The earliest seeds of visualization arose in geometric diagrams, in tables of the positions of stars and other celestial bodies, and in the making of maps to aid in navigation and exploration. The idea of coordinates was used by ancient Egyptian surveyors in laying out towns, earthly and heavenly positions were located by something akin to latitude and longitude at least by 200 BC, and the map projection of a spherical earth into latitude and longitude by Claudius Ptolemy [c.85–c. 165] in Alexandria would serve as reference standards until the 14th century.
Among the earliest graphical depictions of quantitative information is an anonymous 10th century multiple time-series graph of the changing position of the seven most prominent heavenly bodies over space and time (Figure 2), described by Funkhouser (1936) and reproduced in Tufte (1983, p. 28). The vertical axis represents the inclination of the planetary orbits, the horizontal axis shows time, divided into thirty intervals. The sinusoidal variation, with different periods is notable, as is the use of a grid, suggesting both an implicit notion of a coordinate system, and something akin to graph paper, ideas that would not be fully developed until the 1600–1700s. The earliest graphical depictions of quantitative information.
In the 14th century, the idea of a plotting a theoretical function (as a proto bar graph), and the logical relation between tabulating values and plotting them appeared in a work by Nicole Oresme [1323–1382] Bishop of Liseus (Oresme, 1482, 1968), followed somewhat later by the idea of a theoretical graph of distance vs. speed by Nicolas of Cusa.
By the 16th century, techniques and instruments for precise observation and measurement of physical quantities, and geographic and celestial position were well-developed (for example, a “wall quadrant” constructed by Tycho Brahe [1546–1601], covering an entire wall in his observatory) Particularly important were the development of triangulation and other methods to determine mapping locations accurately (Frisius, 1533, Tartaglia, 1556). As well, we see initial ideas for capturing images directly (the camera obscura, used by Reginer Gemma-Frisius in 1545 to record an eclipse of the sun), the recording of mathematical functions in tables (trigonometric tables by Georg Rheticus, 1550), and the ﬁrst modern cartographic atlas (Teatrum Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius, 1570). These early steps comprise the beginnings of data visualization.
Source: Friendly, M. (2008). A brief history of data visualization. In Handbook of data visualization (pp. 15-56). Springer Berlin Heidelberg. http://www.datavis.ca/papers/hbook.pdf