January 17, 2012

Historical notes on analytics — pre-computer era

This post is part of a short series on the history of analytics, covering:

Sometimes, what people describe as being “New, new, new!!!” in analytics has actually been happening since before they were born, or even before their parents were. Occasionally, I point this out. :) I think it’s time to collect some of those observations into a short series of posts.

Before getting to the history of actual analytic software, I can’t resist racing through some really old stuff. In a 2004 white paper, I wrote:

Transactional business processes have been around literally since the beginning of recorded history. Some of the oldest known writings are clay tablets that record merchants’ tallies in Sumerian cuneiform, complete with seals to enforce transaction integrity. Analytic business processes date back nearly as long, especially in military applications; the first chapter of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is called “Calculations,” or in some translations “Laying Plans.”*

As enterprise complexity increased, so did the sophistication of analytic business processes. Almost two centuries ago, Nathan Rothschild made an investment fortune from early news about the Battle of Waterloo, and several decades later Florence Nightingale** introduced statistics to the study of public health. With the invention of machines to tabulate information in the late 19th Century, analysis began to blossom.

*Back when I wrote that, I also considered including some of the accounting Caesar cited in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, but eventually decided that was a “production application” rather than anything we’d recognize as “analytics”.

**Florence Nightingale is, simply put, one of the more impressive women in history. Unfortunately, a couple of other statistical greats were associated with the deplorable subject of eugenics. I am thinking specifically of Francis Galton, who invented several really basic statistical concepts, and seems to generally have been a brilliant guy, and Karl Pearson. (Hat-tip to John Verostek for, um, tipping me off to Galton.)

Statistics also seems to have led the way in business applications of analytics. Specifically, statistical quality control dates back to the 1920s or so, pioneered by Walter Shewart and given greater visibility by his protégé W. Edwards Deming. On the monitoring side, various organizations collected industry-wide numbers by the 1930s or so. For example, movie box office receipts were reported at least as far back as 1939, perhaps by Variety; the New York Times bestseller list seems to have started slightly later, in 1942; and a rather superficial site on media history first gives hard numbers for the decade of the 1930s.

Still, to continue quoting the same white paper:

What utterly transformed both transactional and analytic business processes was the advent of electronic computing in the 20th Century. In particular, the volume of available data exploded. Even more important to analytic processes was the superhuman increase in the speed of computation. Various types of software emerged — business intelligence (BI) tools, spreadsheets, statistical packages, and the like – permitting kinds of analysis that had been infeasible without computers.

And with that out of the way, let’s return to discussing computer-era analytics.


3 Responses to “Historical notes on analytics — pre-computer era”

  1. Historical notes on analytics — terminology | Software Memories on January 17th, 2012 3:02 am

    […] Historical notes on analytics — the pre-computer era […]

  2. Historical notes on the departmental adoption of analytics | Software Memories on January 17th, 2012 3:05 am

    […] Historical notes on analytics — the pre-computer era […]

  3. Cool analytic stories | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on May 21st, 2012 2:25 am

    […] Analytics before the computer era Categories: Analytic technologies, Google, Health care, Investment research and trading, Predictive modeling and advanced analytics, Scientific research, Telecommunications, Web analytics  Subscribe to our complete feed! […]

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