Reading about Alexander von Humboldt’s scientific voyage in South America, I stumbled upon his Naturgemälde (“painting of nature”) which he drew after almost conquering the summit of Chimborazo in Ecuador in 1802.
It shows a cross section of Chimborazo, arguably the highest mountain in the world, with different vegetation zones. Hundreds, if not thousands of plants are listed in a lovingly detailed manner. (If you click on the photo, you can view an enormous resolution of 15,000 x 10,000. Now you only need a good printer, and you’ll have a beautiful poster for your living room.)
Plus information about altitude, air pressure, refraction, electrical appearances, humidity, soil quality and plenty of other scientific parameters that I never heard of. (What the heck is a cyanometer?) But it also lists useful information for hikers, like temperatures at different altitudes, the snow line and which animals live at what altitude. All of this is so rich in detail that you can get lost in the chart for hours.
So, Alexander von Humboldt not only
- survived months of a grueling and dangerous journey through the South American jungle,
- in the course of which he established the theory of man-made climate change already in the year 1800,
- then crossed the Andes,
- collected, drew, painted and cataloged thousands of animals and plants,
- put together the first useful maps for some of the regions he traveled,
- climbed Chimborazo up to 5,600 m,
- where he unpacked his scientific instruments, took measurements and drew charts despite altitude sickness, injuries, icy cold and dangerous climbs every few hundred meters,
- wrote the first comprehensive description of the symptoms of altitude sickness after this multi-day self-experiment,
- and along the way set the then-record for the highest altitude reached by man (higher than hot-air balloons flew at the time),
but on top of all of this,
- he presented his findings in an appealing and intuitively readable form.
One could call Naturgemälde the world’s first infographic. Actually, most infographics published today don’t come close to it with respect to information content, clarity and graphic design.
Humboldt was also the first, in 1817, to use isotherms, the lines on weather maps that connect different geographical points with the same temperature. Until then, global temperatures had been collected and compared already, but the data had been presented in long lists, making it difficult to compare. Due to Humboldt’s visualization, one look at the isotherm map revealed patterns around the world. It made the difference between looking at weather and looking at the global climate.
If this has made you curious about Humboldt, I highly recommend The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. Or, if you want it more light and amusing, Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann is an exquisite fictionalization of Humboldt’s journey.