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NY Fed Commentary – Historical Use of Graphics

Historical Echoes: Off the Charts! by Kathleen McKiernan

“The visual representation of information, knowledge, or data has been around since the time of the caveman. But it wasn’t until 1786, when William Playfair, a Scottish engineer, published The Commercial and Political Atlas, illustrating for the first time how economic data could be represented by charts. Playfair’s work preceded that of Florence Nightingale—broadly acknowledged as the founder of modern nursing—who used information graphics in the 1850s to convince Queen Victoria that reform was needed in the British military health service. Nightingale developed the Coxcomb chart—a combination of stacked pie and bar charts—to assess mortality among soldiers during the Crimean War. Excerpted below from a report by the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit think-tank, this 1943 chart presents a long-range record of booms and depressions (the chart is available through the Federal Reserve Archival System for Economic Research, or FRASER). It offers a picture of the more important events that have tended to shape our economic and fiscal curves since 1775. Business activity, price inflation, federal debt, national income, and stock and bond yields are traced in a single spread. The study of “postwar periods” is spotlighted in this edition. (A 1947 release features a special section, “How Much Is One Billion Dollars?”)”

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