Playfair, William

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Playfair, William (1759 – 1823): Scottish Inventor of graphic displays of data.

William Playfair, inventor of the line graph, the bar chart and the pie chart – as well as a scoundrel, an embezzler, a plagiarist and a blackmailer – was born near Dundee, Scotland in 1759. William was the fifth of eight children born to the Reverend James Playfair and Margaret Young. His father died when William was twelve, and his older brother James (later to become a respected mathematician and geologist) took charge of young William’s education. At fifteen, William was apprenticed to Andrew Meikle, a millwright, and at eighteen he was hired by James Watt (scientist and developer of the steam engine) to create and copy drawings of the steam engines Watt’s company produced. Playfair was a great admirer of, and influenced by, both Watt and Watt’s friend Priestley, Joseph (scientist and discoverer of oxygen).

In 1781, Playfair left Watt’s firm and, with a co-worker, set up shop as a silversmith and platemaker. Between 1781 and 1785, Playfair obtained four patents for working metals. James Keir, another business partner at the time, accused Playfair of stealing his ideas for the patents, and their working relationship, along with the silversmithing business, failed. In another attempt to earn a living, Playfair published a book on economics called Regulation of the Interest of Money (1785) and a year later a study of English trade entitled A Commercial and Political Atlas – the first publication to contain graphs of statistical data. The Atlas featured 43 time series charts and one lone bar chart.

His Atlas did not make money, and in 1787 Playfair left for Paris, where he attempted to set up a mill to produce rolled metal. Despite having the approval of Louis XVI for this business venture, Playfair’s second business also failed. In 1792-93 Playfair entered into a partnership with Joel Barlow, the Parisian representative of the Scioto Land Company, which was selling land on the Ohio River in America to French settlers. Suspected of embezzling the money the prospective settlers had paid for their land, Playfair left France in 1793. Because the Scioto Company did not actually own the land, the settlers found themselves abandoned in America, without money and without a way to return to France. They were eventually settled in what is now called Gallipolis, Ohio at the mouth of the Scioto River.

Playfair’s luck in business ventures continued to be bad. Between 1793 and 1814 he engaged in a number of schemes to make money, most of which were unsuccessful. He established a bank that ran afoul of the Bank of England, and was sued. He co-edited a daily paper called The Tomahawk and a weekly known as Anticipation, both of which quickly failed. In 1816 he attempted to blackmail Lord Archibald Douglas with a letter allegedly related to the question of Lord Douglas’s parentage, which had famously and scandalously been questioned nearly 50 years earlier – Lord Douglas did not pay. He also continued to publish on a range of topics from mathematics (Lineal Arithmetic, 1798) to economics (An Inquiry into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations, 1805) to history (the nine-volume British Family Antiquity Illustrative of the Origin and Progress of the Rank, Honours, and Personal Merit, of the Nobility of the United Kingdom, 1809-1811); all of these works featured charts to illustrate his data. In 1801 he returned to the topic of trade and economics, publishing A Statistical Breviary which also used graphs to illustrate statistics on trade, population, etc. from several European countries. Here Playfair introduced two new graphs, the pie chart and the circle diagram, both attempting to make comparison of the statistical information across countries easier for the reader.

Playfair’s background provided fertile soil for the idea of displaying data graphically, and William was enthusiastic about the advantages of using graphs rather than numerical data to inform the reader, saying in his Breviary that “The advantages [of the graphical method of displaying data] are to facilitate the attainment of information, and aid in the memory in retaining it… Of all the senses, the eye gives the liveliest and most accurate idea of whatever is susceptible of being represented to it; and when proportion between different quantities is the object, the eye has an incalculable superiority” (Breviary, page 14). When William was a boy his older brother John had him keep track of the weather, charting changes in temperature graphically. His brother may also have introduced the idea of using the area of a circle to illustrate amount as John, a mathematician, was likely familiar with this use of circles in mathematics.

Playfair’s mentor, James Watt, had invented a device which kept a graphic record of pressure and volume measurements in the steam engine, and Playfair was no doubt familiar with the chart created by Joseph Priestley in which the length of a horizontal bar corresponded to the lifespan of a famous person. However, the idea of displaying data graphically was not acceptable to the science of Playfair’s day. There were concerns about the loss of accuracy when numbers were converted into points on a graph, along with a general mistrust of pictures rather than numbers. Playfair showed his Atlas to Watt, prior to publication, asking for his advice. Watt recommended that Playfair include tables of the raw data his charts were based on to avoid charges that the charts were made up out of whole cloth. It was also difficult to produce graphs, requiring specialized knowledge of engraving and printing that most did not have, but that Playfair had acquired in his early training.

Additionally, Playfair’s reputation as someone less than completely honest did not help his cause. Playfair’s charts did not catch on in England until long after his death. Playfair’s inventions were, however, accepted in both France (perhaps because Louis XVI had been an aficionado of Playfair’s method of displaying data, remarking that his graphs “spoke to all languages”) and in Germany.

Playfair died, penniless, in Covent Garden, on February 11, 1823.


Further Reading:

Spence, I., and Wainer, H. (1997), "William Playfair: A daring and worthless fellow," Chance, vol. 10, pp.31-34.

Spence, I. (2004), 'William Playfair,' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Spence, I. (2005), 'No humble pie: The origins and usage of a statistical chart', Journal of Educational and Behavioral Science, vol. 30(4), pp. 353-368.


Barbara Blatchley

Agnes Scott College

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