1800s – Explosion of Innovative Data Viz methods



The history of data and information visualization is both rich and fascinating. Since it is a huge topic and has several topics attached to it, this timeline attempts to cover only a brief period of 100 years.

To quote Michael Friendly, from York University“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. But if only we could! The history of statistical graphics reveals some graphics so breathtaking in information design and artistic beauty that it is hard to imagine how they might be reproduced today.”

I picked the 1800s as it seemed like the most productive time in terms of creating various innovative methods to represent data and improvise it. The first half of the 1800s saw an explosion in innovation such as pie charts, histograms, line graphs and time-series plots, bubble charts, contour plots, and so forth. Mapping also progressed into more complex representations such as the chloropleth map and multi dimensional atlases. And the second half was the Golden age of Data Visualization. Many more innovations were introduced such as the stacked area charts, the pictogram, 3D charts and the flow chart. This period also saw widespread adoption of these techniques in official state statistical offices.


The primary software used to create this timeline was Knight Lab’s Timeline JS. It is an open-source tool that allows publishers to quickly and easily create interactive, media-rich timelines using a Google Spreadsheet.

In terms of data and images, they were mostly sourced from M. Friendly and D.J. Denis’s “Milestones in the history of thematic cartography, statistical graphics, and data visualization” (Web document).


Timeline JS is a very simple tool and can be used by people with a beginner level of technical expertise. The instructions were clearly mentioned in both written and video format. An open source Google Spreadsheet could easily be downloaded and the rest of the instructions were mentioned in this video. When the sheet was “published to the web”, it could easily be viewed in Preview Mode and corrections could be made accordingly.

As far as working on the sheet was concerned, it was fairly easy to understand and work on. Time period, data and the media could be manually put in the sheet and a timeline could be generated in preview mode. I particularly enjoyed adding CSS elements to format my timeline so that it looks even better. I learnt about basic CSS style elements that can be added to the timeline here.

In terms of content, initially it was a struggle to finalize on a topic which would have enough milestones to add. For instance, I initially selected Bubble Maps as my topic and I struggled with finding 8-10 milestones in a smaller time frame. Later on, I expanded the topic to Innovative Data Visualization Methods in 1800s which gave me enough data to work on.


The timeline can be viewed here.

[iframe src=”https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline3/latest/embed/index.html?source=1lWI2pb6bERtInVtJrVqk75u0uzdTVutlU5tJNUf0URk&font=Bevan-PontanoSans&lang=en&initial_zoom=2&height=650″ width=”100%” height=”650″]

I designed the content presentation for the timeline in the simplest way possible. My focus was to make sure that the content was easily understandable and hence I stuck to a pattern –
_Year of creation
_Type of visualization (chart, maps etc.)
_Creator of the Visualization
_About the creator and visual
_Image of the method used

To break the monotony, I gave every alternate slide a dark grey background. I also provided links to each creator’s wikipedia page for more information on them.

Working on Timeline JS was a pleasant experience for me. It is a user friendly tool and I love that the data gets automatically formatted in a timeline. I can see a lot of potential for displaying different kinds of information in a chronological manner. Even though it is a fabulous tool to work with, I felt a little more could be done with the formatting options. It was fairly easy to work with CSS in excel but I felt creatively limited overall.

Future Directions

The scope of this project could be increased by adding several other centuries so that the origins of other data visualization methods could be included.

While reading about the formatting options of Timeline JS I learnt that it can further be customized and integrated by using Javascript and JSON. I would love to play around with that and see what kind of presentation changes I can come up with for this project.

Overall, working with Timeline JS was a fun exercise but mining through apt data was a little more frustrating than I had imagined. Looking back, I also wish I had enough coding knowledge to further customize my timeline.