What were the main forces shaping the field of information visualization throughout the 19th century?
My book with art & design publisher TASCHEN looks at the incredibly rich history of infographics and data visualisation, tracing their evolution from the Middle Ages right through to today’s computer-based visualisation.
The 19th century exemplified a series of long-term fundamental changes that resulted in the European and North American middle classes increasingly gaining political and economic influence. The process of industrialization ranked as the key development and deeply transformed Western societies: technologically, economically, and socially. In the history of information visualization there was tremendous growth in the use of information graphics, such that by the end of the century a natural proliferation of maps and diagrams can be noted across many areas of media culture.
This was rooted in technical innovations and influenced by the intellectual currents of the time. Of central importance was the invention of lithography at the end of the 18th century as well as its further development into a color printing process. This technique was significantly more affordable than the copperplate engraving process that had predominated up until then. It allowed larger print runs and led to a veritable explosion of visual culture in the 19th century. Furthermore it also made it possible to publish multicolored information graphics for the broader public: in maps and atlases, visual aids, posters, and portfolios.
Scientific geography underwent an expansion of its subjects of research beyond mere description of the Earth’s surface. This also fueled the development of thematic cartography. It is historically significant that it became a matter of course to collect and utilize empirical data as a basis for research in various disciplines. Many intellectuals and scientists were thus emboldened to experiment with the visualization of data. William Playfair, Layton Cooke, and Charles-Joseph Minard developed diagrams and statistical maps for economic data. In the field of social research there were statistical maps on phenomena like criminality, education, or prostitution. Data analysis and data visualization were also employed in medicine as complementary research practices. Using the numerous diagrams and statistical maps created in the study of cholera, for example, epidemiologists searched for causal relationships between various influencing factors.
At the same time statistics itself matured into a scientific discipline. Over the course of many decades not only did the methods of data collection and analysis have to go through a process of development, but great pains had to be taken to achieve recognition for the field of statistics in the academic world. In parallel, statistics offices were established in governmental administrations in many countries. Time and again experts made endeavors to graphically render population and economic data.
Overall these developments lead to the “graphic method,” as information visualization was called in France, slowly but surely being established over the 19th century as a legitimate method for analyzing and discussing subjects at a scientific level. The use of diagrams and maps in smaller formats also multiplied: they became a typical part of argumentations in scientific books or articles, and also expanded into the daily press. At the same time, an appreciation of the communicative power of information graphics grew—activists like Florence Nightingale or Emma Willard used them to promote their social objectives. Towards the end of the century, methods of information visualization were also increasingly employed in political rhetoric, advertising, and public relations and thus achieved an even wider audience.