The term “Data Visualization” may have firm roots in the 20th Century, but the concept of data storytelling is as old as time. Humans have been expressing the world through data dating as far back to the invention of the seismograph, the collapse of the Han Dynasty, and the rise of Buddhism. The earliest data table in known existence was created in 2nd century Egypt, cataloging astrological information to aide navigation practices of the day. Though, by definition, a table is primarily a textual representation of data, the concept behind the table is to arrange information into columns and rows for easier visualization, making it the first of many steps toward data viz as we know it today.
Fast forward to the 17th century, when Rene Descartes invents the Cartesian coordinate system, the X and Y axis graph. This French philosopher and mathematician gave us the X and Y axis, and perhaps the first truly visual representation of quantitative data.
Zip up to 1913, and Iowa State University introduces academic courses in graphing data, officially elevating data visualization to a science. Jump to 1977, and a statistics professor from Princeton introduces the concept of exploratory data analysis, changing our interaction with data sets. Quantum Leap into 1983, when data visualization enthusiast Edward Tufte publishes The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, an innovative work that proved that there are more effective ways of displaying data than current methods.
The year after Tufte’s book was released, Apple unveiled its newest computer model via a now-famous Super Bowl commercial. The then-fledgling company’s user interface focused on graphics as the main mode of interaction, paving the way for the way we view and interact with data digitally today.
I can go on and on about data visualization history, but truth is so many folks have come before me, at this point, I could even do a post about the History of History of Data Visualizations.
So I did. OK, it might be a little meta, but hey – it’s the Internet, after all.
The 5 Best “History of Data Visualization” Posts
Map of Firsts: An Interactive Timeline of the Most Iconic Infographics
This interactive map takes us on a journey of all of history’s best graphs, charts, maps, and diagrams. Beginning with Christoph Scheiner’s Rosa Ursina sive Sol (1630), which mapped the motion of sunspots over time, and ending with Edward Walter Maunder’s Distribution of Spot Centres in Latitude (1904), a butterfly diagram used to study the variation of sunspots over time, this whimsical map explores 75 different visuals in a fun and easy to understand way. If destination #5 looks familiar, it’s because info we trust borrowed from John Ogilby’s 1675 Britannia, which was the world’s first comprehensive road atlas.
The Surprising History of the Infographic
I have a soft spot in my heart for so-called “educational magazines”. You know what I’m talking about – Ranger Rick, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine… memories of the school library stack and poring over fascinating tidbits in those bygone pre-Internet days. Fortunately, I can get the same rush online now, because the good people at Smithsonian.com continue to provide excellent long-form pieces on everything from Pocahontas to ‘Alias Grace.’ They also tell interesting histories of our favorite topic, data viz, as in this post from the July 2016 online issue.
Read next: Get Inspired: 19 Inspiring Data Viz Designs
Stephen Few’s Data Visualization Past, Present, and Future
In his 12-page whitepaper published in 2007, Stephen Few—a member of the data visualization pantheon and a data viz innovator of more than 30 years—takes us on an intellectual journey in which his style and commitment to meticulous detail and curiosity shine through. Though he starts off by exploring the history of data visualization, he delves further and investigates the trends surrounding the science, as well as the benefits and pitfalls of it.
At the beginning of his paper, he postulates that “[d]espite their potential, the benefits of data visualization are undetermined today by a general lack of understanding.” He ends optimistic of the future, however, postulating that thanks to the data visualization research community and software innovators, “Dashboards, visual analytics, and even simple graphs will continue to develop and conform to best practices…[and that] some of the greatest data visualization innovations of the next 10 years… will grow from seeds that have not yet been planted.” 10 years on, it’s hard to argue that his prediction was wrong.
Of course, there is a slew of information that leads him from point A to point B. I highly recommend digesting the whole paper, if you’ve got the time.
The Visualization Universe
This enticing piece of data art would look at home in a college dorm room, but it’s actually an interactive data viz about data viz based on Google search data. Designer Anna Vital uses 10,000 data points to show how different visualization types, tools, and books have varied in population over the past year, based on how many people searched for a particular tool or graphic on Google. She then went on to share her findings via a visualization of 157 moons circling their respective planets, which are named “Charts,” “Books,” and “Tools.”
I could try to explain the ingenuity of her design, or you could just check it out for yourself.
A Brief History of Data Visualization
If you’re like me, and want to know what happened between the 2nd century (the creation of the first table) and the 17th century (Descartes invents the graph), Michael Friendly’s 43-page e-book on the subject is guaranteed to fill a few knowledge gaps. Through the use of storytelling and imagery, he organizes data visualization history into epochs, each of which he conveniently characterized by themes and accomplishments (statistical graphics, atlases, the introduction of geometric figures, etc.).
Key Figures in the History of Data Visualization
If you’re more interested in learning about the people who paved the way for data visualization, rather than about the historical visuals themselves, this post is for you. This post shares a brief history of the masterminds who combined art, science, and statistics and who forever changed the way the world would perceive data. As a bonus, each anecdote is illustrated with the original visual used by said key players.
To quote Stephen Few once more, in order to “understand current and future trends in the field of data visualization, it helps to [have] some historical context.” Hopefully this post provided just that, and that your newfound knowledge allows you to appreciate your data and dashboards a little bit more.