In 2009, English scientist Stephen Wolfram started a website–an “answer” engine–to redefine how information is gathered on its greatest-ever conduit. In this timeline, he catalogs “how our civilization has systematized knowledge, and gradually made it amenable to automation. This is about data and how it came to be the way it is in our world.”
Click to launch a 22,000 year tour through the history of data.
20,000 B.C. to 2,500 B.C.
20,000 B.C.: The invention of arithmetic provides a way to abstractly compute numbers of objects. 15,000 B.C.: The Lascaux cave paintings record some of the first known narrative constructions. 3,800 B.C.: The Babylonian census begins the practice of systematically counting and recording people. 3,500 B.C.: Written language emerges [pictured: an early cuneiform tablet], providing a systematic way to record and transmit knowledge. 2,500 B.C.: The first known calendar system is established in Mesopotamia, creating a 360-day year. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
1,770 B.C. to 400 B.C.
1,170 B.C.: Hammurabi writes down 282 laws prescribing civil behavior in the kingdom of Babylon. 1,250 B.C.: The library at Thebes in ancient Greece gathers the world’s knowledge and makes it available in one place. 1,150 B.C.: The Turin papyrus is the first known topographic map. 560 B.C.: Lydia, in modern-day Turkey, introduces gold and silver coins to represent monetary value. 500 B.C.: Babylonians invent mathematical calculation as a way to track the movement of planets. 400 B.C.: Hippocrates [pictured] identifies causes of human diseases. Panini creates a grammar for Sanskrit, forming the basis for systematic linguistics. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
387 B.C. to 45 B.C.
387 B.C.: Plato founds his Academy, which continues to operate in Athens for nine centuries. 300 B.C.: Euclid writes his Elements [pictured: one of the oldest surviving fragments], systematically presenting theorems of geometry and arithmetic. 100 B.C.: A gear-based device, the Antikythera mechanism, is created to compute calendrical computation. It survives today. 45 B.C.: Julius Caesar institutes the Julian calendar, establishing the lengths of the 12 months. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
105 A.D. to 1361 A.D.
105 A.D.: Ts’ai invents paper in China. 125: Philo of Byblos compiles the earliest known thesaurus. 150: Ptolemy’s Almagest introduces epicycles to describe the detailed motion of planets [pictured: a chart of the apparent motion of the sun and planets from Earth]. 200: Galen organizes anatomy and physiology, defining many terms and concepts used today. 1028: Italian Benedictine monk Guido d’Arezzo invents musical stave notation. 1361: French philosopher Nicole Oresme introduces the notion of drawing graphs of values. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
1408 to 1591
1408: The Yongle dadian, assembled by more than 2,000 scholars, fills more than 11,000 volumes with the collected knowledge of Chinese civilization. 1453: Moveable type [pictured] makes it economical to print many kinds of documents. 1538: Parishes in England begin keeping weekly records of all christenings, marriages and burials. 1561: French mathematician Franciscus Vieta begins writing mathematical formulas with letters as variables, using vowels for unknowns and consonants for parameters. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
1604 to 1654
1604: British teacher Robert Cawdry publishes a dictionary with definitions for 2,543 terms. 1614: Scottish mathematician John Napier publishes the first tables of logarithms. 1623: German astronomer Wilhelm Schickard creates a gear-based, six-digit mechanical calculator [a replica is pictured]. 1627: German astronomer Johannes Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables list the positions of 1,005 stars and procedures for locating the planets. 1654: Physician William Petty, traveling with Oliver Cromwell’s army, systematically surveys and assigns value to land in Ireland. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
1659 to 1688
1659: The Central England Temperature record begins, and continues today. 1662: English statistician John Graunt and others start to systematically summarize demographic and economic data using statistical ideas based on mathematics. 1686: English astronomer Edmond Halley creates a map showing prevailing winds at different locations [pictured: a copy from 1702]. 1687: Isaac Newton introduces the idea that systems in nature can be described by math. 1688: Joseph de la Vega’s book Confusion of Confusions describes fluctuations in Dutch stock-market prices. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
1750 to 1830
1750: Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus introduces binomial designations and classifies living organisms. 1755: Japanese merchant Munehisa Homma invents an early candlestick chart for prices in the Japanese rice market. 1795: France becomes the first nation to officially adopt the metric system of measurement. 1801: French inventor Joseph-Marie Jacquard creates a loom [pictured: a Jacquard loom from the late 19th century] that weaves patterns specified by punched cards. 1830: English mathematician Charles Babbage constructs a mechanical computer to automate the creation of mathematical knowledge. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
1836 to 1861
1836: The General Register Office is founded. Births and deaths begin to be systematically recorded by the British government. 1839: French artist and physicist Louis Daguerre uses a copper plate and silver to capture photographs. 1839: English cartographer and printer George Bradshaw publishes the first train timetables. 1844: American inventor Samuel Morse sends the first public telegraph [an early diagram pictured here] message. 1850: German entrepreneur Paul Julius Reuter uses pigeons to transmit stock prices from Aachen, Germany, to Brussels, Belgium. 1861: British naval officer and meteorologist Robert FItzRoy uses a network of telegraph stations and systematic charts to forecast British weather. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
1867 to 1876
1867: Edward Calahan of the American Telegraph Company invents a system to transmit price changes from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. 1869: Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleev designs the periodic table of chemical elements [pictured]. 1872: Scottish physicist Lord Kelvin creates an analog computer for predicting ocean tides. 1876: American librarian Melvil Dewey debuts the Dewey Decimal system for classifying the world’s knowledge and specifying how to organize books in libraries. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
1877 to 1935
1877: Thomas Edison invents the phonograph [pictured]. 1878: By an act of Congress, the collection of morbidity data on cholera, smallpox and yellow fever begins. 1895: Belgian lawyers Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine begin to collect index cards of information to answer factual questions by mail. By 1934, they had amassed 15.6 million cards. 1935: George Gallup founds the American Institute of Public Opinion and begins the first rigorous collection of opinion polls. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
1936 to 1953
1936: English mathematician Alan Turing proposes the stored computer program. 1936: The U.S. federal government issues the first Social Security numbers. 1940s: Electronic computers allow computations of all kinds to be automated with increasing efficiency. 1945: American engineer Vannevar Bush speculates on the idea of a “Memex” device that would provide computerized access to the world’s knowledge–a precursor to hyperlinks. 1953: James Watson and Francis Crick [pictured] determine the physical structure of DNA. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
1957 to 1982
1957: Fortran [pictured], COBOL and other early computer languages define the concept of a precise formal representation for tasks to be performed by computers. 1960: The concept of links between documents–hypertext–begins to be discussed as a paradigm for organizing textual material and knowledge. 1960: The first full-text searching of documents by a computer is demonstrated. 1963: Zip (Zone Improvement Plan) codes are introduced by the U.S. Post Office. 1973: Lexis provides full-text records of U.S. court opinions in Ohio and New York in an electronic data-delivery system. 1982: Physicist Walter Goad founds GenBank, an open-access database of genome sequences. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
1989 to 1998
1989: English computer scientists Tim Berners-Lee creates the World Wide Web. 1991: The Virtual Library, the first systematic catalog of the Web, is created. 1994: Jerry Yang and David Filo create a hierarchical directory of the Web: Yahoo. 1996: Brewster Kahle founds the Internet Archive to begin systematically capturing and preserving Web pages. 1998: Google [pictured, from its 1998 launch] launches. The text-based searching era begins. 1998: The Sloan Digital Sky Survey systematically maps every visible object in the astronomical universe. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha
2001 to 2009
2001: Volunteer contributors assemble 20,000 pages of encyclopedic material in all areas of human knowledge for Wikipedia. 2003: The Human Genome Project, a complete catalog of all the genes concealed in human DNA, is completed [pictured]. 2004: Using GPS, a crowdsourced street-level map of the world is created for the OpenStreetMap project. 2004: Facebook begins to catalog social relations among people on a large scale. 2009: Wolfram Alpha is launched. It computes answers to language queries based on a collection of algorithms and curated data. Content courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha