Data Visualization History – Part 1

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The graphical representation of data, data visualization, has been happening for a long time. Where has it been and where is it going will be presented in this blog and one to follow shortly.  Here is a brief data visualization history.

12,000 Years Ago to the 10th Century

The walls of caves hold the oldest examples of data visualization, some from 12,000 years ago. In 1160 B.C. the Turin Papyrus Map is the first documented data visualization illustrating the distribution of geological resources. Along with maps, stars and their movement were one of the earliest examples of data visualization history. There is a multiple time-series graph of the changing position of the seven most prominent heavenly bodies over space and time by an anonymous astronomer in Cicero’s In Somnium Scripionus from the 10th century.

The 1600s

By the 17th century, techniques and instruments for the precise observation and measurement of physical quantities and geographic and celestial positions were more well-developed. Physical measurement of time, distance and space for navigation, surveying and map making were very important problems. In 1644 Michael Florent van Langren, a Flemish astronomer to the court of Spain, is believed to have created the first visual graphic of statistical data in data visualization history: a determination of the distance, in longitude, from Toledo to Rome.

The 1700s and 1800s

Map-makers began to show more than just geographical position on a map in the 1700s. The use of isolines to show contours of equal value on a coordinate grid or map was developed by Edmund Halley. Thematic mapping was not only geologic but economic and medical data as well.

William Playfair is widely considered the inventor of most of the graphical form in data visualization history s widely used today: the line graph, bar chart, pie chart and circle graph. Playfair used three parallel time series to show the price of wheat, weekly wages and reigning monarch over a 250 year span from 1565 to 1820 and used this graph to argue that workers had become better off in the most recent years.

The first half of the 19th century witnessed explosive growth in statistical graphics and thematic mapping. In 1831 an outbreak of cholera killed 52,000 and subsequent epidemics in 1848 and 1853 had similar large death tolls but the water-born cause of the disease wasn’t identified until 1855 when Dr. John Snow produced his famous dot map showing deaths due to cholera clustered around the Broad Street pump in London.

Charles Joseph Minard developed the use of flow lines on maps of width proportional to quantities of people, goods, imports or exports to show movement and transport geographically. His famous depiction of the fate of the armies of Napoleon and Hannibal was called the “best graphic ever produced” by Tufte who you will hear about shortly.
The social and political use of graphics was used in the polar area charts invented by Florence Nightingale to wage a campaign for improved sanitary conditions in battlefield treatment of soldiers.

The 1900s

While the 1800’s were considered the golden age of statistical graphics and thematic cartography, the early 1900s were considered to be the modern dark ages of data visualization. Statisticians became less concerned with data visualization and more focused on exact numbers. Numbers, parameter estimates, and, especially, those with standard errors were preferred for their precision. Pictures were considered pretty or evocative but incapable of stating a fact to three or more decimals.

Simultaneously, though, charts and graphs started appearing more commonly in textbooks and business applications. It seemed the lower level of innovation allowed more common representations and applications to catch up. The emergence of computer processing in the later 1900s allowed statisticians to collect, sort and efficiently visualize larger volumes of data.

In 1962 John Tukey published a landmark paper, The Future of Data Analysis, calling for the recognition of data analysis as a legitimate branch of statistics distinct from mathematical statistics. He invented a variety of new, simple and effective graphic displays including stem-leaf plots, boxplots, hanging rootograms and two-way table displays. The publication in 1977 of his Exploratory Data Analysis text made graphical data analysis both interesting and respectable again.

In France, Jacques Bertin published Semiologie Graphique in 1967. This monumental book was compared to the table of chemical elements in its significance and impact for organizing the visual and perceptual elements of graphics.

Microsoft Excel

The introduction of Excel in 1990 moved data visualization from a highly specialized field where practitioners were cartographers, statisticians and scientists to business professionals. These business leaders want to create the same sort of visual information without the same level of training in data. Read our next blog about how this is evolving.

For all your data visualization hiring needs, contact Smith Hanley Associates‘ Executive Recruiter, Nancy Darian at ndarian@smithhanley.com.



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