26 February 2024

Data Visualization in the early 20th century

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Explore the roots of data visualization with us through Willard C. Brinton's pioneering books from the early 20th century. Discover timeless principles and the evolution of visual data presentation techniques. A must-read for enthusiasts and professionals alike. Available for full access on the Internet Archive

A hundred years ago, the landscape of data visualization was vastly different from the digital dashboards and interactive charts we are accustomed to today. We want to share with you two books that we recently stumbled upon: “Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts“, published in 1914, and its successor “Graphic Presentation“, published in 1939. Both books are written by engineer Willard C. Brinton and present a fascinating time capsule of the state of the art of data visualization at the time. They remind us that the principles governing the effective presentation of information have deep historical roots, even as the tools and technologies we use have undergone dramatic transformations.

We encourage you to explore both books for yourself. Below we’ll share a few excerpts that we found interesting and/or amusing.

The data doesn’t speak for itself, presentation and story telling matter!

Willard C. Brinton, Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts (1914), pp. 1-2

“Graphic comparison, wherever possible, should be made in one dimension only. In such a case as this, one-dimension presentation is perfectly feasibile by the user of bars of different lenghts.”

Willard C. Brinton, Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts (1914), p. 22

“In general, graphics work of this kind is much worse than the use of figures alone. There are times when an absence of knowledge is better than incorrect knowledge.”

Willard C. Brinton, Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts (1914), p. 27

And they were extremely effective. The visualization below aided in getting millions of Dollars raised for the improvement of public schools in the United States.

Willard C. Brinton, Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts (1914), p. 32

Both books feature numerous examples of misleading charts, some of them intentional. Of course, the well-known “don’t start the axis at zero to make the numbers look more spectacular” trick is also included.

Willard C. Brinton, Graphic Presentation (1939), p. 22

Even though Brinton is aware that bar charts are a valid, often better, alternative to pie charts, he treats them as more or less interchangeable in his 1939 book:

“In practically every instance in which material is presented in a sector chart, the same information might also be presented in bar charts.”

This isn’t surprising, as the book itself is dedicated to William Playfair, the inventor of the pie chart (as well as lots of other visualizations). The preface of the book describes how Brinton became aware of Playfair after publication of his first book. Brinton’s done extensive research on the man and his works, and he’s a fan:

“With all that Playfair did to show the effectiveness of graphic chart methods from his first book, published in 1786 at the age of twenty-seven, till his death in 1823, why have not graphic charts become more thoroughly established as a universal language?”

Willard C. Brinton, Graphic Presentation (1939), p. 12

Willard C. Brinton, Graphic Presentation (1939), p. 81

If fidgetting with settings in your data visualization software of choice seems like a hassle, how about manually creating a sankey chart from one thousand strips of paper?

Willard C. Brinton, Graphic Presentation (1939), p. 78

Or how about creating a 3D visualization with a figure saw and hundreds of pieces of plywood?

Willard C. Brinton, Graphic Presentation (1939), p. 354

From picking the right paper, pencils, crayons, erasers and ink to cut-out letters, cameras, lantern slides and various printing techniques, getting your visualizations out there sure was a lot of work!

After going through these books and learning more about what it was like “back in the day”, we at Bitmetric feel fortunate that we get to use modern solutions like Qlik Sense every day 😉

If you want to explore both books for yourself, they are available in their entirety at the Internet Archive:

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Barry has over 20 years experience as a Data & Analytics architect, developer, trainer and author. He will gladly help you with any questions you may have.