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March 20, 2009

Minard's Chart of Napoleon's 1812 March to Russia : Best. Chart. Ever.

Having discussed a misleading chart in an earlier post, I'd like to write about a chart considered by many to be the best statistical chart every made: Charles Joseph Minard's chart of Napoleon's march to Moscow in his Russian campaign of 1812.

Click for larger image, opens in a new window

Beginning on the left at the Polish-Russian border, the width of the thick band shows the size of the Grande Armee at each position. The upper brown line shows the size of the army (422,000 men) as it progresses eastbound to Moscow. When the army turns around to head home, the (decreasingly wide) black ribbon shows the dwindling size of Napolean's army, which is cross-referenced to time and temperature scales. Finally, only 10,000 men return from the misadventure. The chart depicts a brutal chapter in history.

Given any time during the campaign, the chart conveys the army's direction, size, and loss relative to the start; on the retreat, the chart also conveys the timeline, position of the army, and the temperature.

From Wikipedia: Étienne-Jules Marey first called notice to this dramatic depiction of the terrible fate of Napoleon's army in the Russian campaign, saying it "defies the pen of the historian in its brutal eloquence". Edward Tufte calls it "the best statistical graphic ever drawn" and uses it as a prime example in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. And Howard Wainer also identified this as a gem of information graphics, nominating it as the "World's Champion Graph".

I have blogged elsewhere about the notion of noticing which books a person has more than one copy of, as an indicator of the person's interests. This is a chart that I own more than one copy of, including a version from Tufte presenting the original French chart along with a recent English translation.

That the beauty, efficiency, and elegance of this chart was delivered by a human with a pen, two colors, and paper (and not anything to do with computers, chart wizards, or powerpoint) is a topic for another time.

Additional info: Tufte on Minard's sources, Minard's biography, an academic summary, and re-designs of the chart.


Anonymous said...

when was the date of the march to russia

Michael Mernagh said...

If x = the cumulative number of kilometres marched and y = the number of survivors in Napoleon’s Grand Armée, then y = 422000exp(-0.002x) is an exponential decay model of the 1812 campaign in Russia.

Anonymous said...

Is that exponential model accurate?

Anonymous said...


michael said...

Who decides what chart/graph is "world's best, etc.? Is the a "peer review committie?

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