Is this History's First Infographic? (It's Stunning)
Alexander von Humboldt, one of the most prodigious explorers in human history, and inspired by a very tall Ecuadorian volcano, made one of the first infographics.
On June 5, 1799 Alexander von Humboldt left La Coruña, Spain, on a ship called the Pizarro. He would not return to Europe until 1804, after traveling more than 10 thousand kilometers in the Americas on one of the most exhaustive voyages to record the climates, mountains, flora, fauna and natural resources. Humboldt arrived in Quito in 1802 and made several ascents into the Ecuadorian Andes where he studied the Chimborazo volcano, one of the highest in the world. As a result of his observations, he made the Naturgemälde, a “painting of nature,” a diagram and a work of art that might be considered history’s first infographic.
The scheme, in its methodical precision, shows a cross-section of the volcano, describing its zones and vegetations. Hundreds of plant species are meticulously listed, in a strange exercise which seems to turn words into plants. Then the strange map provides information on the altitude, air pressure, light refraction, atmospheric electricity, humidity, soil quality, and a few scientific parameters considered obsolete today – as for example, measurements of the blue of the sky made with a forgotten instrument called the cyanometer.
Humboldt’s diagram was intended for explorers like himself. It contains information about the variations in temperature according to the altitude, the thickness of the snow, and wildlife inhabiting every area of the volcano. These were indications for those who might like to follow his same path to the top of Chimborazo. The level of detail in Humboldt’s graphic is overwhelming and invites the reader to spend hours lost in its specificity. Humboldt was able to capture in it the power of the visual as a tool for learning and understanding, and he demonstrated his own ability to translate the abstract into the concrete (an ability that Fritz Kahn, the father of the infographic, would bring to its maximum expression later in the 20th-century).
Humboldt, one of history’s last true polymaths, still dazzles. As a traveler, he brought with him an extraordinary mind; geographer, astronomer, humanist, and naturalist, and he reached, in climbing the Chimborazo volcano, the highest altitude anyone had reached until that time and managed to describe it in an infographic in which the very line between art and science is confused.
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