Data Trails No. 7 – Snapshots from the history of data visualisation

Timelines seem like such a „natural idea“ these days that we don’t even notice their ubiquity anymore: Facebook timeline, news feeds, graphic interfaces for back-up versions – how did anyone manage their life before there were things like this? Timelines are a universal concept to structure an overwhelming wealth of material, and the idea of time moving along a straight line is deeply engrained in our brains nowadays. However, this has not always been the case.


Friedrich Strass, The Stream of Times, 1804. This wall map shows a universal history of mankind, beginning in the depth of unrecorded history and running down to the author’s time.

It was only in the late 18th century that several different timeline concepts were developed. For many centuries, drawing maps had been an elaborate practice for visualising space. But there was no well established approach for visualising time-based information. French scientist Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg wrote in 1753:

The study of Geography is pleasing, easy, attractive… it lays out before our eyes a picture of every Country of the World… This is not how it is with Chronology; it is a dry form of study, laborious, unforgiving, offering nothing to the mind but repellent dates, a prodigious accumulation of numbers which burden the memory.

He subsequently published one of the earliest timeline concepts and is nowadays considered one of the timeline’s earliest proponents, along with Joseph Priestley. Given that the very idea was only a few years old, it is interesting how it picked up speed during the early 19th century. One of the most startling early examples is the 1803 giant beauty pictured here above. With its height of more than one meter, it was conceived as a wall map. Its German author Friedrich Strass was a professor and may have had educational purposes in mind.


Friedrich Strass, The Stream of Times, 1804 (detail). The universal history of mankind begins in the sky amid the clouds of unrecorded history.

As with the comparative maps which were so popular through the 19th century, I am fascinated by the fictions that arise from the logic of the approach taken here. The piece visualises a universal history of mankind. (Is there any subject more complex than that?) Its „items“ are streams pouring out from a cloudy sky, down into a sort of no-man’s land, which is labelled according to the states and nations in existence when this map was created. The flow at the very right is dedicated to cultural or technical inventions instead of a people or state.


Friedrich Strass, The Stream of Times, 1804 (detail). The history of mankind is told in national and ethnic streams flowing down in time.

The timeline is marked along both sides and forms regular lines across the whole map. One of the most interesting questions arising from this representation is: If the sky is on top, and history is flowing down in streams, then what is the white space background on which the streams are shown? Look at how little creeks sometimes begin or end nowhere – all of a sudden they’re there. It is also nice to see how this abstract representation of endless temporal processes is clearly influenced by contemporary cartography. The streams are not just abstract flows, much rather, they are designed like rivers or a sea shore on a map.


Friedrich Strass, The Stream of Times, 1804 (detail). Larger patterns in the history can be seen when an empire begins to encompass large geographic areas, such as Alexander the Great’s kingdom of Macedon or the Roman Empire.

I would be awesome to travel back in time and look at how people actually worked with pieces like this – to conduct a proper user study so to speak. Did anyone actually use this to study history? Did it help learning, perceiving, memorizing the complex matter? The map certainly does show some patterns, such as the parallel development of many countries or peoples, or the sudden expansion of certain empires such as Rome in the middle of the map. However, visualising history in this manner is not as straightforward as displaying numbers in a diagram – it is a very inventive act. Friedrich Strass created an imaginative visual for something that is inherently invisible. Great work.

Images via David Rumsey Cartography Associates. The quote from Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg was translated by Stephen Boyd Davis, he captures it in this brilliant paper on the history of the timeline.
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Sandra Rendgen is the author of two bestselling books on data visualisation and infographics, both published by Taschen. Currently she is getting lost in the history of data visualisation.

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