The eccentric engineer: William Playfair and his many, varied and unappreciated careers
Image credit: Pixabay
The story of an adventurous and revolutionary engineer, draughtsman, inventor, silversmith, merchant, banker, statistician, pamphleteer, editor, speculator... and convict.
Not many children who grapple with pie charts, bar charts and time-series plots know they can thank an engineer for their misery. Nor would William Playfair have probably wanted to be remembered as such, but few can choose where fate takes them - and Playfair was taken further than many.
William was born in 1759 at the dawn of one of the great eras of engineering. The son of a Scottish clergyman, he became apprenticed to one of the major figures of the Agricultural Revolution, Andrew Meikle, the inventor of the threshing machine, before becoming personal assistant to James Watt at the Boulton and Watt engine works in Birmingham in 1777.
Just five years later, he left to form the first of his many companies in London. Sadly, business didn’t seem to come easily to Playfair and his silversmithing company failed, though not before he had invented the first industrial process for silver-plating spoons.
Playfair then returned to one of his first loves, draughtsmanship, which he learned at the drawing tables of Meikle and Watt. Keen to write about another passion, economics, he found it hard to visually get his ideas across so he meticulously ‘diagrammised’ his arguments. In the process, he laid the foundations of statistical graphics. His ‘Commercial and Political Atlas’, published in 1786, contained not a single map, but instead was illustrated with 43 ‘time-series’ plots and a bar chart – the first bar chart ever printed. This was revolutionary, but received little publicity in England.
Feeling somewhat underappreciated, he decided to move to Paris in 1787 where he found his work much more widely read, even by the King, who was fond of geography. Unfortunately, France was becoming rather revolutionary and political events began to overtake him. Not one to be left out, and not showing much loyalty to his royal patron, Playfair decided to join in as part of the hastily formed St Antoine Quarter militia, and took part in the storming of the Bastille.
However, politics proved no easier a career than any of his others, and he was widely seen as an English aristocratic Royalist – despite being the Scottish son of a vicar. Things weren’t helped by his involvement in a new business – a scheme to send French settlers to America which had, typically for Playfair, gone bankrupt. With the heat rising in Paris, particularly after he rescued a judge who had invested in his scheme from the mob, he decided to head for Germany.
Here, he tried his hand again at engineering, deftly copying a description of the recently invented telegraph and sending a model of the apparatus to the Duke of York along with a new alphabet for telegraphy. Sadly, the Duke of York seemed unimpressed and no commission followed, so Playfair turned to yet another career. Now back in London, he turned to banking, setting up the ‘Security Bank’ using banking techniques he had seen in Paris. However, following a spat with the Bank of England, this business also folded.
Yet Playfair was not quite done with banking and managed finally to attract the attention of the government in the form of Home Secretary Henry Dundas. Disillusioned with the Revolution and the subsequent conflict with Britain, Playfair suggested that rather than sending men and weapons to fight the French, he could defeat them with money. His scheme involved forging one hundred million ‘assignats’ – the French financial instruments used during the Revolution – and flooding the country with them. His plan was that, as bad money drives out good, this would cripple the French economy and prevent them waging war. The forged notes were introduced with huge success, and within two years the assignat was worthless.
Sadly, he received no credit for this work, and instead turned to writing and pamphleteering, warning the government (among other things) of the likely escape of Napoleon from Elba. But Playfair proved something of a Cassandra in official circles and was ignored. Forced into debt, he ended up in the Fleet Prison for three years.
With the restoration of the Bourbons, he decided to try his hand again in France as a magazine editor but was prosecuted for libel and had to escape back to England to avoid another prison sentence. Here he returned to his graph paper and publishing, inventing his pièce de résistance, the pie chart. By this time, he had been an engineer, draughtsman, inventor, silversmith, merchant, banker, statistician, pamphleteer, editor, speculator and convict, but it would be his graphs that would live on in every school maths book, every economics paper and news programme.
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