A Brief History of Big Data Everyone Should Read


Here is an excerpt from an article by Bernard Marr for LinkedIn Pulse. To read the complete article, check out others, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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The history of Big Data as a term may be brief – but many of the foundations it is built on were laid long ago.

Long before computers (as we know them today) were commonplace, the idea that we were creating an ever-expanding body of knowledge ripe for analysis was popular in academia.

Although it might be easy to forget, our increasing ability to store and analyze information has been a gradual evolution – although things certainly sped up at the end of the last century, with the invention of digital storage and the Internet.

With Big Data poised to go mainstream this year, here’s a brief(ish) look at the long history of thought and innovation which have led us to the dawn of the data age.

[Here is a snapshot of the period from C 18,000 BCE until 1663, “The Emergence of Statistics.”]

Ancient History of Data

C 18,000 BCE

The earliest examples we have of humans storing and analyzing data are the tally sticks. The Ishango Bone was discovered in 1960 in what is now Uganda and is thought to be one of the earliest pieces of evidence of prehistoric data storage. Palaeolithic tribespeople would mark notches into sticks or bones, to keep track of trading activity or supplies. They would compare sticks and notches to carry out rudimentary calculations, enabling them to make predictions such as how long their food supplies would last.

C 2400 BCE

The abacus – the first dedicated device constructed specifically for performing calculations – comes into use in Babylon. The first libraries also appeared around this time, representing our first attempts at mass data storage.

300 BC – 48 AD

The Library of Alexandria is perhaps the largest collection of data in the ancient world, housing up to perhaps half a million scrolls and covering everything we had learned so far, about pretty much everything. Unfortunately, in 48AD it is thought to have been destroyed by the invading Romans, perhaps accidentally. Contrary to common myth, not everything was lost – significant parts of the library’s collections were moved to other buildings in the city, or stolen and dispersed throughout the ancient world.

C 100 – 200 AD

The Antikythera Mechanism, the earliest discovered mechanical computer, is produced, presumably by Greek scientists. It’s “CPU” consists of 30 interlocking bronze gears and it is thought to have been designed for astrological purposes and tracking the cycle of Olympic Games. Its design suggests it is probably an evolution of an earlier device – but these so far remain undiscovered.

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Final Thought

What this teaches us is that Big Data is not a new or isolated phenomenon, but one that is part of a long evolution of capturing and using data. Like other key developments in data storage, data processing and the Internet, Big Data is just a further step that will bring change to the way we run business and society. At the same time it will lay the foundations on which many evolutions will be built.

As always, I am keen to hear your thoughts on the topic, please share them in the comments below. For example, are there other milestones you would have included? Here is also a slide-deck I have prepared to summarize the history of Big Data, feel free to share and download.

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Here is a direct link to the article and the downloadable slide-deck that accompanies it.

Bernard Marr is a best-selling author, keynote speaker and leading business and data expert. His latest book is Big Data: Using SMART Big Data, Analytics and Metrics to Make Better Decisions and Improve Performance, published by John Wiley & Sons (2015).

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