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.
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.
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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I’ve come across a mystery. I recently acquired a manuscript map of France with a (from what I can discern) mountains comparative panel at the bottom. Unfortunately I do not read French so I have to make some guesses about it.
It is on very thin paper, possibly onionskin paper, mounted on a secondary thicker page. The lines on the map are fine and well executed. It appears that drainage basins are shaded in pastels (possibly political divisions–perhaps a reader with better knowledge of France can clarify, but because the shaded areas follow mountain ranges, I suspect they are watersheds). The bottom of the map features a comparative panel of mountains similar to an anonymous Portuguese map from 1824, the orological line, along with a hydrological line; the mountains are grouped by range in a valley sort. The cartouche bears “Em Jeanmaire & C 1853”, telling us an approximate production date (approximate because this is more of a “no earlier than” date).
The thin paper suggests that all or part of the map was a tracing of another map. Residual, faint lines are visible in the border, as well as overruns, further indicating this is a manuscript piece.
The orological line clearly shows the heights of mountains within the range. The line both takes the shape of peaks and the corresponding heights on in the adjacent data tables are consistent with mountains. The hydrological line is vexing. I suspect it is the heights of rivers, but my attempt at translating “parlage” turned up “chatter”, which, without understanding French, doesn’t make sense to me.
If you understand French, please fill in some of the gaps for me!
Comparatives were popular through most of the 19th century, published across western Europe, the United States, and later in Japan. Comparative views evolved constantly as new information became available, as publishers sought new ways to differentiate their atlases, and as new ideas in data visualization emerged. Whereas the works of European and American cartographers’ drove the changes in the genre, Humboldt, Bertuch, and Perthes were standouts as innovative German publishers of comparative views.
Alexander von Humboldt shook up scientific data presentation when, in 1805, he published Geographic der Pflanzen in den Tropenlandern, ein Naturgemalde der Anden documenting his findings from his exploration of Mount Chimborazo in present day Ecuador. It was unique in that it displayed information corresponding to altitudes in relative position on a cross-section of a map. In the margins of the graphic he further annotated observations of physical phenomena and their corresponding altitudes. Where this style of visualization seems commonplace to 21st century information consumers, it was hardly such at the time; in the early 1800s visual display of data was in its infancy.
Learning of Humboldt’s chart and inspired by Goethe, Friedrich Bertuch prepared his Hohen der Alten in about 1810, publishing it in his Bilderbuch, a children’s encyclopedic volume. That he published it at all, what he displayed, and that it appeared in a children’s book, are important facts. That he published it signifies the embrace of the Humboldt’s cross sectional style as a means of describing occurrences at various heights. His view took a landscape form, with mountains arranged as though viewed from afar, generally with the larger mountains to the sides and background of the image, but didn’t end there. Stick figures show Humboldt and de Suassure on Mounts Chimborazo and Blanc, respectively, a crocodile at sea level, and Gay-Lussac aloft on his record setting balloon flight. By going beyond just mountain heights to show human accomplishments, Bertuch both ties human scale and geologic scale, as well as uses the comparative as a device to showcase human accomplishment. Plants and animals appearing on the comparative pull forward the thread that Humboldt wove whereby mountains are re-imagined as not just inert monoliths, but as parts of dynamic, living systems. By including his view in a children’s book, he recognized that this genre makes complex information accessible in a simple and easy to understand format.
Die Benkannteren Hoehen uber der Meeres Flache in Transparenten Profilen by Perthes is unlike the other comparatives. Mountains comparatives typically show their subjects side by side in descending order or in an overlaid descending sort. Perthes, on the other hand, shows the mountains overlaid in transparency so that one can see the contours of the mountains instead of them being obstructed by the mountains in the foreground, or reduced to conic figures. This innovation is noteworthy in that it signifies an interest in the entire mountain, rather than the peak in isolation. It also represented an innovation built on the line graph, placing geographic location on the x-axis. Interestingly, and perhaps because Perthes published this as the comparative genre was at its apex, this style of comparative never took hold.
To be sure, these German cartographers (or scientist in Humboldt’s case) made great contributions to the comparative view as a style between inspiring, giving rise to, and redefining the charts. They by no means were the only innovators: Darton in 1823 produced the first compound comparative, showing both mountains and rivers in the same panel; the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge published a unique circular rivers comparative; and Mitchell was possibly the first to add comparative elements to globular projections. All told however, their pieces are testimony to the good work coming out of German cartography.
Their A Comparative View of the Heights of the Principal Mountains and Other Elevations in the World is just that: a gorgeous view of a mountain landscape. I use view in this context to mean a picturesque scene (think Hudson River School) rather than the more ‘technical‘ presentation that emerged later.
That all the features to be compared are shown in a single panel is important. Whereas these were western cartographers, the European mountain ranges are diminutive compared to those of Asia. In subsequent comparatives the mountains of each of the eastern and western hemispheres are shown in separate panels, even separate pages, and in the technical presentation; some of the later comparatives even show them in distinct panels by continent. Grouping the peaks in a single view invites intercontinental comparison that separate panels or pages discourage. Moreover, a single view prevents the cartographer from using differing scales that might ‘puff up’ the appearance of the European or New World ranges. This is again treated here, as well. In this sense, while it is completely false to show the world’s major peaks (save those, like Everest, which hadn’t been measured) within thousands of feet of each other, use of a uniform scale allows Thomson and Lizars to stake a claim to one of the most accurate comparatives.
Thomson and Lizars also establish the standard among comparatives of including man’s accomplishments as points of reference in addition to those of the natural world. The first feat of man, in the chronological order in which they occurred, to be shown in this view are cities themselves. Uruk, one of the earliest cities, was formed about 4500 BCE. The capacity to build cities being one of the defining criteria of a civilization, that these are shown is both a statement that man is different from the rest of the natural world, and that we are able to conquer the extreme elements of life at altitude.
The Great Pyramids follow as the next landmark, in both geographic and engineering senses. They show a mastery of tools and materials, written language, burial of the dead, and religion. All traits that separate humans from other animals (or are perceived to separate us, as evidence has emerged that other species use tools and bury their dead).
Humboldt’s South American expedition is the next accomplishment featured. In 1799 he set off from Spain on a 5 year exploration of Latin America. A scientist, his travels generated much knowledge, and his presentation of his geological and biological findings in Geography of Plants set the stage for this comparative, where he is shown climbing Chimborazo, the subject of the aforementioned. Humboldt’s ascent is evidence of the recent shift to a scientific mindset during the Enlightenment. In this way, man conquered his own naivety.
Gay-Lussac’s historic balloon flight of 1804 is recognized at the center of the view, and as higher than the flight of the condor. I won’t say more about this, other than it’s remarkable that he pulled it off, as I will cover it in a subsequent post.
Thomson and Lizars’ comparative is a masterpiece both for its beauty, accuracy, and the arguments about human accomplishments it presents.