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  • A History of Data Visualization and Graphic Communication by Michael Friendly and Howard Wainer
  • Crystal Lee
A History of Data Visualization and Graphic Communication
by Michael Friendly and Howard Wainer
HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2021, 320 PP.
HARDCOVER, $49.95
ISBN: 978-0-674-97523-1

Few scientists have done more to write histories of their own discipline than data visualization researchers Michael Friendly and Howard Wainer. The Milestones Project (a multimedia database of visualizations coauthored by Friendly) is one of the most comprehensive historiographical resources on the subject. It collects hundreds of cases in order to create a timeline of visualization "milestones"—that is, the first instantiation of a particular chart type or feature, such as scatterplots or sparklines. Wainer, like Friendly, has written prolifically on the history and practice of graphical methods, and he is the translator of two foundational texts by French cartographer Jacques Bertin, who is widely credited with creating the theoretical foundations of modern visualization. It is fitting, then, that one of the first comprehensive monographs on the history of data visualization comes from practitioners who have made writing this history a crucial component to their scientific contributions.

The authors have taken on the ambitious task of writing whirlwind historical narratives, synthesizing centuries of scientific inquiry within a single chapter. Such is this book's grand ambition: it chronicles the history of graphic communication since the beginning of human language and reflects decades of expertise from the authors, who were themselves part of a prominent wave of visualization research. Both Friendly and Wainer were graduate students in the 1960s who were mentored by visualization giants John Tukey and Jacques Bertin, and they have since continued their work as statisticians at York University and the Educational Testing Service.

The book is, therefore, more than a history of data visualization; it is a disciplinary genealogy as recounted by historical actors who participated in its making. The project mirrors the rise of the history of science as an academic discipline, where scientists wrote many of the first monographs themselves. For example, Friendly and Wainer describe four watershed moments in visualization history by writing themselves into the narrative: Wainer's 1976 Graphic Social Reporting Project from the National Science Foundation, his English translation of The Semiology of Graphics, Edward Tufte's monographs, and Friendly's Milestones Project. They also exhaustively document the "firsts" of nearly every statistical concept: the first person to graph data (Michael Florent van Langren, from 1628 to 1644) (30), to invent the idea of "data" as evidence (John Graunt, in 1662) (48–49), or to use a pie chart (William Playfair, in 1789) (101), and so on. While Friendly and Wainer situate the birth of modern graphics within the [End Page 105] Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, they also take a longer historical view to identify the origins of visual communication.

To manage this feat, the book proceeds chronologically, first setting up the historical origins of data visualization in Neolithic art and Mesopotamian counting systems (chapter 1) and then proceeding toward other key discoveries: the determination of longitude (chapter 2), mapping social statistics with André-Michel Guerry (chapter 3), and statistical developments in the United Kingdom via John Snow's cholera maps and William Playfair's line charts (chapters 4–5). The book then crosses from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, documenting the invention of the scatterplot by John Herschel (chapter 6) and the period from 1860 to 1890, which Friendly and Wainer (echoing Howard Funkhouser) call the "Golden Age of Statistical Graphics" (chapter 7). A key component of this golden age is the changing role of data visualization as a method (and not simply an output) of scientific discovery. The book closes with a discussion of multidimensional visualization (chapter 8), interactive and animated visualizations (chapter 9), and a lyrical ode to "graphs as poetry," paired with a reimagining of a visual collaboration between W. E. B. Du Bois and C. J. Minard on the Great Migration (chapter 10).

Crucial to their discussion of the golden age, Friendly and Wainer introduce periodization in the history of data visualization (159) by plotting the number of milestones as proof of disciplinary development. The golden...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-3033
Print ISSN
2164-8034
Pages
pp. 105-107
Launched on MUSE
2022-02-04
Open Access
No
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