Scottish scoundrel who changed how we see data

When he wasn’t blackmailing people, being sued for libel or, selling dubious US land plots to gullible French aristocrats, William Playfair changed the way we see data.

william playfair


When it comes to imagining data and statistics it’s almost impossible to see them without a pie chart, bar graph, or line graph.

The man responsible for all those interminable PowerPoint presentations we have sat through was a Scot, William Playfair, born on September 22, 1759, in Dundee.

He was in turn a millwright, engineer, draftsman, accountant, inventor, silversmith, merchant, investment broker, economist, statistician, spy, pamphleteer, translator, publicist, land speculator, convict, banker, ardent royalist, editor, blackmailer and journalist.

Playfair was born the fourth son of the reverend James Playfair of the parish of Liff & Benvie. His notable brothers were the architect James Playfair and John Playfair, Professor of Mathematics and later Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. John’s son, William Henry Playfair, would go on to design most of the buildings in Edinburgh’s New Town.

William’s father died in 1772 when he was 13, leaving him in the care of his eldest brother John who apprenticed him to a millwright Andrew Meikle, the inventor of the threshing machine. 

In 1780, he went to England, engaged as draftsman and personal assistant of the inventor James Watt at the steam engine manufacturing works of Boulton & Watt in Birmingham in 1777, where he received a scientific and engineering training. 

On leaving Watt’s company in 1782, he set up a silversmith business in London, which failed. The first of many failures.
In 1787 he moved to Paris, taking part in the storming of the Bastille two years later. As a spy for the British Government, Playfair devised a plan to undermine the revolution by effectively destroying France’s new currency, the Assignat, by flooding the country with counterfeit notes – they were so good, the Assignat lasted just long enough to destroy the French government.

He also became involved in a speculative but successful scheme to sell land in the colony of Scioto in New York State to Frenchmen wanting to emigrate.

He returned to London in 1793, where he opened a “security bank”, which also failed. From 1775 he worked as a writer and pamphleteer but Playfair’s main achievement lies primarily in his innovations in the presentation of quantitative information by means of graphs and charts, which first appeared in his Commercial and Political Atlas, published in 1786.

colour chart

It contained 43 time-series plots and one bar chart. It has been described as the first major work to contain statistical graphs. 

Playfair’s Statistical Breviary, published in London in 1801, contains what is credited as the first pie chart. He was the first to use shading and colours, thus incorporating elements of classification into the quantitative depiction. The quality and detail of his work was such that in the two centuries since there has been no appreciable improvement of his basic designs.

After the Bourbon restoration in France, William Playfair returned to Paris, where he edited a journal called Galignani’s Messenger. He had to flee the country a second time when prosecuted for libel, and thereafter spent his time writing in London.

Like many of today’s charts, Playfair set two sets of facts beside each other to tell a story to help people understand complex issues at a glance.

“As the knowledge of mankind increases, and transactions multiply, it becomes more and more desirable to abbreviate and facilitate the modes of conveying information,” he explained. “Men of high rank, or active business, can only pay attention to outlines… It is hoped that, with the assistance of these charts, such information will be got without the fatigue and trouble of studying the particulars.”

When he died at the age of 64, Playfair had invented a universal language useful to science and commerce alike and though his contemporaries failed to grasp the significance he had forever changed the way we would look at data. 

Playfair’s story is a neat exemplar of what Research Data Scotland does – we process data, with our partners, to bring clarity, insight and information which will inform policy and how we improve outcomes in all aspects of Scottish society.