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Charts from 4 historical heroes

Florence Nightingale, taking notes.
Florence Nightingale, taking notes.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

The explosion of charts and graphs in the internet era makes it easy to believe they're a new phenomenon. But chart fans have been around for hundreds of years — ever since early pioneers like Joseph Priestley and others (Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Priestley's historical charts in his library).

These four historical figures loved to use charts and graphs long before the days of spreadsheets and inkjet printers. They believed visuals were the best way to tell their stories, and the fact that their charts endure today might prove they were right.

1) Florence Nightingale made charts that saved lives

Florence Nightingale's chart

Florence Nightingale's most famous chart.

Florence Nightingale's career as a caregiver was iconic. Called the "Lady With the Lamp" because of her late-night rounds among injured soldiers during the Crimean War, she professionalized nursing and became a folk hero in the Victorian era.

But that reputation ignores her equally significant work during peacetime — with charts.

In 1858, after the Crimean War ended, Nightingale wrote Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army. Her postmortem on the Crimean War had a clear objective: to convince the military that improving the everyday health of soldiers was just as important as treating the injuries they suffered on the battlefield. The book was far ahead of its time: it had charts, graphs, and even side notes that make it look like a modern-day Medium post.

Her charts, known today as Nightingale's Coxcombs, showed that soldiers faced as many dangers in barracks, through unsanitary conditions in cramped quarters, as they did on the battlefield. In the chart above, for example, preventable deaths are represented in blue.

And Nightingale's many charts worked. After she sent her report to the War Office, conditions improved, and she worked on sanitation problems both in the UK and abroad.

2) W.E.B. Du Bois argued his case using amazing maps

W.E.B. DuBois's unique map.

W.E.B. Du Bois' unique map. (Library of Congress)

In addition to cofounding the NAACP and being an influential public intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois created charts that analyzed African-American life in the 1900s. As a professor at Atlanta University, he sought to modernize the field of sociology for a statistical era.

Du Bois and his students presented an innovative set of graphics, colored by hand, at the 1900 Paris World's Fair. The below chart, for example, depicted marriage rates among African Americans by age, showing their changing relationship status.

W.E.B. Dubois's chart of changing relationship statuses.

W.E.B. Du Bois' chart of changing relationship statuses. (Library of Congress)

All the charts played with innovative ways to represent data. This chart shows how large the African-American population in the United States was by contrasting it with the total population of other countries. It's a trope familiar to any infographic fan.

W.E.B. DuBois's chart of populations worldwide.

W.E.B. Du Bois' chart of populations worldwide. (Library of Congress)

3) Ben Franklin used charts to demonstrate his productivity

Ben Franklin's highly productive chart.

Ben Franklin's highly productive chart. (Franklin's autobiography)

Ben Franklin's autobiography contains multiple charts, which he used to spice up his text. For example, in the above chart he kept track of how rigorously he adhered to different virtues each day of the week. Those virtues were:

  1. Temperance
  2. Silence
  3. Order
  4. Resolution
  5. Frugality
  6. Industry
  7. Sincerity
  8. Justice
  9. Moderation
  10. Cleanliness
  11. Tranquility
  12. Chastity
  13. Humility

Each time Franklin fell short, he put a dot in the box (apparently Ben was more chaste than most of us realized — or at least his charts were).

Franklin also made a chart that serves as a companion to his famous maxim "early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." In it, he graphs each hour with its appropriate behaviors.

Ben Franklin's daily chart.

Ben Franklin's daily chart. (Franklin's autobiography)

Franklin's charts weren't purely for personal productivity, however. With Timothy Folger, Franklin made one of the first extensive charts of the Gulf Stream, showing the route of the current as it affected Nantucket whalers.

4) Teddy Roosevelt used charts to win the presidency

Teddy Roosevelt was probably more interested in maps than charts. He and his son Kermit traveled extensively to help map the "River of Doubt" in Brazil (today known as the Roosevelt River). But he also used charts to advance his cause.

In 1901, Vice President Roosevelt had become president after William McKinley's assassination. In 1904, he was running for another term with the campaign slogan "Stand Pat!" He used this chart to make his case.

Teddy Roosevelt's "Stand Pat" chart

Teddy Roosevelt's "Stand Pat" chart was complicated. (Library of Congress)

The chart contrasts the dismal US economy under the Democratic administration of Grover Cleveland (1893–1896) with the improved economy under the Republican McKinley and Roosevelt administrations (1897–1904).

Does the argument make sense? It depends how you look at it — during Cleveland's second administration, there was a huge Republican landslide in Congress, which muddies the waters over who really controlled the country. But regardless of its historical accuracy, it's a good early example of a chart making a political argument.

It probably won't be the last one, either.

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