The impact that William Playfair had on the modern ideas of graphing and plotting. Many say that Playfair is the originator of the modern graph.

Essay by armstrongjdCollege, Undergraduate March 2003

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William Playfair

As A.S. Levens states, in his book, Graphical Methods in Research, many of the currently popular graphical forms are credited to William Playfair (1759-1823), who was a draftsman for another well-known mathematician, James Watt, and brother of the well-known scientist John Playfair (1965: 155).

William Playfair was the youngest of the Reverend James Playfair's three sons. The family resided in Dundee, Scotland. William Playfair was educated at home by his father until the age of fourteen, when he was sent to a university to study mathematics. Not much is recorded of William Playfair until around 1785.

In 1785, as Robert L. Harris states in his book, Information Graphics, William released a collection of statistical graphs on the British economy, titled Commercial and Political Atlas. This collection contained 44 charts, all but one of which are time series plots, since Playfair considered the bar chart "much inferior in utility."

(1996: 327-328). William Playfair is also recorded as crediting his brother, John, who was also a professor of mathematics in his later years, with teaching him that whatever could be expressed in numbers could also be expressed in graphs.

In 1789, as A.S. Levens states, William left for Paris as an agent to Scioto Ohio Land Company, where he reportedly assisted in the storming of the Bastille. He then went on to publish the same works found in Commercial and Political Atlas, but this time in French. He would later receive more attention in Paris as a result (1965: 129).

William again resurfaces in the history books around 1805, when he published An Inquiry into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations. As Robert L. Harriswrites in his book,

"The exponential growth of debt coincident with the formation of England's central bank, the Bank...