The hero of heroes we named our prize in honour of William Playfair because we think charts are important—and he invented them.
Playfair came from a talented family. Born in Scotland in September 1759, William was the youngest of four talented brothers: the others were a mathematician, a lawyer and an architect. After his father died his eldest brother John, by then a professor of mathematics, took charge of his education. The young man later credited his elder brother as having given him the idea for the first chart.
He seems to have been drawn to inventors. William did not go to university, but ended up with a hands-on education no book learning could match. First, he was apprentice to Andrew Meikle, inventor of the threshing machine, perhaps the most important invention of the agricultural revolution. Then he cut his teeth as a paid worker with James Watt, the steam engine pioneer. By December 1981, aged just 22, he had received his first patent, after designing a new machine that could roll flat sheets of steel more accurately. Over the next few years he came up with more ideas and received more patents, including one for metal plating. Today anything covered in a thin layer of metal—from a spoon to a saxophone—is a descendant of a Playfair idea.
Not content with his inventions Playfair had become interested in politics and economic policy. His first publication was a pamphlet critical of the Bank of England. He would later become part of a discussion group—perhaps Britain’s first think-tank—known as the “Bowood Circle”. (Its name was taken from the country home of the Marquess of Lansdowne, Lord Shelburne, who went on to become Prime Minister, and became a sponsor of economic studies. Shelburne’s grandfather, our next hero, would surely have been proud.)
Those two ingredients—invention, and an interest in policy—lie at the heart of what became Playfair’s really big step. In 1785 he published The Commercial and Political Atlas. It has forty charts: twenty five cover trade, the remaining fifteen budgetary matters (debt, expenditure and interest for the UK and Ireland). They were the first charts, so Playfair set out detailed instructions for how to read them, and what they meant. He felt sure that he had come up with something ground-breaking, and went to war on the use of tables:
Playfair said that a chart, once you got the hang of reading them, could convey a day’s worth of examining tables in five minutes. He was calling for a revolution in how data sere displayed. And while it is true that others had made charts and images of some type—in particular Joseph Priestly’s “charts of biography”, included in our gallery—Playfair charts are clearly different:
- They add a vertical axis. Previous chart, including Priestly’s are picture-based timelines. The way the data are stacked vertically means nothing. Playfair added the vertical axes.
- They make points about policy. Those that went before him were trying to simplify a lot of information (for Priestly a long list of birth and death dates). This was helpful but Playfair went further making charts that demand those in charge of policy to pay attention.
Despite all this Playfair ended up with a terrible reputation. He was involved in all sorts of scrapes and schemes. He was in Paris at the storming of the Bastille, set up a bank—the Original Security Bank—which failed, and was in prison on many occasions. A new book on his life by Bruce Berkowitz argues that he may have been a double agent, working for Britain to undermine the French economy. But he ended up destitute, scraping a living as a freelance writer to get by. He got gangrene in his one of his legs, and probably died while having one amputated on 11th February 1823.
It is a life that deserves more recognition. He was an inventor who knew the greats of his age including Thomas Jefferson and Jeremy Bentham, and whose ideas percolated in the minds of Prime Ministers. It is not clear whether he ever met America’s great founding financial analyst, Alexander Hamilton, but Hamilton certainly read the Atlas. Data is becoming more important—perhaps one day William Playfair will have a musical too.
By Richard Davies
Berkowitz, B (2018), Playfair: The true story of the British Secret Agent who Changed how we see the World. George Mason University Press.
Playfair, W (1786), Commercial and Political Atlas.
Playfair, W (1801), Statistical Breviary.
Wainer, Howard and Spence Ian, (2005), “William Playfair and His Graphical Inventions”, The American Statistician, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Aug., 2005), pp. 224-229. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27643669