The History and Evolution of Data Visualization


Data visualization is a very old idea – ancient in fact. Stretching back to the very beginning of human history, we recognize that actual observed data was used to generate everything from star charts to maps. These ancient visualizations were also very integral to the lives of our ancestors, as they were used to plan essential activities like planting food or hunting.

Figure 1 – This Egyptian star chart was found in the tomb of Ramses VI (reign 1145 BC to 1137 BC). This Egyptian star chart was found in the tomb of Ramses VI (reign 1145 BC to 1137 BC)

Star charts were common and widespread throughout the ancient world, and like all historical data visualizations, used recorded data from the past to make predictions about the future. The same could be said about all of the wonderful, detailed maps that were created and then used to navigate our ancestors through periods of colonization in the past. Observed data was recorded and then used to direct future activity. This same notion carried through all the way to the modern world, when in the late 18th Century new types of historical data visualization were created by Joseph Priestly and William Playfair. Priestly is credited with creating the timeline chart, while Playfair invented numerous types of graphic displays to visually depict social and economic data: introducing in 1786 the line, area, and bar chart, then 15 years later the pie chart and circle graph.

These types of visualization are still very commonly used today.

dataviz.pngFigure 2 – This trade-balance time-series chart was published by William Playfair in 1786.

Again, diagrams of this sort used historical data to direct actions occurring presently or in the future.

Today – maybe more than ever – we still value charts, graphs and other forms of data visualization that allow us cognitively assess data in a way that appeals to our senses rather than our intellect.
Excerpted from the whitepaper “Real-Time Data Visualization Essentials”, downloaded at


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