Imagine creating a timeline of your country’s whole history stretching back to its inception.
It would be no small task, and simply weighing the relative importance of so many great people, technological achievements, and pivotal events would be a tiny miracle in itself.
While that seems like a challenge, imagine going a few steps further. Instead of a timeline for just one country, what about creating a graphical timeline showing the history of the entire world over a 4,000 year time period, all while having no access to computers or the internet?
An All-Encompassing Timeline?
Today’s infographic, created all the way back in 1931 by a man named John B. Sparks, maps the ebb and flow of global power going all the way back to 2,000 B.C. on one coherent timeline.
View a high resolution version of this graphic
Histomap, published by Rand McNally in 1931, is an ambitious attempt at fitting a mountain of historical information onto a five-foot-long poster. The poster cost $1 at the time, which would equal approximately $18 when accounting for inflation.
Although the distribution of power is not quantitatively defined on the x-axis, it does provide a rare example of looking at historic civilizations in relative terms. While the Roman Empire takes up a lot of real estate during its Golden Age, for example, we still get a decent look at what was happening in other parts of the world during that period.
The visualization is also effective at showing the ascent and decline of various competing states, nations, and empires. Did Sparks see world history as a zero-sum exercise; a collection of nations battling one another for control over scarce territory and resources?
Crowning a world leader at certain points in history is relatively easy, but divvying up influence or power to everyone across 4,000 years requires some creativity, and likely some guesswork, as well. Some would argue that the lack of hard data makes it impossible to draw these types of conclusions (though there have been other more quantitative approaches.)
Another obvious criticism is that the measures of influence are skewed in favor of Western powers. China’s “seam”, for example, is suspiciously thin throughout the length of the timeline. Certainly, the creator’s biases and blind spots become more apparent in the information-abundant 21st century.
Lastly, Histomap refers to various cultural and racial groups using terms that may seem rather dated to today’s viewers.
The Legacy of Histomap
John Spark’s creation is an admirable attempt at making history more approachable and entertaining. Today, we have seemingly limitless access to information, but in the 1930s an all encompassing timeline of history would have been incredibly useful and groundbreaking. Indeed, the map’s publisher characterized the piece as a useful tool for examining the correlation between different empires during points in history.
Critiques aside, work like this paved the way for the production of modern data visualizations and charts that help people better understand the world around them today.
Without a map who would attempt to study geography? –John B. Sparks