What were the main forces shaping the field of information visualization throughout the period from 1490 to 1800?
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.
With the early modern age in Europe began a long-term process of intellectual development that brought with it an increasing appreciation of individual expertise as compared to the authority of traditional knowledge. Intellectual culture began to be shaped more and more by thinkers and artists who were devoted to the “study of reality” and who placed trust in the power of their own intellect. Seen technically, the invention of printing around 1455 proved to be a central catalyst, which suddenly made knowledge available in seemingly unending diversity, paving the way for literary genres and popular nonfiction books for a broad public. Over the long term, printing brought about a general standardization of formats, writing and book conventions, and reference and citation rules. At the same time, woodcuts and engravings were established as efficient reproduction techniques for images and graphics. Visual aids like maps, diagrams, or tableaus were part and parcel of printing culture, whether as individual sheets or bound into books.
The most striking development in information visualization during this period is scientific cartography. Driven by the hegemonic ambitions of European powers, the expeditions of seafarers since the 15th century led not just to colonization of large sections of the Earth, but also to a new understanding of the location and expanse of the continents and to advances in the mapping of the planet. Cartography became a recording system that stored and visualized new discoveries. Cartographers collected the reports of seafarers and the data from logbooks into maps, and together these various individual observations composed a new concept of the world.
Map publishers put out systematized atlases with comprehensive collections of maps, giving rise to the development of geography as its own science. Also in the field of anatomy, information visualization performed a similar demonstrative function for proving new scientific knowledge. Since the early 16th century systematic dissections set in motion anatomy’s radical transformation into a science, and graphic representation of anatomical structures became an essential learning tool. Characteristic to many scientific disciplines was the modern ambition to understand and organize the world in its bewildering variety, which is reflected in the concept of the tableau as a structured and concise form for organizing knowledge. In this spirit, numerous graphic tableaus came into being at this time. The emergence of natural history as an area of study was greatly influenced by the visual presentation of natural collections and by the tidily arranged charts that systematically depicted animals and plants.
The continually developing understanding of science during the early modern period brought about a growing appreciation for empirical observation and data collection. This also lead in the 18th century to the first attempts to visualize long-range series of measurements in diagrams or to document geographical observations in thematic maps. Soon a greater consciousness of the journalistic impact of information graphics joined the already long cultivated didactic function of information visualization. Printed matter was becoming even more widely available, and the literacy rate of the European population was continuously increasing. Well-made information graphics thus also gained widespread public impact for the implementation of political goals.