You could spend a lifetime debating the qualitative merits and influence of Adam Smith’s capitalism-creating tome, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. But a look at the book’s quantitative history would be a more, well, economical use of your time.
The always-inspired folks at Harvard’s metaLAB have created a map-based visualization of when, where, and in what language Smith’s seminal book has been published. On the Y-axis you’ll see time, beginning with the initial publication in 1776 and moving up through 2001, alongside the total number of editions published prior to that year. Each time the book is published, a red halo emerges on the map near the city of the publishing house. Blue halos tell us when it’s a first edition being published in that city.
Below the map, you can see the distribution of different languages the book has appeared in. What really shines is how all the pieces of information interact with and relate to each other—there’s a harmony to this visual matrix, so no statistic is presented absent its connection to other data.
It’s an elegant way to depict the diffusion of an idea over time, though, because the graphic stops in 2000, it’s certainly worth asking how the last decade or so would alter the map. And of course the spatial distribution of editions inevitably inspires questions of why the book has so little penetration in Africa: Is that a function of lack of publishers, or a lack of excitement for Smith’s ideas. But, as the creator notes: "This map is only a cryptic narrative about the dissemination of ideas, and as such, I hope it will inspire economic historians towards new and interesting projects surrounding Smith and his legacy."