Historicizing Big Data


The International Geophysical Year (1957–1958) changed research on the aurora, one of nature’s most elusive and intensely beautiful phenomena, dramatically. Aurorae became the center of interest for big science of powerful rockets, complex satellites, and large group efforts to understand the magnetic and charged particle environment of the earth. The auroral visoplots displayed here provided guidance for recording observations of auroral display in a standardized form, translating the sublime visual aesthetics of aurorae into mechanical aesthetics of numbers and symbols. The possibility to combine hundreds of such observational data into a worldwide pattern was acknowledged as the decisive contribution of the IGY to the understanding of this phenomenon.

Historicizing Big Data

A new working group examines data practices and epistemologies across many current disciplines to explore continuities and ruptures in the emergence of data-driven science.

The increasing ubiquity of huge databases, coupled with rapid advances in technologies for storage and analysis of data, has suggested to some observers that twenty-first-century science has entered a new era. At the same time, however, scholars have begun to stress important historical continuities in data practices and epistemologies that stretch back over several hundred years. The new working group led by Elena Aronova, Christine von Oertzen, and David Sepkoski aims to collectively present the first genuinely broad-scale history of practices, epistemologies, material culture, and political consequences of data across scientific disciplines, while adding much needed comparative dimensions and historical depth to the on-going discussion of the revolutionary potential of data-driven modes of knowledge production. The following case studies represent three main areas addressed by the working group.


Frontispiece, representing “the relative proportions of the several classes in successive geological periods.” John Phillips, Life on the Earth; Its Origin and Succession (1860).

How have data and data practices migrated from collection to paper-based then to mechanical and finally to computer-based information technologies? David Sepkoski’s project on “The Database before the Computer” is a comparative analysis of nineteenth- and twentieth-century data approaches in paleontology and zoology. Using examples of large-scale quantitative data collection and analysis of both paper-based taxonomic compendia and eventual digital databases, he shows that practitioners in these fields were engaged in databasing long before computers arrived on the scene. However, he also attends to the ways that changes in the technology and material culture of data between the nineteenth and later twentieth centuries affected data practices and epistemologies, demonstrating that each era faced particular challenges for coping with “data friction,” and new technologies and materialities of data had consequences for the professional division of labor in the taxonomic sciences.


U.S. Census Bureau machines and operators, 1908. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

How did labor and technologies of data production change over time? Christine von Oertzen’s contribution on the “Mechanization of Census Statistics in Europe, 1890-1930” examines the social and political ramifications of the transition from manual to machine data processing across Europe between 1890 and 1930, first and foremost in census taking, but also in industry and warfare. When the word spread among European statisticians about the new American method of electronic tabulating in 1890, the machines appealed much more readily to some societies than others. Von Oertzen focuses on why machine readability found strong advocates in governments in Austria and Russia, whereas British as well as German census statisticians proved quite reluctant to introduce machines to the process of compiling census data. In the German Empire, the unprecedented challenges brought about by the First World War prompted an about-face toward big data machinery. The project will show on what terms the world’s first total war accelerated the adoption of tabulating machines in Central Europe.


First punch card used in a German census, 1910. From: Hermann Julius Losch, Die Volkszählung vom 1. Dezember 1910 (1911), p. 184.


All-sky camera designed during the IGY to photograph active aurora bands. From: Robert H. Eather, Majestic Lights. The Aurora in Science, History, and the Arts, Washington (1980), p. 176.

Where does the power of Big Data come from? Elena Aronova’s project “Do (Big) Data Have Politics? Cold War and the Political Economy of Data Exchange” explores how Big Data acquired renewed legitimacy during the Cold War era, as part of Big Science. Big Science as a notion was coined in early 1960s to describe the mode of organization of science originated in the Second World War and exemplified by such operations as the Manhattan project, space stations, early computers, and particle accelerators: accounts of big machines, big money, and big publicity that did not include big data. Against this background, Aronova’s contribution draws on the history of the World Data Centers, organized to serve the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958), to show how the practices and technologies of the World Data Centers were intimately intertwined with the political economy of data exchange, and as such crucial for the development of contemporary databases in the geophysical sciences.

As these examples show, the precise relationship between technologies, practices, materialities, and epistemologies of data is complex. While technologies have changed—from paper-based to mechanical to digital devices—database practices were more continuous than the technologies and tools used to organize, analyze and represent data. Computer technologies have accelerated and amplified features of data-driven science already present or latent in earlier material cultures of data. The working group aims to present a nuanced genealogy of these features of data-driven science that recognizes both underlying continuities, as well as genuine ruptures. Only by considering these continuities and ruptures can we critically expand the on-going discussion of the revolutionary potential of data-intensive modes of knowledge production.

Further Information

Working Group website: Historicizing Big Data

Project website Elena Aronova: Big Science in the Archive

Project website of Christine von Oertzen: The Science of Statistics and the Politics of Census-Taking

Project website of David Sepkoski: A Natural History of Data

Program of conference Historicizing Big Data, 31. Oktober – 2. November 2013.

Project website: The Sciences of the Archive

German version of Topic Research

Download print version of Topic Research

Research Topics Archive

Bathymetry model of the Strait of Gibraltar ca. 1932, Instituto Español de Oceanografía.
50: The Strait in the Cold War—Deep Science and Global Geopolitics in the Mediterranean
Andreas Ryff, Münz- und Mineralienbuch, 1594. Autograph in possession of the Basel University Library (A lambda II 46a).
49: Mountain Clamor! Resource Flows and Metal Culture in Early Modern Mining
Parades of Miners, Craftsmen, and Officials Marking the Marriage of Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony, and Maria Josepha, Archduchess of Austria in 1719. Bergakademie Freiberg.
48: Data and Decisions in Early Modern Mines
Transcript of a Bobolink song by Ferdinand S. Mathews (1904), Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music: A Description of the Character and Music of Birds.
47: Scientific Scores and Musical Ears: Sound Diagrams in Field Recording
School of Athens
46: Early Modern Adaptation of the Aristotelian Mechanics
better shelter
45: Refugee Housing
44: Mapping Climatology
Black Hole Merger
43: One Hundred Years of Gravitational Waves
42: How High Is the Sea?
41: The Renewal of Einstein's Theory of Relativity in the Post-War Era
40: Do Data Have Politics?
39: From Sound to Knowledge
38: Colours and Their Context
37: Is Bigger Better
36: Rooting Language Family Trees
35: Making Genetics Human
34: Galileo's Laboratory of Ideas
33: Historicizing Big Data
32: Ancient Balances at the Nexus of Innovation and Knowledge
31: Looking at Diversity
30: How Recipes Created Knowledge in Early Modern Households
29: Metallurgy, Ballistics and Epistemic Instruments
28: Science under Scrutiny
27: The Globalization of Knowledge and its Consequences
26: Parts Unknown: Making the Familiar Strange
25: Apprehending Human Difference and Population Size
24: Endangerment and Its Consequences
23: The Equilibrium Controversy
22: Art and Knowledge in Pre-Modern Europe
21: Knowledgescapes
20: Baby Science in fin-de-siècle America
19: Let him reconquer language
18: Histories of Scientific Observation
17: On Historicizing Epistemology : an essay
16: Johann Lambert's Conversion to a Geometry of Space
15: The Uncertain Boundaries between Light and Matter
14: Every move will be recorded
13: Courting the Crafts in Qing China
12: The Concepts of Immanuel Kant's Natural Philosophy
11: Jean Piaget and the Child's Spontaneous Geometry
10: Galileo and the Others
9: Historicizing Knowledge about Human Biodiversity
8: Dreaming in and of Neurophilosophy
7: Who Were Einstein's Opponents?
6: Physiology of the piano
5: Numbering Bees
4: New Ways of Using Digital Images
3: Telling Instruments
2: Microscope Slides: An Object of the History of Science?
1: What (Good) is Historical Epistemology?