American Whaling Mapped

An animated visualization of Matthew Maury’s collection of data from logbooks of American whaling voyages. From Data narratives and structural histories: Melville, Maury, and American whaling by Ben Schmidt:

“Data visualizations are like narratives: they suggest interpretations, but don’t require them. A good data visualization, in fact, lets you see things the interpreter might have missed. This should make data visualization especially appealing to historians. Much of the historian’s art is turning dull information into compelling narrative; visualization is useful for us because it suggests new ways of making interesting the stories we’ve been telling all along. In particular: data visualization lets us make historical structures immediately accessible in the same way that narratives have let us do so for stories about individual agents.

“I’ve been looking at the ship’s logs that climatologists digitize because it’s a perfect case of forlorn data that might tell a more interesting story. My post on European shipping gives more of the details about how to make movies from ship’s logs, but this time I want to talk about why, using a new set with about a half-century of American vessels sailing around the world.

“To find something I might more usefully be able to discuss, I went through the biggest source of historical shipping records, the ICOADs collection, and pulled out the very first systematic collection of logbooks ever assembled: Matthew Maury’s collection of American shipping from about 1785 to 1860, assembled mostly before the Civil War.”

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