Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Just for Reference

At one time, besides performing some business analytics, displaying and conveying information graphically was a task I had at work. No surprise I fell into the influence of one Edward R. Tufte. In fact, I, and a few co-workers, attended his one-day course. The same one Wired referred to as,

“One visionary day….the insights of this class lead to new levels of understanding both for creators and viewers of visual displays.”

I even created a couple of small web pages at the job for the purpose of disseminating some of that program. Sadly, what’s left of these are going away (along with the server that hosted them), but I thought to share and keep the one that started it all here for those out there who enjoy this kind of thing.



(click to enlarge)

Arguably the best statistical graphic ever, this chart was created by the French engineer Charles Joseph Minard (1781-1870). It shows the terrible fate that befell the French army in the Patriotic War of 1812 in a combination of data map and time series (originally drawn in 1861).

“Described by E.J. Marey as seeming to defy the pen of the historian by its brutal eloquence…”

Six variables are plotted: the size of the army, its location on a two-dimensional surface, direction of the army’s movement, and temperature on various dates during the Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812.

Beginning at the left on the Polish-Russian border near the Niemen River, the thick band shows the size of the army (422,000 men) as it invaded Russia in June 1812. The width of the band indicates the size of the army at each place on the map. In September, the army reached Moscow with 100,000 men.

The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow is depicted by the darker, lower band, which is linked to a temperature scale and dates at the bottom of the chart (and traces a bitterly cold winter and its devastating results on the retreat). The crossing of the Berezine River being a particularly disastrous one.

At the end, Napoleon arrived back in Poland with only 10,000 men.

Source: “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” by Edward R. Tufte

2 Responses to “Just for Reference”

  1. Rachel

    Fantastic! When acting as a teacher or tutor I have always stressed the importance of the ability to “read” charts and graphs. This is especially important for scientists and it’s amazing to me how difficult it is for some people. I think the skill of assimilating information in this way is not always stressed as it should be (perhaps falling under the umbrella of general literacy being a falling statistic in our country). Also, though, it’s almost an art to bring together lots of information in one CLEAR graphic. That, too, is an important skill that many people need to learn. This is a great example!


    • le0pard13

      Great comment, Rachel! Wonderfully put, too. I’d agree putting something together to convey data/information is an art form. Many thanks for the thought and context, my friend.



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