Timeline of Systematic Data and the Development of Computable Knowledge

How civilization has systematized more and more areas of knowledge, collected the data associated with them and made them amenable to automation and computation
Timeline of Systematic Data and the Development of Computable Knowledge: 1900 - 1959


1900: National Physical Laboratory; National Bureau of Standards

Using physics to create standards

NPL in the UK and NBS in the US are founded to make measurements and standards using methods from physics.

1906: FDA

Controlling foods & drugs

The Pure Food and Drug Act effectively founds the US Food & Drug Administration.

1907: Chemical Abstracts

Volunteers contribute abstracts to the first issue of Chemical Abstracts published in the US; this system is in place through the 1960s.


1910: Principia Mathematica

Whitehead and Russell attempt to present mathematics formalized in terms of logic.

1910: Mundaneum

Collecting the world's knowledge on index cards

Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine collected twelve million index cards of information, planning to create a world center for answering factual questions.

1913: Al Elias

Bringing statistics to sports

The Al Munro Elias Bureau starts producing scorecards and statistics on baseball.

1913: Chemical Rubber Company

CRC publishes the first edition of the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics.


1921: Frank and Lillian Gilbreth

Frank and Lillian ("Cheaper by the Dozen") Gilbreth introduce flow charts as a way to represent processes.

1926: US Code

The US Congress initiates systematic codification of US laws.


1930s: Modern statistics

Putting mathematics into statistics

Ronald Fisher and others lay the foundations for modern statistics.

1931: CIE Color Space

Standardizing color

The International Commission on Illumination (CIE) introduces XYZ perceptual color space.

1932: Retail index

Measuring markets for products

The AC Nielsen Company creates a "retail index" for tracking the flow of food and drug purchases.

1935: American Institute of Public Opinion

Measuring public opinion

George Gallup founds the American Institute of Public Opinion and begins collecting opinion polls.

1935: Lambda Calculus

Alonzo Church introduces lambda calculus as an algebra-style notation for computations.

1936: Alan Turing

The concept of universal computation

Turing shows that any reasonable computation can be done by programming a fixed universal machine—and then speculated that such a machine could emulate the brain.

1936: Social Security Administration

Numbering every American

Under FDR's New Deal Social Security program, the first Social Security numbers are issued.

1937: World Congress on Universal Documentation

H.G. Wells presents his vision for a "World Brain".

1938: Mathematical Tables Project

Computing higher-level mathematical functions

Gertrude Blanch is the mathematical leader in a WPA project to tabulate higher mathematical functions published by Columbia University Press.

1939: US Geological Survey

Photographically recording a country

The USGS begins collecting aerial photos of the US.


1940s: Airport Codes

Official three-character airport codes come into use.

1940s: Digital Computers

Automating the process of computation

The arrival of digital electronic computers provides the mechanism by which computations of all kinds can be automated with increasing efficiency.

1942: Xerox "Model A" photocopier

Chester Carlson patents the photocopier, and in 1949 the "Xerox Model A" photocopier begins production.

1942: New York Times Bestseller List

The New York Times introduces an index of book popularity.

1944: IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC)

The Harvard Mark I begins computations

The ASCC general-purpose electromechanical computer, used in the war effort during World War II, is shipped to Harvard in February 1944.

1945: Memex device

The concept of a computerized encyclopedia

Vannevar Bush speculates on the idea of a "memex" device that will provide computerized access to the world's knowledge.

1946: IUPAC Notation

A standard name for every chemical

Malcolm Dyson invents the IUPAC system for naming chemicals.

1947: Minor Planet Center

Recording the asteroids

The Minor Planet Center is founded to collect all reports of new asteroids and comets.

1947: North American Numbering Plan

Uniform telephone numbering plan is developed

AT&T develops a telephone numbering scheme that encompasses 20 North American countries to facilitate direct dialing with ten-digit numbers, with a three-digit area code followed by a seven-digit local number.


1950: Jules Charney and John von Neumann

Computing the weather

The first serious weather simulation is run on the ENIAC computer.

1950s: Computational Linguistics

Algorithms for human language

Computational linguistics puts the concepts of grammar into an algorithmic form that promises to automate processes of language understanding.

1950—1960s: Pop-Culture Computers

Imagining intelligent machines

From the Tracy and Hepburn movie Desk Set to TV's Batman and Star Trek to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the robots of Isaac Asimov, the public becomes used to the idea that computers will eventually have human-like knowledge and reasoning.

1950—1960s: Artificial Intelligence

Making computers intelligent

Artificial Intelligence defines a research program for developing computers that show general intelligence which leads to many spinoffs important for specific purposes.

1951: Ethnologue: Languages of the World

Statistics on living languages and dialects of the world

The first edition of Ethnologue is published, cataloging statistics and data about living languages of the world.

1953: DNA Structure

Digital data for all life

James Watson and Francis Crick discover that DNA contains a digital genetic code.

1954: Guinness Book of Records

Norris and Ross McWhirter create the first Guinness Book of Records.

1954: SI Units

Standard units of measure for everything

The SI (metre, kilogram, second, ampere, kelvin, candela) system of units is defined.

1957: Computer Languages

Languages for programming tasks

Fortran, COBOL, ALGOL and other early computer languages define the concept of a precise formal representation for tasks to be performed by computers.

1957: Organizing the elementary particles

Arthur Rosenfeld assembles a table of all known elementary particles.

1959: Grace Hopper

First compiler-related tools

Grace Hopper invents one of the first compiler-related tools and popularizes the idea of machine-independent languages, which leads to the development of COBOL.

1959: Machine Learning

The term "machine learning" is coined

Computer scientist Arthur Samuel coins the term "machine learning" to describe construction of algorithms that can learn from and make predictions on data.

SEE ALSO: Stephen Wolfram's Blog Post: The Advance of the Data Civilization: A Timeline »