Data visualisation, 17th-century style

While information design seems wholly modern, its roots can be traced back to early scientific explorations, as a new Royal Society exhibition reveals…

We tend to think of information design as an exclusively modern animal, born in the 20th century and growing up during the digital revolution. But when we consider the principles of information design – clarity and economy in the visual representation of data – it’s no stretch to suggest that its origins coincide with the beginning of science, the first systematic attempts to generate data about the natural world. These attempts found formal expression in the Royal Society, founded in 1660 and celebrating its 350th anniversary. Through­out its long history, the Society’s ingenious members have had a creative hand in many of the visualisation innovations that we now take for granted.

Astronomer Edmond Halley designed the first weather chart in 1686, using dashed lines to represent wind patterns over Europe. Chemist Joseph Priestley, while he wasn’t discovering new elements, created the first timeline as a way to impress students with a sense of the relative position of historical events. While Benjamin Franklin, a Fellow of the Royal Society across the pond, can’t claim any specific innovation with his ‘circle of circles’ diagram, the econ-omy of this mathematical abstraction reveals a near-modern design aesthetic. But a claim could certainly be made for the Society’s most famous Fellow, Isaac Newton, and the humble pie chart. Having observed the separate colours created by the passage of white light through a prism, Newton hit on the idea of representing them on a segmented circle, with the width of each colour’s segment correlated to its wavelength.

These innovations (just a few of many) were no accident – the Society’s earliest members were well aware that they were creating guidelines for future generations. When visualising data was still an exotic idea, the multi-talented Robert Hooke set down his justifications for this new way of doing things. The human mind was prone to error, Hooke argued, and easily distracted. Hooke’s observation of familiar objects under the newly invented microscope had brought home to him how subjective human perception really was. If a solid-looking bit of wood could turn out to be full of holes, and even a simple pair of glasses could alter perception, how could we trust another person’s reports? The answer was to collect a range of data and set it down in such a way that it could be easily understood, compared, and verified, through replication if necessary. Simple language and typography, the economy of charts and classification systems would “less disturb the Mind in its Inquiry”, reducing human error in making and reporting observations. These ideas were tested with increasing frequency on the pages of the Society’s illustrated journal, Philosophical Transactions.

Richard Waller’s Catalogue of Simple and Mixt Colours, With a Specimen of Each Colour Prefixt to Its Proper Name appears in Philosophical Transactions in 1686. In addition to showing the natural relationships between the colours, Waller’s chart was a guide to help people record observations. By referring to a colour sample on this chart when describing a chemical reaction, for example, the experimenter could ensure that a reader trying to replicate his results could refer to the same colour. Providing a solution to the timeless dilemma ‘is your red the same as my red?’, Waller’s colour chart functioned like a 17th-century Pantone book for scientists; artists may have used it too.

Taking so many observations over time required new ways of condensing information. Shorthand and artificial languages may not seem to have immediate connection with information design, but the hope of finding a universal way to communicate data was the driving force behind experiments in pictorial languages. John Wilkins’ Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language of 1668 proposed a system of modular characters through which everything in the world, in theory, could be described. Later he added a chart with instructions for verbalising the different characters, creating a pictorial language in the process.

Two and a half centuries before Otto Neurath’s Isotype, George Garden sent the Royal Society his meteorological pictograms. To ease the tedium of making detailed weather reports, Garden devised a handy system that took a clear day as a simple circle with additional elements to indicate different conditions. The addition of a line of asterisks radiating from the circle indicated a frost. Vertical wavy lines within the circle recorded the presence of clouds, and interlinked ovals and crosses, the occurrence of thunder and lightning. Sets of horizontal lines across the diameter indicated scattered showers, while a full circle of lines meant continual heavy rain. With Garden’s system, a whole day’s pattern could be seen at a glance.

While meteorology, a repetitious science, lent itself to notational innovations, the structural nature of 2 3 geology lent itself to abstract representations and novel mapping. John Strachey gave the first example of a geological cross-section in 1725, providing both a drawing of strata in a Somerset mine, and an abstract spiral chart encoding the same data. A later, colourful plate from GA Mantell’s The Wonders of Geology (1839) combines realistic drawing of strata with hatching and stippling techniques, adding beauty as well as information to the design.

As the physical world took on a semblance of order through the techniques used to explore it, graphics began to emerge that paralleled the newly discovered world in order and structure – and sometimes, even in physical shape. Design analyst Edward Tufte describes as among his favourite examples a drawing of Saturn by Galileo, a little sketch that reduces the planet to its outline form. That sketch appears within a 1636 work by Galileo as just another printed character, a development Tufte considers a revolutionary blurring of the line between word and image. A similar form appears in composite planetary images from Christiaan Huygens’ Systema Saturnium (1659), in this context enabling the reader to understand at
a glance changes in observations of the schematically rendered planet over time.

Through these examples we get a sense of the character of early information design. It was economical, seeking to encode more information than the usual written account. It was composite, allowing the visitor to take in data at a glance. Sometimes it was pictorial, a sort of stylised snapshot of objects or features of the real world. And ideally, it was universal – enabling communication with a wide international audience.

Today, information design must respond to the vast data generated by a complex digital world. Two current trends stand at opposite poles: the use of bold, simple graphics to communicate quantitative comparisons, and the generation of detailed visualisations that celebrate the beauty of information itself. But both share an origin in the 17th-century desire to classify and quantify the world.

Rebecca Pohancenik is a researcher, curator and designer at Practice + Theory studio in London. The Royal Society: 350 Years of Science explores the Society’s history through its collection of scientific instruments, books and manuscripts. It runs until 19 November at the Society’s headquarters in London SW1. Entrance is free, but booking is required. See royalsociety. org/350-years-exhibition



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