The Golden Age of Information Graphics

Infographics today are mostly pointless decorations around a few simple facts that add nothing meaningful. But information graphics once deserved their name with dense, meticulously-drawn, well-researched information. Here is an example from 1944.

The Lawrence Livermoore National Lab recently posted this Chart of Electromagnetic Radiations, which was originally published in 1944, on their flickr stream. It’s a beautiful example of the kind of poster or magazine fold-out that was fairly common during the golden age of information graphics, from the 1940s (if not earlier) to the early 1990s. As a kid, I’d spend hours poring over books and magazines with detailed illustrations and explanations of all sorts of technology, from power plants to the Space Shuttle.

The poster compiles a huge range of different information about electromagnetic waves, from their origin to their different uses, from radio and (then-new) television to photography. This is not just an information graphic in the true sense, but, to use Nigel Holmes‘ term, an explanation graphic.

Electromagnetic Waves

The poster is not only still highly informative, it also gives a wonderful glimpse into the time it was made. Just look at the illustrations for the different parts of the spectrum that were allocated for specific uses (note ‘mobile’ in particular).

Electromagnetic Spectrum

Instead of dumbing the topic down, there is a lot of in-depth information here. There is a seamless and seemingly effortless transition from everyday uses to very specific physical effects like the reflection of x-rays in a crystal. This poster was edited by none other than Arthur Compton, physicist, Nobel laureate, and key figure in the Manhattan Project, after all.

Electromagnetic Effects

While the upper left compares waves in a lake to electromagnetic waves, the lower part goes all the way to explaining a superhet radio receiver (made from tubes of course, several years before the transistor was invented and 15 years before it became widely used).

Electromagnetic Receivers

The amount of work that must have gone into this is enormous. But the result is a poster that is still relevant and hugely interesting, 70 years after it was made.

So what happened? When did information graphics turn into ‘infographics,’ and when did we lose the meticulous, well-researched, information-rich graphics for the sad waste of pixels that calls itself infographic today? A large part of this seems to be due to the fact that infographics make for very effective link-bait. Like pictures of kittens, people tend to click on links to infographics for a quick fix of something pretty, or at least colorful. Many people probably don’t know good information graphics and don’t even know what they’re missing. There is also a certain style, reminiscent of clipart, that seems to have originated in the tools designers use today (i.e., Illustrator instead of manual drawing tools) and that tends more toward embellishment than adding content.

But I’m not convinced that things have to be this way. A well-researched and information-packed information graphic is still an amazing sight. And it’s not like we’ve run out of things to explain. We’re surrounded by technology like never before, and we understand less and less how that technology works. I think it’s time for another golden age of information and explanation graphics.

Check out the original chart in all its 70 megapixels glory for yourself, or use this version to navigate it more easily.

7 responses to “The Golden Age of Information Graphics”

  1. nirmal sharma Avatar
    nirmal sharma

    A great piece, and I agree with the author completely. I suspect, the dumbing down of the art and science of information graphics started after internet and social media became so popular. But on the brighter side, we find a new crop of designers who are using technology and making mind blowing stuff in motion and interactive

  2. Chris Pudney Avatar

    Perhaps the key difference is whether the graphic is intended to inform or advertise.

  3. Connie Malamed Avatar

    These are just beautiful, Robert. Thanks for finding them and sharing. I guess we’ll just have to keep educating people about “real” infographics and until then, shut our eyes.

  4. Christy Barr Avatar
    Christy Barr

    My husband’s grandfather, Dwight Barr, was the person who created this chart. There is a wonderful article in Physics Central about the making of the chart:
    My father-in-law and his siblings can vividly remember all the parts of the chart laid out on the living room floor of their home while Dwight worked on it. We have audio tapes of Grandpa Barr talking about making the chart.

  5. Kiki Cyr Avatar
    Kiki Cyr

    This is just beautiful: the story, the graphics and the personal connection found. To Christy Barr, do preserve that heritage for humanity.

  6. bassplayer247 Avatar

    I love this.

  7. AJ Dy Avatar

    Any hi-res sources for the other graphics? Are there more of these? This is my field and I’m willing to pay to have these in my house! :)