Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical
by William Playfair
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,
204 pp., illus. col. Trade, $39.99
Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
The name of William Playfair probably
will not ring a bell with any reader who
isnt versed in the history of statistics.
And lets 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 dont,
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. Lets
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 Williams 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 worlds
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 lifes
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 unprecise and unreliable.
Playfair brushed aside any arguments (among
others, James Watts!) against visualisation
of abstract quantities and developed several
techniques to represent populations, revenues,
imports and exports and balance of payments.
Using engraving, etching anddependent
on his fiscal situationcolouring
by hand, he managed to include as many
as 43 charts in his first edition of "The
Commercial and Political Atlas" (1786).
Singlehandedly, 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
Playfairs commentary to the charts
is funny rather than economically sound,
but the illustrations are breath takinggiven
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.
Lets 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.