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A Brief History of Visualisation

The act of using our eyes to augment our thinking is as old as our species. Until we started making marks on cave walls we were using vision in a reactive capacity, simply interpreting what we saw, but when we started to make our own marks, imbued with meaning, we started to use vision proactively in order to help us think in new ways.

I would like to think that the two geometrically carved pieces of red ochre found in the famous Blombos cave in South Africa from 77,000 years ago points to early visual thinking spaces, but unfortunately there is little found evidence of anything at all for the tens of thousands of years. Clearly we had the mechanical ability to produce a visualisation even at this stage, though we lacked the cultural-cognitive framework for what we today would consider visualisations to emerge.

The earliest cave paintings, in modern day France and Spain as well as on the other side of the world in Australia and Indonesia (Marchant, 2016,, date back 40,000 years or so. At this point we had theatre – producing experiences based on symbolic marks and representations. Even the very oldest ‘representations’ were abstracted from visual reality; the animals appearing as outlines, only part of their bodies drawn. The notion of what it was to ‘draw’ something was very different from simply recording an event or some other information. The drawing was there to evoke an emotional, perhaps even spiritual response from the viewer. The earliest work of man was art, not record keeping.

Then 10,000 years ago cave painting ceases and we have no known recordings until the advent of writing, about 5,000 years ago.

That was it, for a very long time, as far as surviving recorded history can tell, until Porphvrv of Tyre (c. 234 – c. 305) used spatial relationships to illustrate his ideas when he created what would be known as The Porphyrian Tree as a way to classify Aristotle’s Categories. Skipping further through our history, looking for evidence of visual thinking, in the sense of there being meaning in where information appears on a substrate, and we have to skip by the likeliest candidate, the sketchbooks of Leonardo (di ser Piero) da Vinci (1452 – 1519) and Michelangelo (di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni 1475 – 1564) since the spatial relationships do not appear to contain meaning, it appears that the augmentation was in the act of drawing anywhere on the page, using whatever space was available.

In 1765 Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804), an English theologian, dissenting clergyman, natural philosopher, chemist, educator and political theorist published over 150 works, believed that a proper understanding of the natural world would promote human progress and eventually bring about the ‘Christian Millennium’. Also, he strongly believed in the free and open exchange of ideas. This varied background and his philosophical perspective gave him the mental tools to produce the first timeline, the ‘New Chart of History’ made to “impress upon students a just image of the rise, progress, extent, duration, and contemporary state of all the considerable empires that have ever existed in the world”, as well as biographical timelines, which were commercial successes. (He also discovered oxygen, though he has lass of a flair for naming and called it dephlogisticated air).

Twenty years later, inn 1786 William Playfair (1759 – 1823) a British (Scottish) engineer and political economist went further, inspired by Priestley. As the American historian and sociologist James Ralph Beniger and Dorothy L. Robyn argued in their paper Quantitative Graphics in Statistics: “A brief history,  quantitative graphics have been central to the development of science, and statistical graphics date from the earliest attempts to analyze data. Many familiar forms, including bivariate plots, statistical maps, bar charts, and coordinate paper, were used in the 18th century.” (James R. Beniger & Dorothy L. Robyn , 1976) They further discuss Playfair, highlighting how his invention was driven by a lack of data: “In his Atlas he had collected a series of 34 plates about the import and export from different countries over the years, which he presented as line graphs or surface charts: line graphs shaded or tinted between abscissa and function. Because Playfair lacked the necessary series data for Scotland, he graphed its trade data for a single year as a series of 34 bars, one for each of 17 trading partners.” He ended up inventing four types of diagrams; in 1786 the line graph and bar chart and in 1801 the pie chart and circle graph.

Vannevar Bush’s MEMEX is appropriate for the history of visualisations and for liquid views, as summarised very neatly in a single quote. For further discussion on Bush, please refer to my blog post:   

A record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.

Vannevar Bush, 1945

Published inPhDThoughts

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