Milestones in the History of Data Visualization

“A picture is worth a thousand words” — Unknown

Innate in humans is a desire to understand the world around them. Visualizations, which involves producing images that communicate relationships among the represented data, provide a better way of understanding complexities in our surroundings. From maps of earth’s surfaces to celestial bodies visible on the sky’s above, visualizations aided human’s desire to explore and understand their environment. As societies evolved and new ways of recording information emerged, visualizations aided in making better sense of this new information. Below I highlight some important milestones in the evolution of data visualization.

Prehistoric Visualizations

15,000–13,000 B.C.E

Some of the earliest evidence of data visualization can be found in the Great Hall of Bulls at Lascaux in France. Early humans, with the use of charcoal from their fires and pigments of iron and manganese, depicted, on the cave’s walls, wildlife and clusters of starts that were visible from the region . Different theories exists as to why early human made this paintings, including the belief that by drawing this images they would guaranteed their livelihoods; nevertheless, these drawings represent some of earliest representation of stellar data.

Measurement and Theory


The 17th century experienced great growth in theory and witnessed the dawn of practice, including the rise of analytic geometry, theories of errors of measurement and estimation, the birth of probability theory, and the beginnings of demographic statistics, among others.

During this period, astronomer and mathematician Edmond Halley, for whom Halley’s comet was named after, was the first to use areas of rectangles to show probabilities of independent binary events.

Beginnings of Modern Data Graphics


Many statistical graphics widely used today were invented during the early part of the 19th century, including bar and pie charts, histograms, line graphs and time-series plots, contour plots, and similar others. This period also witnessed a rise in thematic mappings — which is a type of map specifically designed to show a particular theme connected with a specific geographic area, such as temperature variation, rainfall distribution or population density.

The most emblematic figure of this period and one who revolutionized the field of data visualization is William Playfair. He is perhaps most renowned for his many innovations in data visualizations, which include include widely the line, bar and pie charts.

The first polo area charts were also invented during this period. Polo area charts, which are similar to pie charts but help visualize scale, were invented by French lawyer and amateur statistician Andre-Michel Guerry in 1829.

Golden Age of Data


The golden age of data arrived in the late 19th century. The use of data visualization became a well-established practice during this period and was applied to social planning, industrialization, commerce and transpiration.

English physician John Snow used data visualization to help stop the cholera outbreak that took place in London in 1854. Before the map, it was widely believed that cholera spread by air. By mapping cases of the cholera outbreak, John Snow was able to show that the cases cluster around the water pump in Board Street and was able to link the spread of cholera to the waster pump, making a convincing argument that cholera actually spread through the water and not by air.

Maps also played an important role during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln frequently used Civil War? maps to track the progress of the union troops. The maps showed the relative prevalence of slavery in Southern counties in 1861.

Further reading

Data Science Student

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store