Review: Scott Christianson, 100 Diagrams That Changed the World

I recently came across this book that claims to collect the 100 most important diagrams in the history of mankind. It’s a good collection, with many wonderful examples, though it has its flaws.

To get the main issue out of the way: the title is misleading. The selection in the book is not based on the quality of the diagrams, but rather of the invention or cultural shift they are associated with. I didn’t bother to count, but there are many examples of diagrams in the book that, by themselves, are really not interesting, but which are attached to important: the mobile phone, Apple computers, cotton gin, and the camera obscura, to name just a few.

Having said that, however, there is still a lot of value in Scott Christianson’s 100 Diagrams That Changed the World: From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod. There are many interesting examples of diagrams where the actual diagrams are the innovation, or where the innovation would not have happened with the diagram: the flow chart, the periodic table, line and bar charts, ancient “sheet music” (carved into a clay tablet), the Pioneer plaque, etc.

This is a great book to flip through and pick up pieces here and there. The descriptions go into as much depth as they can on a single page, and give a lot of interesting historical information. The print and reproduction of images is mostly excellent, with a few images being of slightly lower quality.

It’s easy to argue about inclusions (the Intel 4004 processor?) and omissions (how could he leave out ISOTYPE?), but overall this is a great collection. It works well as a coffee table book and for browsing, as well as to appreciate the fine detail and resolution of many of the pieces. Yes, this book is only available as a hardcover, and that’s a good thing.

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Robert Kosara

Robert Kosara is Senior Research Scientist at Tableau Software, and formerly Associate Professor of Computer Science. His research focus is the communication of data using visualization. In addition to blogging, Robert also runs and tweets.

One thought on “Review: Scott Christianson, 100 Diagrams That Changed the World”

  1. Robert:

    Thanks for mentioning this book. As someone who studies color theory and its impact on visualization, I was really inspired to see that a 1766 color wheel by Mose Harris was included in the 100 Diagrams:

    In the color wheel diagram, Mose Harris depicted how colors are created out of Red, Blue and Yellow (the RYB Color Model). He also shows how combining the RYB colors together produces black in the diagram. One of the earliest depictions of subtractive color models.

    Mose Harris works was a follow on to the Newton’s earlier 1704 Circle of Colors diagram published by Newton in his Optiks book. Newton defined the first color wheel by connecting the violet end fo the color spectrum to the red start point. Newton was working in what we call today Red, Green, Blue (RGB) color space – additive colors while Mose Harris worked in subtractive (RYB) color space.

    It is interesting how Christianson notes the importance of Mose Harris’ diagram in helping to define subtractive color theory that would go on to be extensively studied and applied by artists for centuries.

    Today, was we move toward using RGB color space on display devices, including our smart phones, we are sometimes challenged to understand the differences between RGB and RYB color spaces. This is especially true when we use a color app for our smart phone from paint companies like Sherwin Williams and Benjamin Moore to find the color we like for painting a room in our home. When we go to the paint store, sometime the color we liked in RGB (Newton) color space via our smart phone does not match the actual paint color based on RYB (Mose Harris) color space available in a paint can. So, the Mose Harris diagram continues to challenge and change the world.

    Smiles… Theresa-Marie

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