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History of Data Visualization

Sun, November 28, 2010

William Playfair said more than 200 years ago: (many think he was the first person who visualized the data, unless the legend about Munehisa Homma will be finally proven): “As the eye is the best judge of proportion, being able

to estimate it with more quickness and accuracy than any other of our organs, it follows, that wherever relative quantities are in question …[the Line Chart] … is peculiarly applicable; it gives a simple, accurate, and permanent idea, by giving form and shape to a number of separate ideas, which are otherwise abstract and unconnected.” William Playfair invented four types of Data Visualizations: in 1786 the Line Chart and Bar Chart chart of economic data, and in 1801 the Pie Chart and circle graph, used to show part-whole relations.

Some legends (I have to see a prove of them yet) attributed to Munehisa Homma (also known as Munehisa Honma, Sokyu Honma and Sokuta Honma) the invention of Candlestick Charts way before (around 1755?) first Charts was used and published in western countries.

Article in “Economist” (12/19/07), named “Worth a thousand words” referred to “Three of History’s Best Charts Ever”. Economist obviously had no access (or knowledge?) to original Candlestick Charts (please let me know if you have these images or links to them). The 3 visualizations that The Economist described as “three of history’s best” include…

1. Florence Nightangale’s 1858 graphic demonstrating the factors affecting the lives (and death rates) of the British army (which resulted in a graphic type called “Nightingale’s Rose” or “Nightingale’s Coxcomb”). She showed in a visual graphic that it wasn’t wounds killing the highest number of soldiers – it was infections. This Radar (or Polar?) Chart was done in 1859, see image above.

2. Charles Joseph Minard’s very famous 1861 graphic depicting the Russian campaign of 1812 – Tufte called it the “the best statistical graphic ever drawn”. What a dramatic story it tells. This Area Chart, overlay-ed over map, was created in 1869, , see article mentioned above for this image.

3. William Playfair’s 1821 chart comparing the “weekly wages of a good mechanic” and the “price of a quarter of wheat” over time. He was one of the first people to use data not just to educate but also to persuade and convince. This old Column Chart, combined with Line (or Area Chart?) – basically one of the first published known Combo Charts, was created in 1821 (almost 200 years ago!), see article mentioned above for this image.

Minard actually created more charts way before computers and Data Visualization software was created. For example in 1861 he created this Multiline Chart:

In 1866 Mr. Minard created one of the first Stacked Area Charts:

In 1859 Minard published one of the first Bubble Charts, overlayed over Map:

In short, Column, Bar, Line, Combo, Area, Bubble, Radar and may be other types (like Japanese Candlestick) of Charts was used way before (150-200 years ago) people started to use Data Visualization Software.

However, as I said in a beginning, some Data Visualization techniques was known and used even before William Playfair.

Allegedly, at least 266 years ago in Japan Munehisa Homma invented (again it is a Legend, because even Steve Nison has no copies of original hand-drawn Japanese Candlestick Charts from 18th Century) Candlestick Charts, which eventually became a part of Financial Visualization and they were reused for Stock Charts (a combo of daily Trading Volume and Open-High-Low-Close Multiline Chart of Daily prices).

Andrei Pandre, Ph.D., VP of Data Visualization, Practical Computer Applications, Inc.

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