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The History of Visualisation
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message n 110]

The history of visualisation is that of the search for new artefacts to amplify the ability to know; it’s the history of writing and of maps, the history of knowledge.

Saying that the history of visualisation is that of knowledge is quite a bold assertion. But from the moment that we define visualisation as “the formation of a mental image of an abstract concept” (see issue number_100) we see that we aren’t that wrong.

As we said in the above mentioned issue, Information Visualisation is not necessarily bound to the computer, although it has made visualisation burst onto the scene and we had seen that many fields that formerly appeared to be independent and specific, like graphic representation, data filtering, visual languages, cartography or cognitive psychology are only facets of the same puzzle whose final objective is knowledge.

From this standpoint the history of Information Visualisation can’t be restricted to the last 15 years in which its name has been more or less in fashion, since Robertson, Card and Mackinley from Xerox PARC according to some or Nahum Gershon according to others, coined the term.

In the end the history of visualisation is the history of the tools that the human beings use to amplify their cognition. We take it for granted that human beings use tools (we call them technology) to extend our physical capacities. But maybe it’s not so obvious that we are probably the only kind of animal that builds tools to amplify our thinking.

The mental multiplication of two two-digit numbers can last 5 times more than using pen and paper.

An outstanding example: try and multiply mentally two numbers of two digits. For example 35 times 95 and count the time you needed to do so. Now let’s do the same but using pen and paper. If you are a normal person and you are not using any special system to perform mental operations you will have spent up to 5 times more in doing it mentally than using pen and paper. (See Readings in information Visualization, pp. 2). If you try the same with a few digits more it will quickly become just impossible to perform mentally. 

The external representation of the multiplication in visual form complements the internal representation (the visualisation that the result is 3610) extending our memory. Barbara Tversky in chapter 4 of the book “Spatial Schemas and abstract thought” (I’m in debt to Yuri Engelhardt for letting me know about it) considers that one of the oldest tools to amplify cognition is graphics.

Let’s look at some examples. 38,000 years BC, long before any written language appeared, our ancestors etched the bones of animals. In one of them found in Dordogne (France) the etchings are engraved in a way that appears to be the record of the phases of the moon for two and a half months

8,000 years ago the Sumerians already used tables to keep count of their economic transactions. 2800 years after that they used a pictographic language with almost 2000 signs. At the same time the Egyptians developed their hieroglyphic writing, that would last for another 3,000 years without essential changes.

The oldest city plan discovered until now appears to be that of Çatal Höyük in Anatolia (Turkey), one of the oldest cities of the Neolithic. The map, painted onto a wall appears to represent the town itself. More info at the interesting web of the excavation

ÇatalHoyukMap.jpg (25090 bytes)
City plan of Çatal Höyük. The map is painted on a wall and measures more than de 2,5 m long. Image courtesy of Ali Turan in Turkey in maps www.turkeyinmaps.com City plan of Çatal Höyük. Recreation of the original plan, where you can appreciates the structure of the city. An erupting volcano also appars. It's probably the Hasan Dag, still visible from Çatal Höyük in the present time.

From pre-historical times up to the middle ages you can find many examples of the developments and innovations related to the visual representation of knowledge. Those interested can visit the very commendable web site about the history of cartography and data visualisation.

Among said examples it’s worth noting the invention of paper in the year 105 AC, the excellent representations of mathematical functions in a style that today we would call “bar graph” by Nicole Oresme in 1350 or the extraordinary Catalan Atlas of 1375 made by Abraham and Jafuda Cresques that covers the world known at that time (from Portugal to China, covering Scandinavia and the north of Africa. 

AtlasCatalanE.jpg (200383 bytes)
Catalan Atlas from 1375. Facsimile edition.  In the image you can see the pages corresponding to Europe. All the pages of the atlas can be seen an the Bibliotheque Nationale de France web site.  Graphics made by Nicole Oresme in 1350. Oresme was priest, besides mathematician and philosopher. These graphics come from his book "Tractatus de latitudinibus formarum" 

But you’ll have to wait until the 18th century to see the beginning of the charts and graphics we are used to today, based on the development of statistics, Cartesian coordinates and the increase of available data.

Next week we'll explore this interesting period in more detail.

Note: you can find several other interesting pictures of Çatal Höyük city plan at the Henry Davis'  Cartographic Images web site

Links of this issue:

http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=100&lang=2   Number 100 on Information Visualisation, what is it all about?
http://www.infovis.net/printRec.php?rec=llibre&lang=2#Readings   The book Readings in Information Visualization"
http://www.atamanhotel.com/catalhoyuk/oldest-map.html   Explanation about the Çatal Höyük map
http://www.catalhoyuk.com/   Web site of the excavation of Çatal Höyük
http://www.turkeyinmaps.com   Interesting website about maps of Turkey
http://www.math.yorku.ca/SCS/Gallery/milestone/index.html   Milestones in the History of Thematic Cartography, Statistical Graphics, and Data Visualization
http://www.bnf.fr/enluminures/texte/tx2_07.htm   Pages of the 1375 Catalan Atlas at the BNF
http://www.henry-davis.com/MAPS/AncientWebPages/100B.html   The Henry Davis Cartographic Images
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