Historical Perspective

The first known uses of bar charts to visualize data appeared in a 14th century publication plotting velocity of an accelerating object against time.  William Playfair (1759 –1823), a Scottish engineer and political economist, is widely considered the inventor of line graphs, pie charts, and other graphs very familiar to us today. Below is a chart of his showing the Time Series of Exports and Imports:  Denmark and Norway to and from England.


Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Playfair

Charles Joseph Minard (1781-1870), a French civil engineer, made many novel contributions to the use of graphics in engineering and statistics. One of his most famous visuals is the map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812 shown below.


Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Joseph_Minard

In this map, Minard tells the story of Napoleon’s army’s disastrous journey to Russia. It not only highlights the major depletion of the army, but it also shows factors such as the temperature and the army’s location relative to given dates.  Many information scientists view his map as one of the best data visualizations ever drawn. Playfair and Minard’s charts shown are used in Edwards Tufte’s classic book,  The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Sample pages of this book are located at here.

Questions for Students