The Shape of History: Reimagining Nineteenth-Century Data Visualization

Talk by Lauren Klein (Georgia Tech), December 1, 2016

Data visualization is not a recent innovation. Even in the nineteenth century, economists and educators, as well as artists and illustrators, were fully aware of the inherent subjectivity of visual perception, the culturally-situated position of the viewer, and the power of images in general—and of visualization in particular—to convey arguments and ideas. In this talk, I examine the history of data visualization through the lens of two visualization pioneers: William Playfair (1759-1832) and Elizabeth Peabody (1804-1894), showing how each expressed ideas about data, error, iteration, and interaction through their visual designs. I contend, moreover, that by attending to how each conceived of these concepts, we might better understand the function of visualization—in the nineteenth century as today—as a way to present concepts, advance arguments and perform critique. My evidence for this second claim is both theoretical and applied; by creating versions of these historical charts in JavaScript and HTML5, and by explaining how the affordances of these contemporary tools enhance certain features while limiting others, I accentuate the arguments that went into the digital tools’ design. This talk therefore describes a digital humanities project and a nineteenth-century one, and among its conclusions is that, when engaging in digital humanities work—and especially work involving visualization—the nineteenth century is never far from view.


December 1, 2016 4:00PM

Hurst Lounge (Room 201), Duncker Hall

Washington University in St. Louis