New Book: “The Minard System” (Fall 2018)

Charles-Joseph Minard was the engineer behind THE most famous historical infographic: The flow map tracing the loss in soldiers during Napoleon’s Russian campaign in 1812/13. Drawn and printed in 1869, the map was only the last of Minard’s sixty large format statistical maps.

For the first time, my book presents all data maps by Minard’s hand and creates a coherent and comprehensive picture of his life and work from archival evidence, his own writings and information from secondary literature.

The French civil engineer Charles-Joseph Minard, whose long life spanned the final years before the French Revolution through the latter half of the nineteenth century, left behind an impressive body of statistical graphics and maps. Motivated by the intellectual problems he encountered during his professional practice, Minard embarked on a quest to create compelling visualizations to support the analysis of statistical results. He conducted in-depth studies over many decades, and his efforts finally led him to create one of the most famous information graphics ever made: a statistical map of Napoléon’s Russian campaign of 1812.

This work has stood out from Minard’s extensive oeuvre for a long time and continues to do so today. Its fame has even produced some curious mementos, such as a T-shirt featuring the Napoléon flow (currently available, along with other Minard-related merchandise, in several online shops).1 With its singular rhetorical power, the graphic is often treated as an isolated effort, which ignores the fact that Minard had originally published it alongside a second campaign map recounting an event from antiquity. Much of this selective fame can be traced back to the enthusiastic praise that the American statistician and political scientist Edward Tufte bestowed on this graphic. He reasoned that “it may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn,” and published a facsimile of it. Tufte, through his groundbreaking books on the principles of designing statistical graphics, can be credited with having brought the work of Minard to the attention of a wider contemporary audience.

Several scholars and historians—namely Étienne-Jules Marey, Howard Gray Funkhouser, Arthur Howard Robinson, François de Dainville, Josef W. Konvitz, Gilles Palsky, and Michael Friendly—provided accounts of Minard’s oeuvre of statistical maps. Unfortunately, despite these historians’ groundbreaking work, many of Minard’s maps have remained unknown to the broader public; all the while, general interest in the history of thematic mapping and statistical graphics has grown exponentially following the surge in information visualization since the 1990s.

The book explores the following questions: What is the “Minard system”? What prompted Minard to develop this method? What lucky coincidences were involved in creating such a large body of work? What obstacles did he encounter in visualizing data in this manner? And when and why did he resort to other visualization methods?

The introductory essay highlights the major influences that shaped Minard’s intellectual life and set the stage for his oeuvre of statistical graphics. The catalog presents a complete collection of Minard’s statistical graphics as well as detailed documentation of his technical drawings. This book thus creates an integrated view that will allow for a thorough account of Minard’s studies in statistical visualization, and that aims to make the conditions and results of his efforts known to a larger public.

The project was a collaboration between the École nationale des ponts et chaussées, an engineering college in Paris to which Minard had lifelong close relations, and Princeton Architectural Press. It was released on November 6, 2018. A preview containing the preface of the book is available on Visionscarto. Here is a selection of press reviews announcing the book:

The DIRT blog by the American Society of Landscape Architects
American Scientist
Scientific American