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Some observations It is fitting after two-hundred years that we

on the design of put the spotlight on the graphic work of

William Playfair's William Playfair, who in 1786 appears to
line graphics have originated several present-day graphic
formats. Interest in his graphic contributions
continues to gain momentum. This is
PATRICIA COSTIGAN-EAVES partially due to our need to understand what
spurs the use of graphic methods in general.
Consider Funkhouser and Walker's (1935)
The work of William Playfair, early historical account inviting us to think
who is often landed as an about Playfair's work; and Biderman's
originator of most modern-day
graphic methods, has received analysis, in this issue, challenging us to con-
very Utile systematic scrutiny template what was behind Playfair's overall
and analysis. Playfair made his
graphic debut with the
approach to data analysis and presentation.
publication in 1786 of The Interest in Playfair's graphic contributions
commercial and political atlas; has also been aroused by some current
this cycled through several
editions and permutations* missions to clean up pernicious practices in
With one or two exceptions, the design of statistical graphics (Cleveland,
Playf air's second major graphic 1985; Ehrenberg, 1984; Tufte, 1983; Wainer,
contribution was A letter on
our agricultural distresses, 1984). Upon examining the work of the
their causes and remedies of originators of the graphic method, we can
1821, While Playfak has been more easily sort out the good from the bad,
credited with having 'invented'
bar, circle and pie graphics, it the roots of excellence that have flowered
was ime graphics he favoured into useful conventions and the roots of
most and used most frequently
This paper contains some
mediocrity that are still with us today.
observations on the evolution This commentary intentionally avoids the
of his approach to the design of story of other graphic innovators preceding,
line graphics; it examines some
of the pitfalls of this approach. contemporary with, and subsequent to
His astute insight into the Playfair. The interested reader should
value of the graphic method is consult Funkhouser (1937), Tilling (1975),
most noteworthy and is also
examined in this paper. Beniger & Robyn (1978), or Biderman (in this
issue) for more information. The intention,
in this paper, is to examine in detail only
one of Playfair's graphic contributions.


2 Forestholme Close
Forest Hill
London SE23 3UQ
While Playfair used bar, pie, and circle UK
graphics to show economic and demographic
© Patricia Costigan-Eaves 1990
data, a closer inspection of his work reveals
that he preferred to use line graphics or what

Information Design Journal 6:1 (1990), 27–44. DOI 10.1075/idj.6.1.02cos
ISSN 0142–5471 / E-ISSN 1569–979X © John Benjamins Publishing Company

one writer calls 'rectilinear coordinate line at the top. This pattern is typical of all of the
charts' (Schmid, 1983). Indeed, it is the charts found in the first and second editions of
graphic format that he employed most often. the Commercial and political atlas. The grid
When we begin to put the microscope on lines are fairly dark and slightly darkened at
Playfair's graphic work some interesting the ten million line. Year notation is placed
patterns begin to emerge. outside of the frame with a division for every
Clearly he was a man who experimented ten years and special five-year divisions after
with design elements. In his notable 1770. It is interesting to note that Playfair
Commercial and political atlas of 1786 we are presents the y-axis on the right-hand side of
introduced to his first use of line graphics. the chart running horizontal lines beyond
Many of these charts were re-used in subse­ 1785 to the edge of the frame, although the
quent volumes with variations in design. Take more common practice today is to state the
for example the 'Chart of imports and exports data values to the left of the display. Perhaps
to and from England from the year 1700 to he wanted the eye to travel along the line
1782' which appears in the 1786 edition as getting a sense of ascent and descent without
Plate I and is shown here in Figure 1. first noting specific values. A clue to Playfaiťs
opinion on this matter may be detected in the
following statement made in 1799:
Whatever information is capable of being
communicated in this way may indeed be given in a
printed table in figures; but this chart though it does
not give it with so much accuracy, gives it in a more
useful manner for general reasoning, because, in the
first place, the exact amount never being known, the
minute apparent accuracy of a printed table is useless,-
and in the second place, it is the comparative amount
and the general progress that is of value to be known
which these sort of Charts give in a most impressive
and durable manner, by giving form and shape to what,
in the common numerical statements are a number of
detached parts, requiring a considerable effort of
memory to retain.(Strictures on the Asiatic
establishments of Great Britain, Un-numbered page in
beginning, 1799)

If we inspect the data lines in Figure 1 some

1 puzzles emerge. First of all Playfair is a bit
Chart of the In this example Playfair chose to encode the casual in how he draws the data line from
imports and value of imports with a yellow line and the
exports to and each ten year period. Note particularly the
from England. value of exports with a red line. If exports are import line from 1720 to 1730. The hump
Appears as higher than imports the area between these between these dates looks like there is a value
Plate I in two lines is coloured blue. If imports are high­
The commercial being encoded between 1720 and 1730. The
and political
er than exports the area is coloured brown. second puzzle is the addition of vertical grid
atlas of 1786 As can be seen in Figure 1, Playfair needed lines between 1770 to 1785. We can not help
to explain what the grid lines represented at but notice the marked ascents and descents of
the bottom of the chart. The title also appears export and import values. Presumably Playfair

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


obtained data on a yearly basis in this twelve We must assume that Playfair obtained
year period. If we check the accompanying yearly data for the fifteen year period in
text we find the following explanation: question but does not list it in the table. Such
As the purpose of the following Charts is to convey
an omission is a bit casual.
information in a distinct and easy manner, like History, Inspecting Figure 1 again we note that
the chief merit that they can have is truth and balances for or against England are represented
accuracy. The mode here adopted for conveying by the area between the two lines. This par-
information is accurate in its principle, though in the
execution it may be liable sometimes to error. I have, ticular approach has been called many things
however, spared no pains to avoid mistake, and have by modern writers: 'band chart' and if the
added Printed Tables at the end of each Number, that, lines cross over 'net-difference chart' (Schmid
by comparison, their errors, if they have any, may be & Schmid, 1979) also 'difference line' (SPSS
detected. {Commercial and political atlas, p. Preface,
1786) Inc., 1985). Cleveland (1985) points out that
such a technique makes the visual decoding of
An inspection of the corresponding data table data differences very difficult because the user
does not lead to an understanding of the has to make length judgements. If we examine
sharper variations between 1770 and 1782 Figure 1 and subtract 1740 imports from 1740
(Table 1). exports, hold this information in memory and
do the same for 1750 to compare the two
Table 1 periods, we find the task quite tedious. In his
Tabulated data accompanying Playfair's chart on the the
imports and exports to and from England from the year 1700 tables Playfair did subtract the difference, and
to 1782. Found in The commercial and political atlas, 1786. such a number would have been easily
plotable. Perception of the exact differences
years imports exports balance between imports and exports was probably not
1700 4,550,000 6,300,000 1,950,000 what Playfair had in mind when designing this
1710 4,900,000 7,000,000 2,100,000 type of graphic display. It is more than likely
1720 5,350,000 8,600,000 3,350,000 that he wanted his reader to perceive the
1730 7,500,000 10,900,000 3,400,000
general visual relationship between the
differences of exports and imports.
1740 7,550,000 12,000,000 4,450,000
In the 1787 edition of the Atlas Playfair re-
1750 7,250,000 12,650,000 5,400,000
tained the same basic design for his import/
1760 10,300,000 14,250,000 3,950,000
export chart to and from England. He did,
1770 11,650,000 16,300,000 4,650,000 however, abandon the use of colour and
1780 10,750,000 12,400,000 1,650,000 introduce the use of hatches and dots to en-
code the balances in favour or against England.
In the French edition of the Atlas entitled
If we check the text for an explanation of the
Tableaux d'Arithmétique Linéaire du
source of these data we find the following
Commerce des Finances et de la dette
Nationale de l'Angleterre (1789), Playfair
The information must all be derived from the papers updated and completely redesigned the same
and books belonging to the Custom-House; and, did it chart. As can be seen in Figure 2 the grid is
not require so long a time to bring them up, we might
have the satisfaction of seeing the Charts continued to lighter with no more lines running beyond
the last year. [The commercial and political atlas, p.7, 1790 into the outer frame.

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


chart containing similar graphic approaches to

those found in the Tableaux. He certainly got
a lot of mileage out of the chart for he uses it
again in Lineal arithmetic of 1798 (Figure 3).

2 Tableau du montans de toutes les exportations et importations d'Angleterre,

dupuis 1700, jusqu'en l'annee. Appears as Plance I in Tableaus d'arithmétique
linéaire du commerce des finances et de la dette nationale d l'Angleterre of
Numerical values are placed adjacent to the
grid lines within the outer frame. The title is
found inside the chart but the description of 3 Chart shewing the progressive increase of the total exports of Great Britain
the axes at the bottom is retained. Note that during the present century. Appears as Plate II in Lineal arithmetic of 1798
there is slightly more verbal commentary in-
side the chart. Lines are drawn for exports and No new data tables clear up the mystery of
lines with dots for imports. Colour is used to the ascending and descending curves this time
encode the area between. He again draws extra accentuated between 1760 and 1798. There is
vertical grid lines between 1770 and 1784 but more verbal commentary within the display
the accompanying text contains no lists for and the title is also placed inside. Note that
these or any other data. Based on Playfair's Playfair prefers to abbreviate the year notation
report of the matter in Volume 1 of British from 1700 to 10, 20, 30 etc. He also repeats
family antiquity of 1809, we are told that his the time series at the top of the display and
work was received quite favourably in France. returns to his original use of colour, that is,
Perhaps the enthusiastic reception of the red for line of exports, yellow for imports, blue
French inspired the graphic work contained in for balance in favour of England and brownish-
the 1796 volume entitled For the use of the pink for balances against England. His
enemies of England a real statement of the consistency in the use of colour demonstrates
finances and resources of Great Britain. The a sensitivity to the reader's burden of visual
title is curiously unpatriotic and it is interest- decoding. He probably realised that a reliable
ing to note that Playfair exploits his newly use of colour across editions of his work
evolving graphic method as a selling point to enabled his readers to acquire fluency when
the views expressed in the text. In this book viewing his graphs. It should be noted, though,
we see a new version of the import/export that such a practice did not originate with

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27–44


Playfair. Twyman (1986) describes many being encoded. No tables exist at all in this
earlier uses of colour coding in the design of volume so we can not check if Playfair had
historical tables. new data. All of the charts in the Atlas III
By 1801 and the publication of the third show similar discrepancies when compared
Atlas, Playfair appears to have arrived at some with earlier editions. We will examine a few
design preferences. In Figure 4 he used the more of these charts subsequently.
same colour coding. The title of the chart is It is interesting to note that Playfair always
kept inside the display. preferred to place the year centered exactly
under the grid line. He did experiment with
the placement of the date either inside or
outside of the display but in later years elected
to keep the date outside of the grid area. Only
in the third edition of the Atlas do we find one
chart with the date centered between vertical
grid lines (Figure 5).

4 Chart shewing the amount of the exports and imports of England, to and from
all parts during the 18th century. Appears as Plate I in The commercial and
political atlas of 1801

Space between the last vertical grid line and

the inner frame is allowed for a clearer
location of numerical values. Instead of a
description of the grid at the bottom, the 5 Chart shewing variations in the price of the sack of flour at Mark Lane for
simple statements 'money' and 'time' appear 10 years. Appears as Plate 26 in The commercial and political atlas of 1801
for the vertical and horizontal axes. Such a
design decision shows that Playfair was fairly Presumably he had monthly or quarterly data
confident that his readers were familar with for each year. No explanation is given. Playfair
the layout of his line graphics. He returns to a also places the quantitative scale on both sides
complete representation of the date, that is of the chart. This particular example does not
'1710' instead of '10', and abandons repeating appear in the first and second editions of the
the time series at the top. Atlas. We will return to a discussion of this
In Figure 4 we note that Playfair expands display since the topic interested Playfair
the scale to forty millions. If we look carefully again in his later years.
at the import and export lines in this chart
and compare them with those in Figure 3 we
find quite a few discrepancies in the values

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44



Playfair usually opted to place only one chart

on a page. Only in the three editions of the
Atlas (1786, 1787 and 1810) and Lineal
arithmetic of 1798 do we find a few charts
combined on the same page. He either sought
to be economical or wanted to stir a ripple in
the pool of monotony when he chose to
combine charts on Guernsey, Jersey and
Alderney and Africa as is seen in Figure 6.

He does not provide the time series under the Exports and
upper chart, thus making comparisons a bit imports to and
from Jersey,
more difficult. Unfortunately Playfair did not Guernsey and
see that plotting the difference between Alderney and
exports and
imports and exports for both sets of places imports to and
could have been easily combined on a single from Africa.
grid. Appears as
Plate 16 in The
In Figure 8 Playfair bites the apple and commercial
commits his first graphic sin. In this and political
particular chart found in Lineal arithmetic of atlas of 1801
1798 we are invited to compare Greenland
with Bermuda.
6 Exports and imports to and from Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney from 1700 to
1780 and exports and imports to and from Africa from 1700 to 1780. Appears
as Plate 22 in Lineal arithmetic of 1798

Taken from Lineal arithmetic of 1798 this

particular example is virtually the same as
those found in the first and second editions of
the Atlas. The scales are the same, running
from £10,000 to £100,000 inviting the eye to
make comparisons between the two sets of
data. Comparison is more explicitly invited in
the third edition of the Atlas, when Playfair
places a frame around both charts (Figure 7).

8 Exports and Imports to and from Greenland from 1700 to 1780 and exports
and Imports to and from Bermuda from 1700 to 1780. Appears as Plate 20 in
Lineal arithmentic of 1798

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27–44


Closer inspection reveals that the scales differ.

Bermuda's scale is £1,000 to £20,000 whereas
Greenland's ranges from £2,000 to £40,000.
This particular example is also found in the
first and second editions of the Atlas (1786
and 1787). Perhaps Playfair forgot this discrep-
ancy or did not see it as serious. The graphic
error becomes more acute when we inspect
Figure 9.

Greenland This display, found in the Atlas of 1801, also
trade and
includes a seductive outer frame leading the Chart of the
exports and
imports to and eye to perceive similarity between the discrep- operation of a
sinking fund of
from Bermuda. ant scales. An inspection of the accompanying one million
Appears as text does not clarify the discrepancy. Indeed, unalienable.
Plate 18 in
Playfair does not explain why Greenland and Appears as
Plate 27 in
commercial Bermuda are worth comparing. Most of his Lineal
and political discussion about Greenland deals with the arithmetic of
atlas of 1801
importance of the fishing business in general. 1798
Commenting on Bermuda he says: 'With
regard to the small trade to Bermuda, no This is Playfair's 'Sinking fund' chart found in
observations occur' (The commercial and Atlases I, II & III, the Tableaux, and Lineal
political atlas, p.82, 1801). arithmetic. Figure 1 1 is from Atlas III of 1801
Selection of the scales was a problem with while Figure 10 is found in Atlas I, II (1786,
Playfair and he clearly experimented with this 1787) and Lineal arithmetic (1798). There are
graphic element more than anything else. We a lot of differences in the 1801 representation:
all know that the scale selection will affect more verbal description, repeated time series
the slope of the line. Playfair obviously real- and more grid lines. The most dramatic
ised this too. An enormously different image difference is the change of scale. The data are
is seen when comparing Figures 10 and 1 1 . not revised and the accompanying text

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


Perhaps Playfair was tired or under too

much pressure or out of the country when the
1801 edition was published, because a close
inspection of his work reveals that he may not
have checked his charts for errors before the
work was printed. Another example that lends
support to this speculation is the 'West
Indies'chart. In Figure 12 we see the first use
of it in 1786.

1 2 Chart of the exports and imports to and from the West Indies from the year
1700 to 1780. Appears as Plate 4 in The commercial and political atlas of

Colour is used to indicate balance differences.

Title and scale descriptions are outside of the
display. Horizontal lines run beyond 1780 into
the outer frame. Year notation is inside the
1 1 Chart representing the reduction of the national debt by
the sinking fund already established. Appears as Plate 21 in display. In the 1787 edition Playfair abandoned
The commercial and political atlas of 1786 colour and used dots to encode balances, while
Lineal arithmetic contains the same chart
provides no clue as to why Playfair chose to with only import and export lines coloured
extend the scale. The text in Atlas III, yellow and red. The data are not revised. In
incidentally, is virtually the same as that in Atlas III a dramatically different image
Atlas I & II and Lineal arithmetic minus appears (Figure 13), as a result of using revised
several paragraphs. We will examine the data extended to 1800 instead of 1780. This
'Sinking fund' chart in more detail changes the curve quite a bit.

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


If we attempt to look up any of these numbers

in Figure 1 3 we will find that the line does not
correspond with the numerical values shown
in Table 2. Similar discrepancies may be found
when comparing any of the twenty-six charts
with those of Atlas I and 77. Playfair must
presumably have obtained new data. It is,
however, also possible that he did not
communicate properly with the new engraver
of the 1801 edition. Inexact communication
may have been Playfair's fault, in failing to
explain to the engraver the importance of
precision in drawing the lines to correspond
with data values. On the other hand, the lack
1 3 Exports and imports to and from the West Indies. Appears as Plate 4 in
The Commercial and political atlas of 1801 of communication may have been the fault of
the engraver who ignored Playfair's requests
The scale is the same although a typographic- and chose to do things his way. Potential
al error can be seen between two million and evidence for the second of the two possibil-
three million. However, since there is no table ities is supplied by Robinson (1975) who
accompanying this chart, we are unable to describes some of the discrepancies in design
examine the specific values. Atlas I & 77 (1786 between the map maker and map engraver
and 1787) incidentally, are the only two occurring in the early nineteenth century. In
volumes that do contain tables of these data. the publication of the Physik alis cher Atlas in
Table 2 contains the numerical values which the late 1830s and 1840s Robinson cites
may be found in these two editions. Engelmann who quotes Berghaus, a map
maker: Twenty-five years of experience and
Table 2 practice have made me so lenient that I have
Playfair's import and export data on West Indies trade. got used to overlooking (the) many changes
Playfair tabulates these data in both the first and second the engravers allow themselves' (p.20). We do
editions ofThe commercial and political atlas of 1786 and
1787. not know whether Playfair's experience was
similar to Berghaus's. What we can acknow-
year imports exports balance ledge is the fact that the West Indies chart and
1700 580,000 305,000 285,000 indeed every other chart replicated in Atlas III
1710 750,000 335,000 425,000
from Atlases I and 77 show discrepancies
which were not corrected by him.
1,060,000 435,000 625,000
1730 1,260,000 450,000 810,000
In a few instances Playfair chose to exploit
the appearance of numerical precision implied
1740 1,290,000 515,000 775,000
in the new graphic format he was evolving
1750 1,460,000 770,000 690,000 and use it for diagrammatic purposes. If we
1760 2,105,000 865,000 1,240,000 return to the 'Sinking fund' chart (Figure 10)
1770 2,995,000 1,190,000 1,805,000 we see an early example of this situation. In
1780 2,210,000 1,220,000 990,000 this display the first curve which he calls the
'Decrease of present Debt' encodes a

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


hypothetical schedule of payment of the As we scan this display we see the nations
national debt and is based on the same scale from Egypt to America brushed into piles
as that of the national debt found displayed in within the flow of time like little sand dunes
another chart. The second and smaller curve in a wind-swept desert. Key historical events
called 'Increase of future Debt' is also are stated vertically between the grid lines.
hypothetical. The future debt peaks when the More lines appear after 1700 encouraging the
present debt is paid off, that is, in fifty-three eye to note in more detail the heights of each
years. At the fifty-three year point another country's curve. If we look to the left and right
hypothetical debt starts and also reaches its of the display for a quantitative scale showing
pinnacle when the future debt has been paid what these curves indicate, we look in vain.
off. The dotted line shows the line of descent An inspection of the text, however, reveals
of all three curves. Thus Playfair tries to that the curves encode Playfair's historical
create a picture of the downward flow of debt. inferences. No numerical values are to be
The graphic idea is an interesting one but found. He says of this display:
poorly executed since the curves are hard to
It is constructed to give a distinct view of the
disentangle from one another. migrations of commerce and of wealth in general. For a
Another diagrammatic chart is found in An very accurate view, there are no materials in existence;
inquiry into the permanent causes of the neither would it lead to any very different conclusion, if
the proportional values were ascertained with the
decline and fall of powerful and wealthy greatest accuracy. [An inquiry into the permanent
nations of 1805, where we see what initially causes of the decline and fall of powerful and wealthy
appears to be a remarkably rich presentation nations, p. xv, 1805)
of the economic wealth of many important
He also gives us a deeper insight into his
countries. This chart, seen in Figure 14, is to
own powers of reasoning by telling us what
be found in the frontispiece of the Inquiry.
the sketching of charts enabled him to see:
I first drew the Chart in order to clear up my own ideas
on the subject, finding it very troublesome to retain a
distinct notion of the changes that had taken place. I
found it answer(ed) the purpose beyond my expectation,
by bringing into one view the result of details that are
dispersed over a very wide and intricate field of
universal history; facts sometimes connected with each
other, sometimes not, and always requiring reflection
each time they were referred to. I found the first rough
draft g(a)ve me a better comprehension of the subject,
than all that I had learnt from occasional reading, for
half of my lifetime; and, on the supposition that what
was of so much use to me, might be of some to others, I
have given it with a tolerable degree of accuracy. [An
inquiry into the permanent causes of the decline and
fall of powerful and wealthy nations, p. xvi, 1805)

To the quantitatively-precise minded such

1 4 Chart of universal commercial history from the year 1500 before the a practice could be criticised as essentially
Christian era to the present year 1805 being a space of three-thousand three
hundred and four years. Appears as the frontispiece in An inquiry into the misleading. Having created in the reader's
permenant causes of the decline and fall of powerful and wealthy nations of mind an expectation for curves plotted across

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


time as indicating specific quantities he was in it we witness some of his nicest graphic
now using this form for a generalised inter- work with a plethora of technical error.
pretation of historical events. To those more Without specific evidence we can only
interested in graphic creativity and innovation speculate on the reason why Playfair let so
Figure 14 is to be applauded for its visual many errors slip by.
summary of a complex panoply of economic We have also caught a glimpse of Playfair's
episodes through time. Whatever view we intense enthusiasm for the graphic method
choose to take we are all able to value his in- through some of the statements he made in
sightful appreciation for a conceptual tool that his books. This enthusiasm for discovering
engenders the comprehension of complex trends and seeing the overall picture some-
material. times led him into diagrammatic uses of line
graphics to express his opinions about various

We have seen that Playfair clearly experiment- PLAYFAIR'S INVESTIGATIONS INTO

ed with the design of his line graphics. He THE PRICE OF WHEAT
started out using colour to enhance the areas
1 5 Chart
between the curves he drew in Atlas I, When we inspect Playfair's graphic work shewing at one
explored the use of stippling and hatching in designed in the last years of his life we see view the price of
the quarter of
Altas II and Lineal arithmetic then returned some of his finest line graphics. Four more wheat and wages
to colour in all of his other works. His use of charts are discovered in A letter on our of labour by the
verbal commentary evolved. On one hand he agricultural distress, their causes and week from the
year 1565 to
became more concise. In his later works titles remedies of 1821 and its two subsequent 1821. Appears as
of charts were all found inside the display. editions both dated 1822. On the whole these Chart No 1 in
Names of axes required less description. On charts show Playfair's maturity as a designer. A letter on our
the other hand he felt the need to use more In Figures 15 through 18 we view the distresses their
verbal description on lines and areas of sig- consistent placement of the title inside of the causes and
nificance. The placement of the vertical axis display. remedies of 1821
evolved. In the beginning he always placed the
scale to the right of the display. By 1801 and
the publication of the third edition of the
Atlas he was placing the monetary scale on
both the left and right-hand sides. He also
settled in his placement of the time scale
electing to place the date outside of the frame.
We have seen that he was sometimes
casual in plotting his curves to correspond
with specific data values. His data sources
were nebulously stated and his data tables
were either scanty or nonexistent. The third
edition of the Atlas is the biggest puzzler, for

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


1 6 Chart shewing the value of the quarter of wheat from 1560 to 1822. 1 8 Chart of the yearly average prices of the quantern loaf of best wheaten
Appears as Chart No 3 in A letter on our agricultural distresses their causes and bread from 1740 to 1821. Appears as Chart No 2 in A letter on our agricultural
remedies of 1822 distresses their causes and remedies of 1822

Cromwell. These bars allow us to chunk the

period in question and thus make general
comparisons between the price of a quarter of
wheat under each king or queen's reign.
When we compare the messages contained
in the graphic displays with those found in the
text we find confusingly different aims.
Playfair addresses his Letter to members of
Parliment and puts forth his view as to why
the price of wheat and the subsequent price of
a loaf of bread is so high. While he examines a
lot of sub-issues, he proposes two principal
causes. The first cause is due to middlemen
1 7 Chart representing the average yearly price of the quarter of wheat from who buy as cheaply as they can from the
1560 to 1822. Last chart to appear in the third edition of A letter on our farmer, grind the wheat and then sell as high
agricultural distresses their causes and remedies of 1822 as possible to the baker. Playfair does not
mince words about these characters,
Numerical values are placed on both the left describing them as:
and right hand sides of the charts. Darker grid
unproductive altogether; a sort of excrescence; a fungus
lines are drawn for the divisions Playfair bred up under the joint influence of the affluence and
wants to emphasise. Lovely sweeping arcs negligence of the farmers during the high prices in time
appear at the top of the displays in Figures 1 5 of war. [A letter on our agricultural distress, their
causes and remedies, p. 19, 1821)
and 16 enabling the eye to group centuries
and in Figure 1 8 to group every ten years. In The second cause is attributed to the credit
Figure 15 we also observe horizontal bars at used by the rich who buy their loaves from the
the top indicating the length of a monarch's baker on credit forcing the baker to take credit
reign with a poignantly empty bar for from the middlemen. The middlemen, in turn,

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


justify an even higher price for the sacks of Playfair designs his charts as seen in Figures
wheat they sell to the baker. Thus Playfair 15 and 16 to show that Smith's idea is an
discusses three types of prices of wheat: ( 1 ) the absurdity. He demonstrates graphically that
price of a quarter of wheat, sold by the farmer the price of wheat over a two-hundred and
to the middlemen or 'dealer'; (2) the price of a fifty year period had varied quite dramatically
sack of wheaten flour, as sold by the middle- and thus the regulation of wages by this index
men to the bakers; and (3) the price of a would have been unpractical.
quartern loaf as sold by the bakers to the In plotting five-year averages and drawing a
consumers. It is these values we would expect line across the five-year period indicating the
him to graph, exploring patterns in these data same value, Playfair generated a staircase
or showing patterns he has already discovered. image which he shades in gray thus emphasis-
We would especially be interested in seeing ing the height of the columns. Such a graphic
comparisons between the price of a quarter of approach was never used by Playfair until
wheat with those of a sack of flour to analyse Agricultural distresses of 1821 and has been
how much profit the middleman is making. given a lot of names in the twentieth century,
Indeed Playfair obtained data at some point on one of which is 'simple step surface chart'
the price of a sack of flour for Atlas HI con- (Schmid & Schmid, 1979). Playfair did not
tains a chart dealing with this subject (Figure originate this method, for both Robert Plot in
5). Instead, the price of a quarter of wheat as 1685 (Figure 19) and Alexander von Humboldt
sold by the farmer to the middlemen is the in 1812 (Figure 20) used it.
central value receiving the graphic spotlight
averaged for five years and compared with the
wages of the 'good mechanic' (Figure 15), aver-
aged for twenty-five years and again compared
with the wages of a good mechanic (Figure
16), and averaged yearly and plotted independ-
ently as seen in Figure 17. Figure 17, incident-
ally, only appeared in the second and third
editions of the Letter both published in 1822.
It is only in Figure 1 8 that we see any data 1 9 Chart
plotted on the prices of a quartern loaf. Such A letter from Dr
comparisons do not make immediate sense Robert Plot of
given the two main causes of the farmers' Oxford to Dr
Martin Lister
agricultural distresses, that is, the greed of the concerning the
middlemen and the credit used by the rich, at use which may
be made of the
least as stated in the text Playfair writes.
The purpose of the charts as found in history of the
Figures 15 through 18 is not to corroborate weather made
by him at
his thesis as put forth in the letter but to Oxford
disprove a point that Adam Smith considered throughout the
in his Wealth of nations of 1776. Smith year 1684,
considered the idea that the wages of labour Philosophical
might be best regulated by the price of wheat. 1685

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


2 0 Quantité de l'or et de l'argent extraits des mines du Mexique. Appears as 2 1 A chart exhibiting the relation between the amount of Bank of England
No /// in Planche 19 of Humboldt's Atlas geographique et physique of 1812 notes in circulation, the rate of foreigh exchanges and the prices of silver
buillion and of wheat Designed by S T Galton in 1813

We see S. Tertius Galton, the father of Francis deemphasises the rise of weekly wages.
Galton, using it again in 1813 (Figure 21). It is likely that Playfair realised the visual
In Galton's graphic display the 'Average distortion he had created in the chart as seen
market prices of a quarter of wheat' is the in Figure 15 and thus tried to generate an
third staircase from the bottom and appears a image in which the price of wheat and daily
lot like Playfair's in Figure 15. earnings were more visually comparable. In
If we look back at Figure 15 we will note Figure 16 we see his chart comparing the
that Playfair combines two different graphic value of a quarter of wheat with days wages.
formats, that is, the staircase design with a In this display, the scales to the left and right
smoother curve. The staircase design encodes indicate both values in shillings and days.
the five-year average of the price of a quarter This time Playfair averages across 25 years.
of wheat. The wages of a good mechanic are The area beneath wages is stained blue and
not averaged for each five-year period but the area beneath shillings is stained pink. If
plotted yearly. Playfair thus obtains a smooth- wages are above shillings a red line appears. If
er, flattened curve which contrasts sharply shillings are abvove wages a dashed line
with the staircase image. The staircase form appears as yellow. This colour coding is more
emphasises the variation of wheat prices apparent after 1675 but before this, shillings
whereas the choice of a line for weekly wages are masked inside wages and not easily detect-

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


able. Only a dashed line with the statement in his earlier graphic books are used in the
'in Shillings' lets us know that the area under Letter with great skill. Of particular note is
shillings is found within the area of wages. the use of horizontal bars encoding the lengths
Playfair makes this even more confusing by of monarch's reigns and the sweeping arcs
drawing dashed lines for 1625, 1675, 1727 and used to group centuries (Figure 15). Such
1775. Extracting horizontal lines from vertical approaches enable the eye to make multiple
lines between 1600 and 1700 is thus more comparisons across time from five year to one
difficult. Also, while the scale is in days, a hundred year periods, to see monarchs' spans
superficial glance can mislead the mind into of power across centuries and to inspect the
seeing that earnings are way below wheat spans of their reigns with the wheat prices and
prices,when in fact wheat prices have gone weekly wages. Playfair clearly loved making
down in comparison to earnings. Such a broad statements about economic events
graphic method is still with us today and is within the flow of time. We see him
called a 'subdivided surface or step chart' struggling with this graphically in Figures 10
(Schmid & Schmid, 1979). and especially in Figure 14. In Figure 15,
It should be noted that on the whole however, he is successful in portraying
Playfair documents or at least refers to check- economic phenomena which are based on real
able sources for his data. The values of a data with other historical events. He is also
quarter of wheat are taken from 'official successful in showing the fluctuating price of
documents' as stated on page 12 of the Letter wheat which Adam Smith was uable to detect.
or 'official returns' as stated on page 29. We have seen that the staircase method of
Playfair presents these data in a table. The plotting may not have been his idea but he
data for the price of a quartern loaf are certainly took the idea further than Plot or
specifically taken from the town-clerk's office Humboldt or Galton. In Figure 15 his combin-
at the Guildhall and a table is provided. No ation of the staircase design with a smoother
data source is given on the weekly earnings of curve does not bring out clearly enough the
a good mechanic. notable change in the good mechanic's
We witness another typographical error for condition compared with the price of a quarter
in Figure 17 we see that a gap in values is of wheat. In Figure 16 we can detect this
indicated between 1570 and 1585. On the situation slightly better but the format
chart Playfair says of this gap 'The Register Playfair selects makes detection of differences
wanting from 1671 to 1683'. If, however, a gap between wages and shillings difficult especial-
was truly noted by Playfair in the Register it ly when days wages are above shillings.
was not indicated in his table, for in it we find
values for the years 1571 to 1583.

REITERATION While our observations come to a close it is

fitting to consider a few more things. A
In many ways A letter on our agricultural reading of Playfair's life in the Dictionary of
distresses, their causes and remedies of 1821 National Biography of 1896 leaves us with the
and 1822 is a remarkable work. Some of the impression that he was an unsavoury charac-
approaches to design that Playfair developed ter and perhaps, in some business ventures,

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


unscrupulous. No comment is made on his As a designer, blundering set aside, he

graphic contributions. We obtain a different clearly evolved an approach to the drawing of
image of the man if we read his obituary in line graphics which eventually was used by
Gentleman's magazine written in 1823 by the his contemporaries. In Figures 20, 2 1 and 22
Marquis of Salisbury: we see Layton Cooke's work of 1828, which
In private life Mr. Playfair was amiable and firm in his manifests a style similar to Playfair's with
friendship, as he was loyal in his principles. With a more precision and more data.
thoughtlessness that is too frequently allied to genius,
he neglected to secure that provision for his family,
which, from his talents, they were justified to expect,
and although he laboured ardently and abundantly for
his Country, yet he found it ungrateful, and he was left
in age and infirmity to regret that he had neglected his
own interests to promote those of the British
Government. His mental energies continued
unimpaired, while for many months his physical
strength was exhausting. He has left a widow and four
children. (p. 566)

The truth about the character of the man

probably rests somewhere between these two
reports. Both biographers indicate that
Playfair served as a draughtsman for James
Watt and Matthew Boulton in Birmingham
when he was a young man. One biography of
2 2 Chart No 4 entitled 'Prices of wheat in southern Europe'. L Cooke's A series
Watt quotes a letter written by Watt to of statistical charts showing the fluctuations in quantity and value of the
Boulton dealing with Playfair: products of the soil with various ascertainments obviously influential on the
husbandry of the British Empire of 1828
To make up in some repect for the loss of Hall at Soho,
Watt suggests to Boulton (June 27, 1778) 'I would recall
Playfair who can do part of the business, and I think
now that you are at home you can contrive to give him
proper assistance. I must warn you that Playfair is a
blunderer.' (Dickinson & Jenkins, 1927, p. 285)

Such blundering may have led him into the

graphic method we find so useful today.
Perhaps only a blunderer would have the blind
courage to publish a book on economic issues
in the late eighteenth century, call it an atlas
yet not include one map, then on top of that
include forty charts of 'lines' applied to
'subjects of finance' (p. A4, 1801). On the
other hand such blundering may also account
for the technical and typographical errors we
find in some of his works, especially the Atlas
2 3 Chart No 2 entitled 'Finance'. In L Cooke's A series of statistical charts
777 of 1801. showing the fluctuations in quantity and value of the products of the soil with
various ascertainments obviously influential on the husbandry of the British
Empire of 1828

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


the significance of the graphic method. Other

developers like Lambert, Crome, Cooke,
Guerry and a host of others just got on with
the business of doing charts. Playfair designed
a lot of charts too but he had a self-awarenes
of the power of the graphic method, a
realisation that we just take for granted today.
In 1821 we have seen that he quarreled with
Adam Smith's observation that wages should
be regulated by the price of wheat. In his
Wealth of nations, Smith never used a graph
to analyse his economic data. Instead he
worked solely from tables. Smith may have
drawn better conclusions if he had graphed his
data. Playfair describes this predicament and
demonstrates great insight into the
2 4 Chart No 3 entitled 'Prices of British corn'. In L Cooke's A series of
statistical charts showing the fluctuations in quantity and value of the products importance of the graphic method as a tool in
of the soil with various ascertainments obviously influential on the husbandry of human reasoning:
the British Empire of 1828
Dr A d a m S m i t h viewed t h e fluctuations of prices from
Cooke may have discovered Playfair's graphic a printed table, yet, evidently did not form the proper
work through the 1821 or 1822 edition of conclusion w h i c h m e n of far inferior abilities will form
from the linear chart. T h e r e p u t a t i o n of A d a m Smith,
Agricultural distresses since much of Cooke's as a m a n of great talents, is established t h r o u g h o u t the
data deals with similar topics. world. I had the h o n o u r and pleasure of k n o w i n g h i m
The debate about the significance of personally, and no m a n can rate his talents higher t h a n
Playfair's work will most likely continue. I do; it is for that very reason that I seize the
o p p o r t u n i t y of shewing h o w m u c h better ordinary m e n
This is because we are only beginning to see can judge from a linear chart t h a n a m a n of great genius
that all facets of graphic representation need did from a printed table. [Agricultural distresses, 3rd
to be systematically studied and understood. edition, p. 46. 1822)
When we examine the approaches to design
Perhaps as time goes by and we gain an even
taken by the early originators of new graphic
better perspective of the man and his methods
ideas we are more able to sort out the good
we will honour him most for his discernment.
from the bad. There are many elements in
Playfair's design that are prone to visual
distortions. Equally, there are many graphic Acknowledgements
elements demonstrating excellence. We can While the responsibility for the content of this paper rests
on the author's shoulders, she is very grateful to the
not reasonably expect perfection in what are following kind colleagues who took a few minutes or hours
essentially prototypes of a new innovation. from their busy schedules to read and comment on earlier
What is more cogent is the fact that our drafts. Special thanks to Albert Biderman, Kevin Byrne,
present methods have not shown much David Desjardins, Andrew Ehrenberg, William Kruskal,
Michael Macdonald-Ross, Calvin Schmid, Michael
improvement over the worst of Playfair.
Twyman, Howard Wainer and Patricia Wright. Very special
One other comment and quote is in order. thanks to the editors for being willing to extend the funds
No matter what else we say about Playfair, it of ID] to reproduce so many of William Playfair's charts.
is quite clear that he was a man who grasped

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44


Beniger J R & Robyn D L Funkhouser H G & Playfair W 1796 Plot R (1685)

(1978) Walker H M (1935) For the use of the enemies A letter from Dr Robert Plot
Quantitative graphics in Playfair and his charts of England. A real statement of Oxford to Dr Martin Lister
statistics: a brief history Economic history 3: of the finances and economic of the RS concerning the use
American Statistician 38: 103-109 resources of Great Britain which may be made of the
1-10 Whittingham, London following history of the
Funkhouser H G (1937) weather made by him at
Biderman A D (1990) Historical development of the Playfair W (1798) Oxford through out the year
The Playfair enigma: toward graphical representation of Lineal arithmetic 1684
understanding the statistical data A Paris, London Philosophical transactions,
development of the Osiris 3: 269-404 169: 9 3 0 - 9 3 1
schematic representation of Playfair W (1799)
statistics from origins to the Galton Tertius S (1813) Strictures on the Asiatic Robinson A H (1975)
present day A chart exhibiting the relation establishments of Great Mapmaking and map printing:
Information design journal between the amount of bank Britain the evolution of a working
6 / 1 3-25 notes in circulation, the rate Bunney & Gold, London relationship
of foreign exchanges, and the In D Woodward (ed) Five
Cleveland W (1985) prices of gold and silver Playfair W (1801) centuries of map printing
The elements of graphing bullion and of wheat; The commercial and political University of Chicago Press,
data accompanied with atlas Chicago, 1-23
Wadsworth, California explanatory observations Burton, London
J Johnson & Company, Schmid C F & Schmid S E
Cooke L (1828) London Playfair W (1805) (1979)
A series of statistical charts An inquiry into the Handbook of graphic
showing the fluctuations in Humboldt A (1812) permanent causes of the presentation
quantity and value of the Atlas geographique et decline and fall of powerful John Wiley, New York
products of the soil with physique du royaume de la and wealthy nations
various ascertainments Nouvelle-Espagne, fonde sur Greenland & Norris, London Schmid C (1983)
obviously influential on the des observations Statistical graphics: design
husbandry of the British astronomiques des mesures Playfair W (1809-1811) principles and practices
Empire trigonométriques et des British family antiquity, John Wiley, New York
London nivellemens barométriques Volume 1
Paris London SPSS Inc. (1985)
Dickinson H W & Jenkins R SPSS Graphics
(1927) Marquis of Salisbury (1823) Playfair W (1821) McGraw-Hill, New York
James Watt and the steam Obituary on William Playfair A letter on our agricultural
engine: the memorial volume Gentleman's magazine, June: distresses their causes and Tilling L (1975)
prepared for the committee 564-566 remedies Early experimental graphs
of the Watt centenary Sams, London British Journal for the History
commemoration at Playfair W (1786) of Science,
Birmingham 1919 The commercial and political Playfair W (1822) 8: 1 9 3 - 2 1 3
Clarendon Press Oxford atlas A letter on our agricultural
Debrett, London distresses, their causes and Twyman M (1986)
Dictionary of the national remedies Articulating graphic language:
biography 1896 Playfair W (1787) 2nd edition Sams, London a historical perspective
Volume 45 The commercial and political In M E Wrolstad & D F Fisher
Smith and Elder, London atlas Playfair W (1822) (eds) Toward a new
John Stockdale, London A letter on our agricultural understanding of literacy
Ehrenberg A S C (1984) distresses, their causes and Praeger, New York, 188-251
What we can and can't get Playfair W (1789) remedies
from graphs Tableaux d'arithmétique 3rd edition Sams, London Wainer H (1984)
Proceedings of the fifth linéaire du commerce des How to display data badly
annual conference and finances et de la dette Playfair W (1822) American Statistician, 3 8 / 2 :
exposition of the NCGA nationale de l'angleterre Can this continue? A 137-47
National Computer Graphics Barrois l'aîné, Paris question addressed to those
Association Virginia, whom it may concern
753-759 Sams, London

INF. DES. J. 6 / 1 (1990) 27-44