Milestones Project

"The past only exists insofar as it is present in the records of today.
And what those records are is determined by what questions we ask."

Wheeler (Wheeler:1982)

There are many historical accounts of developments within the fields of probability (Hald:1990), statistics (Pearson:1978, Porter:1986, Stigler:1986), astronomy (Riddell:1980), cartography (WallisRobinson:1987), which relate to, inter alia, some of the important developments contributing to modern data visualization. There are other, more specialized accounts, which focus on the early history of graphic recording (HoffGeddes:1959, HoffGeddes:1962), statistical graphs (Funkhouser:1936, Funkhouser:1937, Royston:1970, Shields:1937, Tilling:1975), fitting equations to empirical data (Farebrother:1999), cartography (Friis:1974, Kruskal:1977) and thematic mapping (Robinson:1982, Palsky:1996), and so forth; Robinson (Robinson:1982,Ch. 2) presents an excellent overview of some of the important scientific, intellectual, and technical developments of the 15th-18th centuries leading to thematic cartography and statistical thinking.

But there are no accounts that span the entire development of visual thinking and the visual representation of data, and which collate the contributions of disparate disciplines. In as much as their histories are intertwined, so too should be any telling of the development of data visualization. Another reason for interweaving these accounts is that practitioners in these fields today tend to be highly specialized, and unaware of related developments in areas outside their domain, much less their history. Extending Wheeler (Wheeler:1982), the records of history also exist insofar as they are collected, illustrated, and made coherent.

This listing is but an initial step in portraying the history of the visualization of data. We started with the developments listed by Beniger and Robyn (BenigerRobyn:1978) and incorporated additional listings from Hankins (Hankins:1999), Tufte (Tufte:1983, Tufte:1990, Tufte:1997), Heiser (Heiser:2000), and others (now too numerous to cite individually). In most cases, we cite original sources (where known) for the record; occasional secondary sources are included as well, where they appear to contribute to telling the story.

To convey a real sense of the accomplishments requires much more context- words, images, and, most usefully, interpretation. In this chronological listing, it has proved convenient to make divisions by epochs, and we provide some more detailed commentaries for each of these. The careful reader will be able to discern other themes, relations, and connections, not stated explicitly.

More importantly, we envisage this Milestones Project as the beginning of a contribution to historiography, on the subject of visualization. Some related publications are (Friendly:2006:hbook) and (FriendlyPalsky:2007). One goal is to provide a flexible, and useful multi-media resource, containing descriptions of events and developments, illustrative images, and links to related sources (web and in print) or more detailed commentaries. Another goal is to build a database which collects, catalogs, organizes, and illustrates these significant historical developments.