William Playfair lived from 22 September 1759 to 11 February 1823. He was an engineer and political economist remembered primarily for his innovations in the presentation of quantitative information by means of graphs and charts. He invented the time series graph or line chart, the bar chart, and the pie chart. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
William Playfair was the fourth and youngest son of the Reverend James Playfair, minister of the parish of Liff and Benvie near Dundee. After the death of his father he was looked after by his oldest brother, who went on to become Professor John Playfair, Professor of Mathematics and later Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Another of his brothers was the architect James Playfair, father to William's near namesake, the even better known architect, William Henry Playfair.
After completing his formal education, William trained as an engineer, working for a while from 1780 as a draughtsman and personal assistant to James Watt before branching out as an inventor and entrepreneur and before spending some time as a silversmith in London. Seen by many as the black sheep of the family, William then spent some time in Paris, where he developed a new method of rolling steel. While there, he took part in the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. 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.
After falling foul of (and narrowly avoiding being arrested by) the French Revolutionary Government, William moved to London, where he established a bank called the Security Bank. Its aim was to enable small secured loans to be made to Londoners, but it soon went bust when the securities taken on the loans proved to be insufficient to cover the outstanding finance.
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, where he died at the age of 64.
One Victorian biographer described William Playfair as an "engineer, political economist and scoundrel". Today he is remembered less for his speculative get-rich-quick schemes and more for writings whose significance were not widely appreciated in his day. These include his Commercial and Political Atlas of 1786 which contained 43 time series plots and a bar chart and was the first significant book ever published to contain statistical graphs. His Statistical Breviary, published in 1801, contained the first ever pie chart.