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The digital magazine of InfoVis.net

Visualisation in the 20th century
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 112]

The 20th century has seen many advances in different fields. Visualisation hasn’t been immune to these changes that paved the way to its transformation into Information Visualisation in the two decades that preceded the new millennium.

Unlike the second half of the 19th century, the first half of the 20th century marked the normalisation and popularisation of graphics. The innovation and enthusiasm of the late 1800s have disappeared now. 

The improvements in accuracy of statistical methods along with the commonness of charts and diagrams in texts appear to reduce them to a commodity.

This period was one of consolidation, with the first attempts to compare the efficiency of different types of charts. The evolution of science, statistics and technology were preparing the scenario for the next wave of creativity.

Let’s see some of the major achievements. 

  • In 1911 Henry L. Gantt developed systematic industrial planning and invented the widely used today Gantt and progress charts.

  • 1913: the Herzprung-Rusell diagram relating the luminosity and temperature of the stars opened a completely new way to regard the evolution of the stars and gave rise to a new era in astronomy. 

  • In 1924 Otto Neurath, Austrian sociologist, created ISOTYPE the International System of Typographic Picture Education. This could be the first practical approach to teach visual language. The goal was to develop pictures that would complement text, be it spoken or written in any language, understandable across borders by the largest number of people possible.
GanttChart.gif (21965 bytes) Herzsprung-Russell.jpg (24519 bytes) Isotype-Neurath.jpg (44048 bytes)
Modern Gantt Diagram.  It represents the tasks to perform in a project, against time. Every bar is a task that begins and ends in certain dates.
Dependencies between tasks are depicted by arrows. 

Click on the image to enlarge it.
Made by the author with MS Project98.

Current Hertzsprung-Russel diagram.   Represents, for every star, the relationship between surface temperature and its intrinsic brightness (corrected from distance) .
Most of the stars (including the Sun) occupy the so named "main sequence". 
Click on the image to enlarge it.
Image as can be seen at the  website "Milestones in the History of Thematic Cartography, Statistical Graphics, and Data Visualization" de Michael Friendly and Daniel J. Denis, York University, Canadá
ISOTYPE. The example shows births and deaths in Germany between 1911 and 1926. Each icon accounts for 250.000 events (births or deaths). You can see in the second row the effect of World War I.

Click on the image to enlarge it.
Image as can be seen at the  website  "Milestones in the History of Thematic Cartography, Statistical Graphics, and Data Visualization" de Michael Friendly and Daniel J. Denis, York University, Canadá

1944 marks a turning point for graphics, as for many other fields, with the advent of the first digital computer, put into operation in Harvard. Howard Aiken and Grace Hopper had an outstanding role in the achievement. 

From that moment, many improvements and changes have taken place, slowly in the beginning, extremely fast in the recent years but there are two people in particular who can be credited for some of the crucial advances during this period.

  • Jacques Bertin in France. Bertin published in 1967 a book titled “Semiologie Graphique” where he showed the organisation of the elements of graphics according to the corresponding function and relations in the data. His work, oriented through semiologic studies, is a fundamental attempt to look at graphics from a structured and comprehensive point of view, producing a consistent theory of the graphical symbols and modes of graphic representation. 

  • John W. Tukey in the US. An outstanding statistician, he founded the Exploratory Data Analysis or EDA, a new approach to statistics that uses heavily a set of techniques based on the use of graphics. He was behind many new simple ways of accounting for statistical magnitudes. Among then you can count the box and whiskers plot, stem and leaf diagrams, rootograms and fit diagrams. (See issue num 6)

During the period covering 1960 to 1980 many new diagrams and schemes were proposed and tried, driven by the increasing complexities of industrial organisations and by the development of software programming.

To name just a few milestones we can consider, among many others:

  • Herman Chernoff’s faces (1973) that use human faces to show multivariate data. 

  • The “fisheye view”, proposed by G. Furnas 1981, gave rise to the concept of “Focus + context” systems, were you can look at a part of a highly complex graphic or diagram without losing the surrounding context, that appears in much less detail.

  • 1985 Alfred Inselberg began using parallel coordinates for representing highly multidimensional data sets. This remarkable achievement given its simplicity has produced, together with interaction techniques, some interesting and intuitive tools, like City’Oscope for the selection and finding of items in multidimensional spaces.
FisheyePDT.jpg (63672 bytes) CParalelas.gif (9821 bytes)
Caras de Chernoff  Each point is represented by a face described by ten facial features: head eccentricity, eye eccentricity, pupil size, eyebrow slant, nose size, mouth shape, etc. Each feature is represented by a number between 0 and 1. 

Click on the image to enlarge it.
Faces Generated by the program Dtatistica from Statsoft 
Image courtesy of Statsoft, Inc.

Fisheye View  Furnas devised the fisheye view in order to having the attention focus with enough detail, but avoiding losing the surrounding context. 

In the image you can see a modern example of this technology applied to a leaflet. The effect is similar to put a magnifying lens, with varying magnification towards the border, on top of the document. There are many variations of this technique. 

Click on the image to enlarge it.
Snapshot of the screen showing a demo of the PDT technology by IDELIX

Parallel coordinates. They represent multidimensional data. Each axis corresponds to one dimension (one variable). For example, when evaluating automobiles they could be the volume of the cylinders, number of doors, the consumption of fuel per mile, etc. The axis are placed in parallel and the line that joins the values corresponding to a particular car model represent one "point" in this n-dimensional space.

Click on the image to enlarge it.
Image elaborated by the author.

But it is in 1991 with the invention of the world wide web by Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist at the European Centre for Nuclear Research, when graphics began an explosive development.

During the last two decades important transformations have happened in the fields of graphics, visualisation, information organisation, cognitive psychology, linguistics and other previously unrelated fields. The advent of the computer and especially of Internet and the world wide web has transformed the scenario. 

Centuries of developments in different fields now find a common purpose: helping the process of converting data into information and information into insight i.e. into knowledge.

For this reason Information Visualisation is an inherently multidisciplinary space that has been with us, despite centuries of history of its component fields, only since the late 80s.

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#SemiologieGraphique   Book "Semiologie Graphique" by J. Bertin
http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=6&lang=2   Issue number 6 "John Wilder Tukey: In memoriam"
http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=54&lang=2   Article number 54 about CityO'Scope
http://www.statsoft.com   Statsoft's website
http://www.idelix.com   Idelix's website
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