Earlier this year, the publishers at Popular Science asked digital designer Jer Thorp to produce a visualization piece that explored the archives of their magazine. Here's what he came up with.
PopSci has a history that spans almost 140 years, so I knew there would be plenty of material to draw from. Working with Mark Hansen, I ended up making a graphic that showed how different technical and cultural terms have come in and out of use in the magazine since its inception.
The graphic is anchored by a kind of molecular chain – decade clusters in turn contain year clusters. Every atom in these year clusters is a single issue of the magazine, and is shaded with colours extracted from the issue covers via a colour clustering routine. The size of the issue-atoms is determined by the number of words in each issue.
Surrounding this chain are about 70 word frequency histograms showing the issue-by-issue usage of different terms (like ‘software' or ‘bakelite'). I used a simple space-filling algorithm to place these neatly around the molecule chain, and to stack them so that one histogram begins shortly after another ends. This ended up resulting in some interesting word chains that show how technology has progressed – some that make sense (microcomputer to e-mail) and some what are more whimsical (supernatural to periscope to datsun to fax).
Thorp says he had a hard time picking out which words to use in the final graphic's word-frequency histograms, so he designed a custom processing tool that would allow him to pre-visualize each frequency plot, picking out ones he thought would be most interesting to include.
Really impressive stuff. It's not often you see the evolution of technology, science and culture captured so clearly all at once.
Read more about Thorp's design process over on his blog.
On a related note, PopSci recently partnered with Google to offer its entire 138-year archive for free browsing. You can search the archives here.