Analytics Vidhya
Published in

Analytics Vidhya

Historic Data Visualizations — Where did it all begin?

The only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know — Harry S Truman

Data Visualization has been in existence even before it metamorphized into a widely known entity it is today. Historically, scholars have used it to emphasize on their plans, direction, and perspective. Although most of these charts have evolved into more sophisticated chart types, its noteworthy how data visualization has been used as a tool to convey insights and information for centuries now.

Year 1858 — Diagram of the Causes of Mortality

This chart curated by Florence Nightingale highlights the causes of deaths in the British Army. This graphic was published in the “Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army” and sent to Queen Victoria in 1858.

The blue wedges in the graphic indicate the area of deaths due to preventable or mitigable diseases. The red wedges indicate death due to wounds and the black wedges indicate death due to other causes.

The black line across the red triangle in Nov. 1854 marks the boundary of the deaths from all other causes during the month.

In October 1854, & April 1855, the black area coincides with the red, in January & February 1856, the blue coincides with the black.

Year 1821 — The Price of the Quarter of Wheat and Wages of Labour by the Week

Comparing this above “weekly wages of a good mechanic” and the “price of a quarter of wheat” over time graphic, William Playfair was one of the first to use a Combo chart, including a bar chart as well as an area chart in the same view.

The Line chart indicates the Weekly wages whereas the bar chart indicates the price of quarter of wheat over the years.

William Playfair was one of the first to use graphics, charts, and data to persuade and convince people of the findings generated from data and that too almost 200 years ago!

Year 1825 — Tableau chronologique de l’entretien de Pave de Paris.

This graphic below was curated by Charles Minard, a highly regarded and celebrated French civil engineer for his contributions to Information Graphics. He is an author of multiple legendary graphics and charts, some of them are listed below.

This graphic was Minard’s earliest known diagram, a first statistical graph, which he developed for a canal project and railways for the transport of cobblestones in Paris. This graph depicts multiple ‘time-series’ charts as we know them today related to Paris pavement maintenance over the preceding two centuries.

Year 1869 — The map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign

This was Charles Minard’s best-known work. This map displays the successive losses in men of the French Army in the Russian campaign 1812–1813.

The visualization depicts Napoleon’s army departing the Polish-Russian border. The thick brown band illustrates the size of Napoleon’s army at particular geographic points during their advance and retreat.

The chart indicates six types of data in two dimensions: the number of Napoleon’s troops; the distance traveled; temperature; latitude and longitude; the direction of travel; and location relative to specific dates.

Modern information scientists say the 1869 map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign may be the best statistical graphic ever drawn. Some identified Minard’s map as a “gem” of information graphics, nominating it as the “World’s Champion Graph”. The Economist too described it as one of “three of history’s best” charts.

Year 1858 — The Emigrants of the World

Here is another example of the genius of Charles Minard, which intuitively displays a map chart representing the numbers and destinations of emigrants from Europe, Africa, China, and South Asia for the year 1858. The thickness of each line represents the number of emigrants. Charles brilliantly demonstrates the divergent lines together indicating the flow of immigrants from different parts of the world.

Year 1861 — Tableaux Graphiques

Minard developed charts of cotton and wool production and imports over 30 years. This chart is intriguing in its own right since it displays how the Industrial Revolution and the Cotton Gin dramatically increased the demand for and production of cotton.

Year 1866 — Consommation Approximatives de la houille dans la Bretagne

Another example of Minard’s graphics is the stacked area graph he created long before it was formalized as a stacked chart.

Year Mid 1850’s — Map of Port and River Tonnage

A root example of another famously known Bubble chart layered on a map was Charles Minard’s brainchild centuries back. In this graphic Minard depicts the volume of tonnage shipped through European ports and on European rivers to the size of the lines and circles representing them.

The numbers over each circle indicates the volume of products shipped in thousands of tons.

The movement of commerce across the continent is presented through the thickness of the rivers and the area of the ports.

Year 1860 — Map of the distribution of Slave Population in the Southern States of the United States

In the year 1860, as an attempt to raise funds for wounded and sick soldiers, the census office of the United States produced this map graphic which shows the distribution of the slave population in the Southern states of the United States, based on the 1860 census. This also brings focus on the fact that this graphic might be one of the earliest map density charts to be ever curated and published.

Year 1786 — Interest of the National Debt from the Revolution.

This chart created by William Playfair in 1786 depicting the National Debt from Revolution is considered to be one of the initial area charts ever to have existed and William Playfair is credited with inventing the same.

All the below area charts had been developed and published by William Playfair in his book, The Commercial and Political Atlas, published in 1786.

Year 1786 — Exports & Imports to and from all North America

This graph illustrates the trade between England and its colonies and how it came to a standstill during the war, however, it swiftly recovered and expanded quickly afterward.

Year 1786 — Chart of all the Imports and Exports to and from England

This chart depicts the Imports and Exports to and from England from the Year 1700 to 1782.The area between two curves shows the difference between them and is an insightful representation of the balance of trade.

Year 1786 — Chart of the National Debt of England

This Chart of the National Debt of England clearly indicates the strong relation between wars and the increase in national debt.

Even though there is no “history” of data visualization, there is enough evidence that foundation of providing insights through data visualizations and graphs had been laid long before it was formalized as a field, stream, or entity and if we connect the dots, we might run into some intriguing graphics and revelation of the olden days.

Stay tuned for more such stories in and around the world of data…



Analytics Vidhya is a community of Analytics and Data Science professionals. We are building the next-gen data science ecosystem

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store