TIMELINE OF Scottish Inventors at the Forefront of Information Visualization

Timelines, Visualization

Our first lab was to use an open source online tool called TimelineJS, which was developed by Northwestern University’s Knight Lab, to create a timeline around data relevant to the field of Info Vis.  TimelineJS is an adaptable template that allows you to populate a timeline with information formatted in a Google spreadsheet and then imported back into the KnightLab website.  The spreadsheet included entries for dates, headline, text, media (accepting a large selection of formats), credits, types and groups. Incorporating familiar tools like Google sheets and simple customizers on the site made it easy to learn and use, but it adaptation is also limited. 

My spreadsheet


My Timeline preview


I decided to focus my Info Vis timeline on inventors who had contributed to the field that were from Scotland. Scots have been credited with an amazing number of inventions of thought and government, have made immense contributions to science and medicine and, and have been at the forefront of technological innovation for centuries.  I was curious to see if this would apply to the field of Information Visualization and, sure enough, the inventor of the graph, William Playfair, was a Scot. 

The first step in selecting my 5-10 inventors was in setting parameters, including who to consider “Scottish”.  Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone in Scotland but was born in Edinburgh, while there were others were born elsewhere but made discoveries while working in Scotland (often at Universities such as Edinburgh) that I chose not to include. I decided that I would define a Scot as someone born there only, both for simplicity and because a persons cultural identity is usually developed in ones formative and educational years. 

Info vis, being a field that has coalesced in its modern form by employing techniques and devices from the arts, mathematics, science, and cognitive behavior, allows for a wide realm from which to select my 5-10 inventors. However, I did not want to go too far afield. I selected people who had an evident connection to Info Vis in the limited way that I currently understand it. For example, while I very much wanted to include Mary Somerville, because she was incredible and a woman, I couldn’t see her contributions as directly relevant to Info Vis.

The text elements I included on my timeline were; years of birth and death, name, relevant invention, a brief context/explanation, and credit and caption information for both text and visuals. The structure of the timeline is very similar to what would be called a “charticle” in the editorial world, which is where my previous experience comes from, so I treated this timeline in a similar way. However, I found some of the type formatting and size limitations frustrating to structure the information I wanted to include (the headline is way too big, while they would do well to have a smaller subhead below before the description).  I found I had to manipulate the Google sheet to present text in the way I wanted it to be. I wound up combining the captions and credits into one column so it would take up less space. 

The visuals I included were a portrait of the person and a background image of some element of their invention. I used images of original source material (ie a sketch the person did, a photo of them using the object). Where there was no portrait available I used another descriptive image. 

I spent, by far, the most time researching inventors and trying to verify the information I found online.    I often used Wikipedia as a starting point and then looked at the article links or elsewhere on Google for resources that are based in Scotland or are more specifically associated with the particular person or invention. A frequent issue I confronted was the multiples of people in one distinguished family with the same name. For example, I ultimately did not use the portrait I found on various sites that was labeled as William Playfair because it seemed that the same image was used for both the graph inventor and his nephew of the same name who was a famous architect.  

I would really have loved to link the timeline to a map that marked the birthplace of each person as well as their birth year.  However I couldn’t figure out how to share a Google map with location notes saved on it (also I know we will be learning about this in future classes so I didn’t want to spend too much time ad-libbing a solution). Also, the birth locations were inconsistent; one person might have their tiny town named, while another might have the kingdom as location, which is a bit like city vs state (William Playfair is from the kingdom of Fife, where my husband grew up).

In the end I found that Timeline easily created a simple but engaging display of my inventors that was both visually engaging and informative. It was apparent that there was a real flurry of invention and creativity from the late 18th century through the early 20th century when viewing the lifespans of the inventors in the timeline. It is also notable that the first woman makes her appearance well into the 20th century. 

In his book,  “How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created our World & Everything in It”, Arthur Herman explains, “the version of technology we live with most closely resembles the one that Scots such as James Watt organized and perfected. It rests on certain basic principles that the Scottish Enlightenment enshrined: common sense, experience as our best source of knowledge, and arriving at scientific laws by testing general hypotheses through individual experiment and trial and error.”   I believe this group of inventors, in displaying the scope of their inventions and the era in which they lived, confirms this statement. The hyperbole that Scots invented “everything”, while also true to their character, is in some ways earned given their immense contributions to modern life.