Data Viz O.G.

There’s a really interesting article over on Atlas Obscura about one bonnie Scot named William Playfair, who began making illustrated charts and graphs in the late-18th century — one of the early (or earliest) practitioners of modern data visualization).

Unfortunately he lived at a time when the relatively small number of people who could read looked down on such things. Which hindered the broader adoption of data visualization until decades later. Of course, at a time when literacy was significantly less common, it seems likely those charts and graphs would’ve helped more people understand more about their world. Maybe that’s why the elites weren’t so big on the style. There might’ve also been a shortage of data. A lot of people would’ve been more interested in surviving than tracking data consistently. Or even knowing that something like “data” was possible or useful. Just look at the state of medicine at that time. It’s more art than science until pretty recently. But, I digress…

The Forrest Gump of the Enlightenment

This part sums up why you might be interested in the Playfair article:

“Born in Scotland in 1759, Playfair was a kind of Forrest Gump of the Enlightenment, rubbing shoulders with the era’s many giants, switching careers at the drop of a hat, and throwing himself headlong into history-changing events, from the storming of the Bastille to the settling of the American West.

His graphical inventions, like many of his endeavors, were inspired by a certain disrespect for limits. He wasn’t so much an inventor as an intellectual remixer, taking bits and pieces of different people’s ideas and piecing them together into useful wholes.”

Side note:
A little younger than Alexander Hamilton, but maybe also prime material for re-contextualization in the form of a hip hop musical. Which reminds me — and brings me some shame for not mentioning this at any point during the previous several months — “Hamilton” is a perfect encapsulation of the principles of the War on Stupid. It’s success is incredible and has drawn interest to  Hamilton the man (including keeping him on the $10 bill), US history and historic sites in the state of New Jersey. That’s power. Oh, and it’s driven a ton of interest in live theater, which, one might assume, would be fading as part of the ascendance of digital media. Instead, it seems to be among the most vibrant and diverse of American performing arts at the moment. Someone should write a post on that.

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