About This Website

These web pages are meant as a supplement to our book, A History of Data Visualization and Graphic Communication. The main goals are to:

Who needs this book?

The book is aimed at an educated, lay audience: in general anyone who must either convey or receive quantitative information, which at one time or another includes all of us. This includes, but is not limited to, graphic designers, statisticians, and people in the media. Typical audiences would be readers of the NY Times, The New Yorker, Scientific American, the New Republic, National Review and related publications in other venues.

A more specific market segment is the large community of professionals in the history of science, cartography, data journalism, graphic design, and information visualization, visualization software.

Front cover

The design of the front cover is based on William Playfair’s (1805) marvelous Chart of Universal Commercial History. In it, he asks:

He shows ancient and modern civilizations in the form of small graphs over time, representing some indication of strength of an empire or civilization, in a way that then can be visually compared to ask further questions:

Another implicit question is:

This chart, like our book, takes a long view of history, with the necessity of some degree of abstraction. These questions also provide a structure for discussing the history of data visualization.

Playfair’s chart uses what at the time was a brilliant and novel graphic form: using compressed little distributions showing the “relative” strength of each civilization over time in a way thay they could be easily compared. The colored bands reflect:

This graphic form was recently re-invented and called a “ridgeline” plot because it resembles a set of mountain ridges. This figure appears as Plate 8 in the book and is discussed in Chapter 5, “Charts of History”.



A unique feature of our book is that we try to appreciate the efforts of key thinkers in the history of data visualization by understanding their data and the graphs they produced. In many cases, we can shed some light on their topics and graphical innovations by trying to reproduce their graphs with modern software.

Toward this end, we created two R packages, used in some of our graphs in the book.

R code for figures

This is a list of the R code files for our reconstructions of historical graphs. They are also linked in the figure captions on the individual chapter pages.


None so far, but if you find errors in the book, file an issue on GitHub.


All figures displayed here are authorized for this limited use. In some cases, the figures shown here differ from those printed in the book, but these are credited and available for this use.

In addition, we use a collection of cartoon images for our chapter pages created by RJ Andrews, http://infowetrust.com. We are grateful for permission to use them here.

We thank Matthew Dubins of Donor Science Consulting for his help in making this web site possible.


Copyright © 2021 Michael Friendly. All rights reserved.

friendly AT yorku DOT ca

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