Social Innovation

Digging into the details, this map compares our world’s rivers and mountains

Here are some examples of classical infographic maps that embrace a wealth of detail, despite limited access to topographical information.

Here are some examples of classical infographic maps that embrace a wealth of detail, despite limited access to topographical information. Image: Unsplash/Tobias Keller

Nick Routley
Creative Director & Writer, Visual Capitalist
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  • Accurate images of our planet's surface are available today at the click of a button, or the tap of a screen.
  • But it wasn't until the 1800s that comparison diagrams and maps became widely accessible.
  • Here are some examples of classical infographic maps that embrace a wealth of detail, despite limited access to topographical information.
J H Colton's 1849 mountains and rivers infographic map
J H Colton's 1849 map is believed to be the first edition of the iconic mountains and rivers infographic map. Image: Visual Capitalist

Today, highly detailed maps of our planet’s surface are just a click away.

In times past, however, access to information was much more limited. It wasn’t until the 1800s that comparison diagrams and maps became widely accessible, and people found new ways to learn about the world around them.

The image above, published by J.H. Colton in 1849, is believed to be the first edition of the iconic mountains and rivers infographic map. This comparison chart concept would see a number of iterations over the years as it appeared in Colton’s world atlases.

Inspiring a Classic Infographic Map

A seminal example of this style of infographic was produced by Alexander von Humboldt in 1805. The diagram below is packed with information and shows geographical features in a way that was extremely novel at the time.

A detailed 1805 diagram of a mountain infographic map
This diagram, produced by Alexander von Humboldt in 1805, reveals many geographical features. Image: Visual Capitalist

In 1817, the brothers William and Daniel Lizars produced the first comparative chart of the world’s mountains and rivers. Breaking up individual natural features into components for comparison was a very innovative approach at that time, and it was this early French language prototype that lead to the Colton’s versions we’re familiar with today.

Digging into the details via infographic maps

As is obvious, even at first glance, there is a ton of detail packed into this infographic map.

Firstly, rivers are artificially straightened and neatly arranged in rows for easy comparison. Lakes, mountain ranges, and cities are all labeled along the way. This unique comparison brings cities like New Orleans and Cairo side by side.

An infographic map of rivers
An infographic map of rivers. Image: Visual Capitalist

Of course, this visualization was based on the best available data at the time. Today, the Nile is widely considered to be the world’s longest river, followed by the Amazon and Yangtze.

Over on the mountain side, there are more details to take in. The visualization includes volcanic activity, notes on vegetation, and even the altitude of selected cities and towns.

An infographic map of mountains
Some of South America’s high-altitude population centres can be spotted on the infographic map. Image: Visual Capitalist

Above are a few of South America’s high-altitude population centers, including La Paz, which is the highest-elevation capital city in the world.

In the legend, many of the mountains are simply named “peak”. While this generic labeling might seem like a throwback to a time when the world was still being explored, it’s worth noting that today’s second tallest mountain is still simply referred to as K2.

What details do you notice while exploring this iconic infographic map?

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