The history of data



It’s often said that we are in the age of data. We create, curate, collect, compute and cleanse more of it every day. It feeds the growth of exciting technology like artificial intelligence (AI). It helps personalise our online experiences, and it helps us move forward in the quest for more knowledge.

But how long has it taken to get here? The concept of data is not new — far from it. In fact, its story dates much further back than you might think.

Here, we dive into the long, rich history of data.


The ancient world

It’s (perhaps) possible to trace the history of data back to the ancient world — as early as 19,000BC.

The Ishango bone was a notched baboon bone tool dating from around 19,000 BC. It’s thought to have acted as a tally stick. So, it could be speculated that the Ishango bone represents an incredibly early instance of data collection and storage.

That is, those methodical bone scratches could be the first documented record of humans logging numerical information for later use.

Around the third millennia BC, writing started to evolve, and with it, libraries. This collection and curation of written work, arguably, represents an early form of mass data storage.


1600s: Early interpretations

Fast-forward to the 1640s, where the word ‘data’ first saw English use. Derived from Latin, ‘data’ meant ‘a fact given or granted’ — often as the basis for calculation.

In 1663, John Graunt conducted one of the earliest recorded instances of data analysis. He studied the death records kept by London parishes. From this, he was able to make observations about the varying death rates between genders and even predict life expectancy.

So, Graunt is generally considered to be the founder of the science of demography.


The late 1800s: data processing problems

The next big event in the history of data occurred following the 1880 US census. Over the decades, the census had grown, asking more and more questions about the populace. The issue was that there was now more data than collectors could analyse.

Herman Hollerith was the man to solve the problem, with his brainchild: the Hollerith desk. This machine harnessed the power of punch cards — an invention from Joseph Jacquard in 1801. With the collected data represented as holes in cards, the machine could find the holes, which would complete a circuit. A completed circuit would move a dial up by one.

This reduced the time taken to complete the 1890 census. Hollerith’s machine made it possible to process and analyse large amounts of data. And, sure enough, punch card automation became a widespread way to collect and analyse data.


1900s: A question of storage

So, the challenge of processing data had been answered (in some part) by this early automation. The history of data then saw a shifted emphasis onto its storage and collection.

In 1928, Fritz Pfleumer invented magnetic tape for recording purposes. (Or, in other words, a way to collect and store data magnetically.) This is an idea that lasted. The hard disc drives, floppy discs and tapes that would follow toward the end of the century were all enabled by magnetic data storage.

The 1960s saw the conception (but not the creation) of cloud data storage by Dr Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider. He envisioned an “Intergalactic Computer Network” where data and programs could be accessed by anyone, anywhere, at any time. This idea forms the basis of cloud computing as we now know it.

Then, in the 1970s, Edgar F. Codd presented a framework for a relational model of database management.  This proved an influential theory in the history of data — it’s a framework for data management that’s still used today.


1990s: The internet

Naturally, the most noteworthy 1990s event in the history of data is the invention of the internet. Sir Tim Berners Lee created hyperlinks and hypertext, enabling data sharing worldwide. It wasn’t long until the first instance of all web-based storage, launched by AT&T in the mid-1990s.

Other notable moments for the history of data in the 90s include 1997, which saw the launch of Google Search. This put data very much in the hands of anyone with computer access.


Growth of AI, ethics and data use

Now, the age of data is upon us. It’s labelled the oil of the present day. And with that, has come an increase in awareness of the need for security when collecting, using and storing data. This led to legislation like the 2018 General Data Protection Regulation. (Which emphasises the importance of privacy and protection of personal data.)

The need to protect data applies beyond the present day. It also needs protecting for future generations, so that they can learn from all we know today.

We’re also looking now at different uses of data, as it helps us train artificial intelligence systems. It’s helping computers act intelligently. This means that data has played a key role in the creation of technology such as facial recognition and natural language processing. So, today’s data is powering tomorrow’s innovations.


A history of data

Data is part of the fabric of life and society — and has been for a long time. The history of data is a long story detailing the evolution of data collection, storage and processing.

It’s said that knowledge is power. Well, data is knowledge, and we’re now seeing the power that our data holds.


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