Interesting article in the Economist looking at three of "history's best" charts.
Ever since Tufte published the Visual Display of Quantitative Information*, Charles Minard's graphic of Napoleon's march on Moscow has been the standard example of a thoughtful and compelling "infographic". I even use it in my course...despite its somewhat tangential relationship to Customer Satisfaction Measurement!
Playfair is a fair choice too. He invented, for better or worse, many of the graphic forms that we are familiar with today, including the bar chart, line chart and even the dreaded pie chart. The Economist shows an early attempt to make political mileage out of charts.
The third person featured is Florence Nightingale, who is sometimes thought to have invented the pie chart, but didn't. She did come up with the "Nightingale Rose", or polar area chart, which is the one covered by the Economist. Frankly this is an odd choice, as it is not one of history's best charts by any means. Nonetheless the outcome of the analysis was of great importance, forcing a review of the sanitary conditions of army barracks and hospitals at a time when disease killed far more soldiers than enemy action.
For similar reasons, my preferred third choice would have been John Snow's map of cholera deaths in Soho.
A map that forced the closure of a lethally infected water pump (the Broad Street pump) and finally began to convince people that cholera was water-borne and not spread by smell.
Next time you're in Soho or Carnaby Street, find your way to Broadwick Street, as Broad Street is now known, and have a pint in the John Snow pub. It seems an ideal way to commemorate the closing of an era in which drinking beer was safer than drinking water.
* You can read our review of VDQI here[PDF]