The history of timelines

The earliest timelines, published in the 1500s and 1600s, were difficult-to-follow mashups that attempted to place all of human history into a list of numbers or an elaborate graphical metaphor. (I imagine the people who made these being somewhat stoned ... "So the fourth millennium before the birth of Christ was totally like a dragon! Here, let me show you ...")

By the 19th century, though, the art of the timeline had progressed significantly, and people like French engineer Charles Joseph Minard were creating infographics that look recognizably like infographics. This one, from 1869, traces the routes taken by Hannibal on his march through the Alps and Napoleon on his march into Russia, showing, through the thickness of the bars, how both armies dwindled during the journey.

This is from a great collection of historic timelines published on The Morning News website. Definitely worth flipping through the entire slideshow!

Via Philip Bump


  1. These timelines look like they were taken from “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” by Edward R. Tufte.  (A very good book and highly recommended.)

    1. The amount of information in that latter timeline is mindboggling. It shows the size of the army vs time, some geography, the distance from France, the fucking weather! It’s amazing. Where’s the Visio template for this?

      1. A major point of Tufte’s work is concerned with data resolution. A basic timeline with events superimposed on a graphic depiction of dates along an axis is a low-resolution figure. We only learn when certain things happened. He believes that any information designer worth his or her salt will provide at least two (and perhaps more) levels of resolution, and that anything less is a waste of space.

        He uses the Napoleonic march to Moscow as an example of high resolution- as you point out, we learn a lot more about that journey than one element by studying the figure.

    2. I love that book, and I love that map even more – it’s beautiful! And one of the very first examples of a graph, too.

      Highly recommend Tufte’s book for anyone trying to visualise large quantities of data (there’s a fantastic star map in there too), or anyone who’s ever been frustrated by people demanding that all numbers be displayed with a pie or bar chart.

  2. For anyone interested in maps or information design, I heartily recommend buying their book  It’s beautifully put together, one of my favorite cartography books.  Now that GIS software has evolved to a new level of integrating time and space, these design ideas are especially worth revisiting for inspiration.

    p.s.  I like this even better than Tufte’s books.

  3. Just as a point of interest, the explanation of the Napoleon time line is a bit too simple. The table shows in brown the population of Napoleon’s army on their march to Moscow, while the incredibly fast dwindling black line displays the French on their retreat.

    1. Funny how the megalomaniacal pretenders to world domination ignore the historic outcomes of invading Russia in the fall. 

  4. Someone really should do an infographic timeline of infographic timelines,  which could then place a smaller version of itself at the end.

    1. Yo dawg I heard you like timelines, so I put a timeline in your timeline so you can visualize chronology while you visualize chronology!

  5. When I see that Napoleonic one I feel like I’m watching men in rags trying to cross a half-frozen river.

  6. For those interested in mapping, the above two maps (along with 68 others that do similar, but not identical mapping tasks) are on display at Northeastern University’s Snell Library in the traveling Places and Spaces: Mapping Science exhibition. Very cool exhibit!

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