Fathers of datavisualization: Charles Minard 1781-1870

Charles Joseph Minard was a French Civil Engineer who made major advances in information graphics in the early 19th century. He is particularly remembered for his Carte Figurative, or Flow map, that displayed the events and factors of Napoleon Bonaparte’s failed attempt to invade Russia.

Minard was born March 27, 1781 in the French town Dijon. He studied science and mathematics at the École Polytechnique and civil engineering at the École Nationale des ponts et chaussées. After receiving his education, Minard worked throughout Europe as a civil engineer on dam, canal and bridge projects. From 1830 to 1836 he worked as the superintendent at the École Nationale des ponts et chausses before working as an inspector in Corps des Ponts. He retired in 1851 to devote his life to his own research.

Minard is best remembered, however, for his groundbreaking work in information graphics, as he was one of the first individuals to use visuals to represent statistics in engineering. His most well-known work was a graph that tracked the progress - or lack thereof - of Napoleon’s Russian assault. He tracked multiple key factors involved in the event, including the size of the army, the distance traveled by the troops as they advanced and retreated, and local temperature. Specifically, the width of the line depicting the army's size is proportional to the number of surviving soldiers at any given time, making the destruction of the French army disturbingly clear. Noted statistician, Edward Tufte, personally feels that this chart of Minard’s “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn”.

Minard continued to work on various statistical illustrations until his death in 1870.