It’s a Mountain, It’s a Graph!

Look at news on the stock market or a weather forecast and chances are good that you’ll see a column graph. We take graphs for granted; they’re ubiquitous. But such was not always the case–in the late 18th century and early 19th they were revolutionary, on the cutting edge of data communication, William Playfair having just developed them.

The heights of a column graph’s bars correspond to the values plotted. When it comes to showing heights of various objects, column graphs are ideally suited as the bars physically (schematically, at least) mimic the phenomenon depicted with bar height representing object height. Of course, this is a map blog, not a graph blog; I’m interested in the graph style comparative view, where mountain or river glyphs replace the columns of a graph, with the size of each corresponding to actual height or length.

The earliest comparative view of either the graph or vista style dates from approximately 1800.

The Moon from Bertuch's Bilderbuch. Note the comparative features at the bottom, showing mountains of Earth, the Moon, and Venus. (Photo: own work)

Bertuch’s Moon from his Bilderbuch, a children’s encyclopedia, with its graph style comparative at the bottom, is an enigma. No doubt influenced by Playfair’s graphs, he reports the heights of mountains (with some inaccuracies) in graphs where the “bars” are actually tiny mountain figures. In a later edition, probably about 10 years subsequent, he published a vista style comparative. Vista style comparatives, while gorgeous, are less effective in that their design doesn’t automatically instruct the reader to make comparisons.

Hohen der Alten by Bertuch, c1810. Possibly the first comparative view of the early style, showing mountains of the old and new worlds. (Own work)

Why the switch? We can chalk this up to Goethe’s influence, which was in turn inspired by Humboldt. Goethe saw Humboldt’s proto comparative Geography of Plants and mimicked the format in his vista style comparative of old and new world mountains. Bertuch, Goethe’s associate, liked the idea and ran with it in his Hohen der Alten. It was this piece that gave rise to the period of vista style comparatives.

What style of comparative do you favor?

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© Peter Roehrich, 2016