Watch As Capitalism Spreads, Through The Writings Of Adam Smith

This animated infographic shows where, when, and in what language Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations has been published around the world. Watch a planet slowly grasped by the invisible hand.

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."

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  • Erica

    Normally I love your posts.... and I think this is a cool graph, but what it does or presumes it does is a bit 'unsophisticated'..... unless you are interested in the history of the publications.... not at all anything to do with the spread of an idea.... maybe if they used it but looked at country policies? I'm sure the data exists... and that could be something interesting to look at... since ideas travel with people....  and compare the two ;) ... looking forward to your next post...

  • Peg Duncan

    According to the graphic, capitalism never happened in Canada, Australia or New Zealand, which would be a surprise to us living in those places. Cool graphic, though!

  • Trinity Alps

    That's too bad, because under the current flavor of capitalism, banks fail every few years throwing the entire system into chaos and destroying peoples lives forever... unless you're in that 1%. Maybe we can stop its spread with democracy. ;)

  • Mbuch08

    The 1% doesn't exist because they thrive in a capitalist system... They exist because todays system is not capitalist. It is hardly a flavor of capitalism... Really, its a facade referred to as capitalism, but in reality in many countries "democracy" is an increasingly tyrannical regime ever closer approaching a police state as individuals realize their own self-worth and how much economic potential is robbed from them due to "big government".

  • stylite

    Very cool..  note that the explosions as it spreads around are the most free countries in the world.  

  • Gypsywoman

    "Watch a planet slowly grasped by the invisible hand."  Is the hand strangling you and the world?