Humans like seeing data arranged chronologically, and always have

Anyone in business today is familiar with seeing timelines to help visualize data. Sales figures are plotted over time to show rates of growth or signs of trouble. Wall Street practically lives for comparing a company's results on timelines with its emphasis on comparing numbers quarter-to-quarter and year-over-year. Product development schedules wouldn't exist without them. And when we review market forecasts from researchers like Gartner and IDC, it's impossible to imagine their reports without seeing data plotted along timelines. They're everywhere.

Cartographies of Time by Daniel Rosenberg , Anthony Grafton. See images from the book featured on the New York Times.

In their splendid book, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton reveal that people have been visualizing the passing of time in many creative ways through tables and illustrations since the ancient Greeks. However, the timeline itself is a relatively new phenomenon. The model we follow today, the authors claim, stems from 1765 with A Chart of Biography created by Joseph Priestly, who, among other accomplishments, was among the first to discover oxygen in its gaseous state.

Timelines have always been popular as ways to display the march of history. Sebastian Adams's 5-meter long Synchronological Chart from 1871 sold well to the public and was hung on many a (long) wall. Another popular world history timeline was the 1.5 meter long Histomap published in 1931 by John Sparks, which is still in print.

But timelines were not destined to be just lovely tools for history buffs. They quickly were adopted by business. For example, in the 19th century railroads popularized them by using timelines as the basis for train schedules. And at the turn of the 20th century, Marconi Telegraph published timelines of ships crossing the ocean and the approximate positions during their voyages to "depict the shifting wireless communication network linking the North Atlantic."

This is an excellent book for anyone involved in visualizing data. It shows that humans have a preference, even a passion to understand their world through their eyes. While timelines are only one way to visualize business data, they are so ubiquitous that it is almost impossible to conceive of our understanding a company or market without them. That's why this book is not just enjoyable and beautiful, but important as well.

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