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The Golden Age of Visualisation
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 111]

After last week’s review of the beginnings of visualisation, in this issue we’ll see the start up of modern graphics, the golden age of graphic creativity and the previous advances to the current moment of creative explosion.

Our narration begins in the 17th century, with some advances that paved the way to the development of modern graphics. In 1637 Rene Descartes publishes three books about physics: “Geometrie”, “Dioptrique” and “Météores” whose introduction “Discours de la Methode” becomes more famous than the treaties themselves. 

In the “Geometrie” he establishes the Cartesian coordinate system, that has been the basis for technical drawings thereafter. The coordinate system had been used formerly some times but it is re-launched with the establishment of the relationship between the graphed line and the equation.

In 1644 probably the first visual representation of statistical data is made by Michael F. Van Langren with the depiction of the variations in the determination of longitude from Toledo (Spain) to Rome (Italy).

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the advances in statistics and the inventions of new types of graphics flow continuously. In 1765 Joseph Priestley, best known by his advances in chemistry is the first one to use the “time line” to represent the localisation of events in a chronological way (although the first representation of movement dates back to the 10th century with a graphic of the apparent movement of the known planets*).

BioTimeLine.gif (71581 bytes)
Biographic time line of famous people. Representation due to Joseph Priestley as can be seen in the website "Milestones in the History of Thematic Cartography, Statistical Graphics, and Data Visualization" by Michael Friendly y Daniel J. Denis, York University, Canada
Click on the image to enlarge it.

During the second half of the 18th century the graphic representation begins to be so popular that in 1794 Dr. Buxton begins to commercialise in England the first printed coordinate paper. This allowed the scientist, engineer or just those fond of graphics to make them in a lot less time.

But it’s William Playfair (1759-1823), an English politician and economist  who gives the definitive impulse to what today we know as “business graphics”. He invented not only the renowned pie chart, but he popularised the circular or bubble charts, he made the first modern bar chart and gave the modern form to time series charts. 

His books “Commercial and Political Atlas” form 1786 or the “Statistical Breviary” are full, for the first time, of the type of graphics we are used to nowadays.

The 19th century sees the consolidation of modern charts applied to economy, social and natural science and technology. The first half of it witnessed an explosion in the use of charts, graphs and thematic maps unparalleled before. 

You have to wait until very recently to see a comparable explosion in creativity and widespread use. The second half of the century can be considered the golden age of graphics, with many new applications of already established diagrams and charts and a great interest in the discovery of information that these new ways to show data provided.

Two outstanding examples reveal the creative potential and the social impact of that age’s graphics: Charles Joseph Minard and Florence Nightingale

In 1858, Florence Nightingale invents the polar area diagram to show the causes of mortality in campaign hospitals during the Crimean wars that was much higher than those of the hospitals located in England. She used diagrams and charts extensively to analyse health care data in 19th century British hospitals promoting a genuine revolution in the field and saving many lives. 

In 1869 C. J. Minard makes the outstanding map of the advance and retreat of Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812-1813. The brilliant combination of different types of graphic representation of multidimensional data has granted him the consideration of maker of some of “the best graphics ever produced” (E.R. Tufte in “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”). 

Not only is the graphic so clear that it almost doesn’t need an explanation, but it reveals, besides the data, the huge human tragedy that this act of war represented. In Re-visions of Minard you can find several interesting modern re-creations of this famous chart.

MinardMarey.gif (211446 bytes)
The Russian campaign of 1812-1813 by Charles Joseph Minard. It shows the troops of the Napoleonic army on a two dimensional map as they advanced to Moscow and retreated towards Poland again. The thickness of the line is proportional to the survivors at that moment. The lower graphic shows the temperatures. ("La Méthode Graphique" E.J. Marey p. 73, Paris 1885)
Click on the image to enlarge it.

To finish, I wouldn’t like to forget the development of the visual storytelling by the Swiss professor and artist Rudolphe Töpffer, in the form of frames with images and text developing a complete story, what today we would call “comic strips”.

In the next message we’ll close this window on the history of visualisation with the modern period, the 20th century.


* It is found in a transcription of the Comments of Macrobius on Cicero’s work “Somnium Scipionis”, 10th-11th century.

An excellent source about the history of graphics is the 2nd chapter of the book "Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st century"" by Robert E. Horn, MacroVu Press, ISBN 1-892637-09-X 

Links of this issue:

http://www.math.yorku.ca/SCS/Gallery/milestone/index.html   Milestones in the History of Thematic Cartography, Statistical Graphics, and Data Visualization
http://www.infovis.net/printRec.php?rec=llibre&lang=2#VisualDisplay   Book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by E. R. Tufte
http://www.math.yorku.ca/SCS/Gallery/re-minard.html   Re-visions of Minard by Michael Friendly
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/189263709X/infovisnet   "Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st century" by R. E Horn
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