Lecture 3 – Historical & Contemporary Visualisation Part 1

Essentially, we use visualisation as a way to present complex data that enables our audience to grasp the complexities with the least amount of work possible.

The lecture began by discussing the story of the Napoleon Russian campaign.

Screenshot 2016-08-05 13.21.59
(Prianishnikov, 1812)

In short form, in the middle of 1812 Napoleons grand army of over 400,000 men headed towards Mascou. They found a city that had been completely evacuated and stripped with all its supplies, which gave them no choice but to retreat. However, supplying the army on the way back was nearly impossible, mainly because of the terrible weather conditions. Starvation and disease took a toll on these soldiers, in addition, roughly 10,000 of the 400,000 of Napoleon men survived the Russian campaign.

Screenshot 2016-08-05 13.48.11
(Minnard, 1860)

Here is another view of that same event, which was created by a French engineer – it was made 50 years after the event in the 1860s. There is a 900km difference between the start and end of the beige and black lines, which is the start and end of the soldiers journey. This diagram displays seven different variables in this 2D image. The thickness of the lines indicate the strength of the army as indicated by the red numbers, which display the disintegration in soldiers as the trip began and finished.
The lower portion of the image is a graph, which reads from right to left, this shows the temperature on this backward retreat that the army made through Russia. The vertical lines that are going from the temperature points are connecting the temperature to the location of the army at that certain time. It starts at zero degrees in Moscou to -30 degrees towards the end of the retreat. Overall, this image simply presents how the retreat went from bad to worse and is a great way for an audience to analyse and make comparisons.

The lecture then went on to discuss another war called the Crimean War, 1858. In short, there was a war between the Russians and alliance of Europeans including the British and the old ottoman empire. It was also famous for the work of Florence Nightingale, a nurse during that period. She helped the wounded of the war and during this time took records of the death toll in the hospitals as evidence of the importance of patient welfare. Eventually, she turned the evidence int graphs to put an argument against the British military commanders.

Here is the original version of Nightingale’s monographs:

Screenshot 2016-08-05 14.05.47
(Nightingale, 1858)

Here is a modified version:

Screenshot 2016-08-05 14.06.33
Modified version of Nightingale (1858)

They each display the causes of mortality in the army in the east as well as reveal that the major cause of death was caused not by the Russians but disease (as seen in blue).

Screenshot 2016-08-05 14.19.32

Modified version of Nightingale (1858)

With a closer look, we can understand that the green is 3x larger than the red and the blue is 32x larger – therefore, troops were dying from disease at 32x the rate they were dying from battle wounds. This allowed Nightingale to prove the importance of patient welfare. Overall, these graphs are great for presenting key variables. Here is an example of a bar chart made from Nightingale’s graphs, which, is another way (maybe better and clearer way) she could have presented her argument.

Screenshot 2016-08-05 14.23.30

(“Nightingale’s ‘Coxcombs’ | Understanding Uncertainty”, 2016)

The lecture then went on to discuss Otto Neurath who was a pioneer in social politics in Vienna. He had a museum there called the Museum for Society and The Economy, which had a mission to make social and economical relationships understandable through various visualisations. Neurath developed a system called ISOTYPE (International System Of Typographic Picture Education). This focused on multiple images such as the figures seen below which were to portray certain quantities in a linear formation.

Screenshot 2016-08-05 14.41.59
(Neurath, 1932)

The photos on the left give you an idea of the industrial scale of the operation producing these charts such as, in-grave letter press plates and a production worker cutting out the copies of the icon.

It was interesting to look back at the graphs used in the earlier days and see how their ideas, tools and designs have been modified to organise the complexity of data today. However, with the tools they had, the visualisation designers of that time did an excellent job in creating graphs to present an argument, state facts and allow their audience to analyse and make comparisons in a clever manner.


Cmielewski, L. (Speaker). 2016. Lecture Pod 03: Historical & Contemporary Visualisation Part 1 [Vimeo video]. Western Sydney University.

Nightingale’s ‘Coxcombs’ | Understanding Uncertainty. (2016). Understandinguncertainty.org. Retrieved 11 October 2016, from https://understandinguncertainty.org/coxcombs


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