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    Do you know that… historical events can be conveyed through chart?

    Data science is believed to have emerged in the last few decades. You will be surprised to know, however, that one of the most notable examples of using different types of data for concepts visualisation dates back to the 19th century.

    “Of all the attempts to convey the futility of Napoleon’s attempt to invade Russia and the utter destruction of his Grande Armee in the last months of 1812, no written work or painting presents such a compelling picture as does Minard’s graphic.”

    John Corbett

    Minard’s map depicting the collapse of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in the Russian campaign was created by French civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard in 1869. The graphic depicts the march of the French troops from the Neman River, where the march to Russia began, to Moscow and back at retreat. The graph visualizes six different quantitative variables simultaneously:

    • Size of the army: the army numbers and changes in them are depicted by the width of the two main lines in the graph, with 1mm corresponding to 10 000 soldiers. At the beginning of the campaign, Napoleon’s army numbered 422 000, and only 10 000 returned.
    • Coordinates: the location of the lines corresponds to the latitude and longitude of the army as it moved, as well as its location in relation to key cities and rivers.
    • Direction of the army movement: advancing movement is shown in red (appearing pale orange on the image), and retreating movement is shown in black.
    • The distance travelled by the army: evident from the scale given in common French leagues.
    • Location of the army with respect to time: several dates are marked at the bottom of the graph, against which it is easy to establish the pace of movement of the army during the retreat.
    • Temperature: along with the dates, Minard also indicates the temperature on certain days by connecting this data in a temperature curve.

    All these indicators, presented not only numerically, but also visually, make it possible to simultaneously perceive and understand the multiple factors that led to the almost complete destruction of Napoleon’s army.

    As Minard himself conceded, “The aim of my carte figurative is less to express statistical results, better done by numbers, than to convey promptly to the eye the relation not given quickly by numbers requiring mental calculation.”

    Charles Minard is considered one of the pioneers of statistical data visualization. He is the author of a number of charts and maps in which he applies innovative data visualization techniques such as pie charts, choropleth maps and proportional sizing of symbols to express relationships.


    Corbett, John. Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon’s March. https://web.archive.org/web/20030619011958/http://www.csiss.org/classics/content/58

    Kraak, Menno-Jan. Mapping Time: Illustrated by Minard’s Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812. https://www.esri.com/content/dam/esrisites/en-us/esri-press/pdfs/mapping-time-illustrated-minards-map-napoleons-russian-campaign-1812-sample-chapter.pdf

    Tufte, Edward. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. http://faculty.salisbury.edu/~jtanderson/teaching/cosc311/fa21/files/tufte.pdf

    Illustration: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=297925

    Author: camenscic