The Sankey diagram is an important aid in identifying inefficiencies and potential for savings when dealing with resources. It was developed over 100 years ago by the Irish engineer Riall Sankey to analyze the thermal efficiency of steam engines and has since been applied to depict the energy and material balances of complex systems. The Sankey diagram is the main tool for visualizing industrial metabolism and hence is widely used in industrial ecology. In the history of the early 20th century, it played a major role when raw materials were scarce and expensive and engineers were making great efforts to improve technical systems. Sankey diagrams can also be used to map value flows in systems at the operational level or along global value chains. The article charts the historical development of the diagrams. After the First World War the diagrams were used to produce thermal balances of production plants for glass and cement and to optimize the energy input. In the 1930s, steel and iron ore played a strategic role in Nazi Germany. Their efficient use was highlighted with Sankey diagrams. Since the 1990s, these diagrams have become common for displaying data in life cycle assessments (LCAs) of products. Sankey diagrams can also be used to map value flows in systems at the operational level or along global value added chains. This article, the first of a pair, charts the historical development. The companion article discusses the methodology and the implicit assumptions of such Sankey diagrams.