Visualizations have always been about using data to tell a story. The great ones build narrative connections among data points in new ways, reframing the world—often a familiar piece of the world—so that viewers see important issues in a fresh light.
Visualizations that predate the advent of information technology hold a special appeal. “What is so special about these visualizations is that they don’t have tools to create treemaps or legends automatically. They had to hand code or decide to handle every last bit of this design, instead of creating charts without thought,” said Andy Cotgreave, a senior product consultant at Tableau Software, during an online presentation last year. Studying these examples from history, Cotgreave said, encourages today’s analysts to “take a step back, and say, ‘If I only have a pen and paper how would I do this?’”
Below, find seven examples of answers to this question from the worlds of biology, chemistry, sociology, medicine, astronomy and politics. A number of them may be familiar. Each of them shows clear thinking and interesting presentation choices. The hope is that looking at them as a collection—seeing them as a special exhibit— will inspire you to think about your own work with data and visualizations.
Bringing Order to the Physical World
The Periodic Table, developed in 1869 by Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist, shows horizontal rows (periods) and vertical columns (groups) to classify elements according to their atomic structure, with the number corresponding to its number of protons. The labels follow Greek and Latin names for the elements. “At the time, elements were normally grouped in two ways—either by atomic weight (using Avogadro’s Principle) or by common properties (whether they were metals or gases, for instance). Mendeleyev’s breakthrough was to see that the two could be combined in a single table,” writes Bill Bryson in “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”
Its elegant design has inspired many imitators (including periodic tables of game controllers, vegetables and comic book super powers) a great work of literature (The Guardian called Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table,” an autobiographical book of stories, the world’s greatest science book).
Darwin’s Tree of Life
Charles Darwin included the tree diagram above as the only illustration in his “On the Origin of Species” (1859), and while he was not the first among his contemporaries to draw one, the concept represents a landmark in evolutionary biology by showing the connections among different species. The tree of life is an apt image, Darwin says, as it “covers the earth with ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.”
“One of the most profound discoveries of evolutionary biology is the fact that all living species are connected through descent from a common ancestor,” writes David Baum, a University of Wisconsin botanist, at Nature.com. “At the same time, however, there is tremendous diversity in the living world, which is the result of the accumulation of different traits in different organisms. Thankfully, the tree metaphor not only offers a way to keep track of the features of different organisms, but it also provides guidance in how to conceptualize the broad sweep of biological diversity.”
The Cost of War
Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Charles Minard’s celebrated statistical graphic from 1869 showing Napoleon’s 1812-1813 disastrous campaign shows the French army marching into Russia with more than 400,000 soldiers, the losses suffered along the way and its disastrous retreat back to Poland with 10,000 men.
“Minard’s graphic tells a rich, coherent story with its multivariate data, far more enlightening than just a single number bouncing along over time,” writes Edward Tufte, the statistician, author and former Yale professor who has made Minard’s chart famous in his lectures on visualizations. Tufte notes six variables plotted: “the size of the army, its location on a two-dimensional surface, direction of the army’s movement, and temperature on various dates during the retreat from Moscow. … It may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”
Mapping the Epicenter of an Epidemic
John Snow’s cholera map. John Snow’s map of fatalities during a cholera epidemic in London in 1854 stands as a classic of the display of geographic information and one of the medicine’s great detective cases.
By recording the locations of approximately 500 deaths, Dr. Snow was able to show a cluster around the Broad Street water pump (near the letter “D” in “BROAD” on the map). The map showed evidence that the pump was used by many people affected by the cholera epidemic; other pumps used, such as the pump inside the workhouse on Poland Street, were not as severely affected. And removing the pump handle from the Broad Street well quelled the spread of disease.
Snow had both a useful theory and a good method for displaying the data he carefully collected. His work is an example of finding the right visualization to demonstrate his ideas.
Steven Johnson, in his book “The Ghost Map” about the London cholera epidemic and efforts to stop it, notes that Snow’s was not the first map to chronicle cholera outbreaks, or even this particular cholera outbreak. “Part of what made Snow’s map groundbreaking was the fact that it wedded state-of-the-art information design to a scientifically valid theory of cholera’s transmission. It was not the mapmaking technique that mattered; it was the underlying science that the map revealed,” Johnson writes.
A Time Series of the Sun
Galileo’s sunspot drawings. In the summer of 1612, Galileo drew a series of sunspot drawings that demonstrated his genius as an observer and a recorder. “Because these observations were made at approximately the same time of day, the motion of the spots across the sun can easily be seen,” notes the Rice University Galileo Project, an online gallery explaining the Italian astronomer’s work.
The use of a telescope to project the sun’s image so he could draw where he saw the spots “moving” from day to day across the surface of the sun. In the context of Galileo’s time, it was another piece of evidence that the Earth was not the center of the universe.
From a data visualization perspective, the sunspot drawings show the effective use of comparing changes over time. They also show “the importance of unbiased scientific inquiry,” as this PBS documentary notes.
Advocating for the Sick and Wounded
Florence Nightingale’s famous coxcomb diagram shows the results of her field research in British military hospitals during the Crimean War to argue for better conditions and quality of care for wounded soldiers. In her statistical analysis, she found that the unsanitary environment caused preventable diseases and more fatalities (the blue/gray wedges) than other causes such as battle wounds (the red wedges). Her advocacy about poor conditions led to government changes and improved conditions.
The woman whose name is synonymous with nursing thought a lot about the value of data visualizations. In her of her 1858 report about British army mortality during the war she wrote: “Diagrams are of great utility for illustrating certain questions of vital statistics by conveying ideas on the subject through the eye, which cannot be so readily grasped when contained in figures.”
The Social Network
Jacob Moreno’s social network diagrams. Long before Facebook or LinkedIn, social scientists studied patterns of relationships and how members of groups interact. Jacob Moreno, a Bulgarian-born American psychiatrist, was the first to make a graphical representation of his social network findings starting in the 1930s.
The 1934 drawing above shows Moreno’s technique. Each actor as a point, with lines representing connections among the actors (shorter lines signify stronger ties). The point: boys (triangles) and girls (circles) in a fourth-grade classroom tend to choose same-gender relationships.
Linton C. Freeman, a sociology professor at University of California at Irvine, writes in the Journal of Social Structure that Moreno introduced five important ideas about building images of social networks. Among the innovations: drawing graphs with directed arrows to show action, variable shapes to show different types of actors, colors to show different activities on the same graph, and plotting point locations to stress important features of the data. “Other investigators were quick to follow Moreno’s lead,” notes Freeman, whose own research looks at mathematical applications for social network graphs.
What Would You Add?
These are just seven examples, with many great visualization projects that predate the computer age left out. William Playfair, for example, invented the pie chart and circle diagrams (the format used by Florence Nightingale) to illustrate economic reports at the turn of the 19th century. Statistician Karl Pearson introduced the histogram in 1895. Gerardus Mercator developed the standard map projection for nautical navigation—in 1569.
Graphical displays of data should show the data without distortion, writes Edward Tufte in “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” so that the displays “induce the viewer to think about the substance rather than about methodology, graphic design, the technology of graphic production, or something else…. Graphics reveal data.”
Michael Goldberg is the editor of Data Informed.