The History of Data Visualization

The Fascinating History of Data Visualization

Data visualization is an elementary component of human learning and understanding. It's also a significant capability of business intelligence (BI) and analytics solutions today.

So, how did data visualization first come to be? The humble origins and gradual evolution of data visualization has led to an interesting timeline. From ancient cave drawings demonstrating the accomplishment of a hunt, to complex dashboards propped by the computer revolution, this blog is a primer to the fascinating history of data visualization.


An Introduction to Data Visualization History

In earlier times, humans engraved information into stones. However, over time, inventions such as the compass and the sextant led to accurate maps with precise measurements. 

In our modern times, we have data visualization built into BI dashboards that help report builders convey deep meaning behind metrics and numbers, and tell impactful stories visually that are far more exceptional than ever witnessed in our recorded history.

Most visual representations of data fall into two categories: presentations and visualizations. When creating fantastic visualizations, both are incredibly significant. Still, they each have certain needs that must be met.

  • Presentation: It uses information visuals to communicate. A presenter and an audience are required for this visual representation to function well.

  • Visualization:  This is a relatively new concept, and the goal behind it is to think via visuals. People are encouraged to participate in this interactive experience by being asked questions and providing answers.

Professionals today are expected to make data-driven decisions using huge volumes of data. In this context, we expect more advancement in data visualization. Ultimately, the real strength of humans lies in our imagination and ability to convey important data in a way everyone understands - and information visualization helps make that happen.

Recommended: What is Data Visualization and its Importance in Business Intelligence?


A Whirlwind Tour of Data Visualization History

Now, let us take you through a whirlwind tour of data visualization history. We'll discuss the following historical time periods below:

  • Pre-Historic Data Visualization

  • 366-335 BC Roman Maps 

  • 950-1092 AD Celestial Bodies

  • 17th Century Michael Florent Van Langren

  • 18th Century William Playfair

  • 19th Century John Snow

  • 20th Century Advancements 

  • The Information Age


Pre-Historic Data Visualization

Scratching on rocks and drawings in the sand are more likely the first graphical illustrations. Experts believe the famous Lascaux cave paintings dating back to 40,000 years were guides to hunting and directions to the spirit world. These paintings were likely astronomical illustrations of the constellations. 

The early Babylonian world map dating back to 600 BC also shows that ancient civilizations initially drew on clay. Nevertheless, ancient civilizations such as Egyptians, Chinese, Greek, and others also developed maps to aid navigation. They were also used to devise plans for planting crops. 


History of data visualization pre-historic era


366-335 BC Roman Maps 

The desire to effectively manage the army's movement and smoothly control trade made the Romans famous as mapmakers. Beginning in Britain to ending in India, it illustrates the road system of the empire.

While icons showed destinations, the routes were drawn as lines. The map is comparable to a schematic diagram -- the one designed by Henry Beck for the London Underground map in 1931. 

History of data visualization Roman maps


950-1092 AD Celestial Bodies

In Europe, 800 years earlier than the first time plotted graphics emerged on the scene. The incredible diagram was discovered that displays the location and time of planetary bodies by using a grid system. 

Although it is near-impossible to find the precise meaning. However, time-frames were shown on the horizontal grid, and planetary positions and trajectories were demonstrated on the right-hand side.  

Meanwhile, during the Chinese Song Dynasty, celestial bodies were projected using unique techniques unknown to Europe until the sixteen century. They designed tremendously sophisticated visualizations of the stars. However, the above-described chart by Europeans came before this Chinese chart. 


17th Century Michael Florent Van Langren

In 1644, the idea of statistical data presented in the form of graphical representation was attributed to Flemish astronomer Michael Florent Van Langren. It was a one-dimensional line graph.

What is fascinating is Van used the graph and chart to demonstrate the wide variations in estimates - even though he could have presented the information in tabular format.


History of data visualization history 17th century


18th Century William Playfair

Scottish political economist and engineer William Playfair is the father of statistical graphics. In 1786, He published a book that incorporated graphical representations of data. He introduced a variety of graphs and charts in his book Commercial and Political Atlas.

The book demonstrated the balance of trade in England using graphs. To your surprise, people still use several cutting-edge data visualizations used by Playfair.  However, it is worth mentioning that data was generally shown in dry tables without considering its potential interpretation during those days.


History of data visualization history 18th century


19th Century John Snow

In 1855, British physician John Snow (no, not that Jon Snow from Game of Thrones) leveraged the graphics based on statistical data to tackle cholera epidemic. On the London map, he used dots to refer to each case of cholera. These dots led to the cholera origins, a water pump on Broad Street. 

Those dots showed that most cases were traceable to a Broad Street pump. The ensuing investigation proved that cholera cases had a link with the Broad Street pump. The map used by Snow also works for the presentation style. 


History of data visualization example 19th century


20th Century Advancements 

The popularity of statistical graphics went through the roof by the mid-20th century. However, the widespread use also gave birth to the use of statistics for exploitation. For this reason, in 1955, Darrel Huff, an American writer, had to write a book, How to Lie with Statistics, to highlight the abuse.  

He also published another book called Semiology of Graphics a decade later, but this time around, by French theorist Jacques Bertin. It was a statistical mapping that drew the attention of Bertin. According to his observation, data views involved three chart types of marks: lines, points, and areas.


The Information Age

Data visualization reached new heights after the advent of computers. Humans witnessed the first commercial graphical user interface in 1981. Among other things, spreadsheets changed the information visualization format entirely. They generated graphics and charts, such as scatter plots and pie charts, from information tables - without manual labor. Essentially, they provided the ability to visualize data using pre-generated graphs and charts, making the whole process faster and easier.

One could draw anything by a few clicks. Unlike in the past when people used to invest hours in making slick drawings. Besides, updating, formatting, and editing were the additional features of the spreadsheet application. Various enterprise data visualization software solutions soon hit the market, introducing new charting techniques and styles.


History of data visualization history 20th century


21st Century Business Intelligence (BI) Dashboards

BI dashboards are reporting tools that enable users across an organization to comprehend and interact with data conveniently. It helps organizations answer several questions and uncover insights to make data-driven decisions. In other words, it shows critical metrics and key performance indicators on a single screen. For this reason, different industries rely increasingly on BI dashboards to make informed decisions.

Are you wondering why organizations prefer to use BI dashboards? First and foremost, it advances a data-driven culture at all levels of an organization. On top of that, it communicates how a business performs along the lines of defined targets. Not to mention, visualizing complex relationships in a simple format is always preferable for organizations.

Read: The History of BI Dashboards


How to Outsmart Competition with Data Visualization Analytics Software

Data visualization of quantitative information clearly has deep roots in human history. However, data visualization as a business capability is a relatively modern development. The evolution from maps showing visual analysis and depiction to thematic cartography to graphics based on numerical data and statistical information is a lot to take in.

The ever-increasing popularity of graphics together with technological development, empirical observation, and mathematical theories by the mid-20th century makes the history of visualization incredibly interesting - but also helpful to learn about and know.

Why? Now, in the wake of complex information everywhere, our daily lives have become inundated with graphics. In the real-world scenario, we see charts and graphs, like:

  • A bar chart or pie chart

  • Communication of stock market trends

  • Real-time navigation apps

  • Color-coded exit poll maps revealing election balloting

With time, visualization tools have become integral to communicating information, whether in a business context or something more personal. While in the past these same analytics tools have been too complex for non-technical people to use, modern solutions such as Yellowfin have made data visualization easier to operate, helping more people use it to consume, share and discover data insights.