Fathers of datavisualization: William Playfair 1759-1823

William Playfair, a Scottish engineer and political economist, invented the first graphical methods of statistics in the late 18th century. He supplied us with three new types of diagrams: the line graph, the bar chart of economic data, and the pie chart. Thus, he created all the fundamental forms of statistical graphs, excluding the scatterplot. Credited as a genius by many scholars, Playfair experienced a varied career as a millwright, engineer, draftsman, accountant, inventor, silversmith, merchant, investment broker, economist, statistician, pamphleteer, translator, publicist, land speculator, convict, banker, ardent royalist, editor, blackmailer and journalist.

After working five years at the steam engine manufacturing works of Boulton & Watt in Birmingham, England, Playfair left in 1782 to set up a silversmithing business and shop in London. Although the business in London was doomed to fail, Playfair successfully published his Commercial and Political Atlas in 1786, which is considered to be the first major work to contain statistical graphs, including the first appearance of the bar graph.

Playfair moved to Paris in 1787, looking to take advantage of a country working toward industrialization.  His various business ventures in France proved unsuccessful, and he left for London before the Reign of Terror in 1793. In fact, he invented the pie graph in 1801 in London, while carrying on his various ventures in both the U.K. and America. Although Playfair pursued many unsuccessful projects during his lifetime, he forever changed the way we look at data with his statistical insights. Sadly, the world at large did not recognize his true worth for nearly a century after his death in 1823.