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The Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary

by William Playfair
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005 (1801)
204 pp., illus. col. Trade, $39.99
ISBN: 0-521-85554-3.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


The name of William Playfair probably will not ring a bell with any reader who isn’t versed in the history of statistics. And let’s be honest: Statistics is not a popular sport anyway, so who would want to delve in its arcane beginnings? Some people do. For those who don’t, no apology is needed if you only know the names of Petty, Pearson, Kendall, and perhaps Quetelet. So why would you add Playfair to the list?

There are two reasons for doing so, a serious one and a frivolous one. Let’s start with the latter. William Playfair was the son of an enlightened Rev. Playfair with an interest in maths, engineering, the sciences, and practically anything an 18th Century Scottish minister with an education would want his sons to know. As a child, his elder brother, who gave him tasks like charting daily temperatures and rainfall, stimulated young William’s intelligence and skills. He soon became an apprentice with the famous engineer James Watt and his partner William Boulton and started on a career as engineer and publisher. Always short for money, he set up one grand scheme after another, failing as often as not to wring some money from the world’s grandees at both sides of the Channel. He had to run from pre-Revolutionary France, escaped conviction in several lawsuits, and made himself impossible with practically everybody. Engineer by trade, he imagined himself a writer and published numerous books, most of them not really well received because of his too outspoken opinions and his personal attacks. His life’s story reads like a Dumas novel without the love affairs.

There is also a serious reason why you should remember Playfair: He was the first author to use graphical representations to illustrate economic variables. Up till the end of the 18th and even during the first half of the 19th Century, economic figures were invariably presented in tabular form. Precision and accuracy were more important than ease of reading Pictures or illustrations were deemed imprecise and unreliable. Playfair brushed aside any arguments (among others, James Watt’s!) against visualisation of abstract quantities and developed several techniques to represent populations, revenues, imports and exports, and balance of payments. Using engraving, etching and——dependent on his fiscal situation——colouring by hand, he managed to include as many as 43 charts in his first edition of "The Commercial and Political Atlas" (1786). Single-handedly, Playfair set the standards for the layout of pie charts, bar charts, and timelines, even if he sometimes had to use just a trifle too much of his imagination to fill in the blanks where he lacked the necessary data.

Cambridge University Press chose to publish a facsimile of the third edition of the "Atlas" and of "The Statistical Breviary; shewing, on a principle entirely new, The Resources of every State and Kingdom in Europe; illustrated with Stained Copper-plate Charts, representing the physical power of each distinct nation with ease and perspicuity." The content of these books is clearly outdated, and Playfair’s commentary to the charts is funny rather than economically sound, but the illustrations are breath taking——given the fact that this was the first time they were used for this kind of data.

The book is bound in cloth and printed on a beige-ish paper, which makes the charts look very ancient indeed. It has an insightful and very readable introduction by editors Howard Wainer and Ian Spence. Let’s hope William Playfair gets credited for his invention each time we use our favourite spreadsheet to construct a chart. The unfortunate man surely deserves some posthumous fame.



Updated 1st June 2006

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