the end of the world. As BibliOdyssey explains in a post: “This infographic is based on the religious revivalist predictions of the New England minister, William Miller. From the 1830s, Miller’s followers produced stirring books, pamphlets, broadsides and innovative graphics to spread the word of the coming apocalypse, often displayed and distributed at popular camp meetings.”

The resemblance with modern-day infographics is primarily based on three features: (1) The portrayal of a specific story or topic in a long top-down graphical layout. (2) The use of specific illustrations or clip art (in the case of present-day versions) with complementary text to better elucidate the various components of the subject. (3) The inclusion of large numbers to convey specific quantities pertaining to the analyzed topic.

Here’s a comparison of the 1834 chart next to two modern infographic approaches: