Playfair’s Powerpoint Presentation

“To those interested in the effective visual communication of quantitative phenomena, William Playfair’s Atlas is like the Bible: an ancient and revered book that is often cited but rarely read.”

—Howard Wainer and Ian Spence

The Commercial and Political Atlas is rarely read simply because it’s rare. Playfair published three versions of the book between 1786 and 1801, but apparently it has never been reprinted since then except in a microfilm edition. Looking at the microfilm a few years ago, I thought that someone really ought to put together a handsome facsimile edition, equipped with a learned introduction that would explain the work’s place in the history of scientific illustration. Now someone has done exactly that. Actually sometwo: Howard Wainer and Ian Spence. Wainer is with the National Board of Medical Examiners and the University of Pennsylvania and also has a recent book of his own on graphics and visualization, Graphic Discovery: A Trout in the Milk and Other Visual Adventures. Spence is professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

The new edition of Playfair is published by Cambridge University Press (ISBN 9780521855549, U.S. price $39.99). It presents the third and final edition of the Atlas, photographically reproduced from a copy held by the University of Pennsylvania. As a bonus, the volume also includes a later Playfair pamphlet, The Statistical Breviary.

Playfair’s work is treated with Biblical reverence because it was the first publication to include graphs and charts as a way of presenting quantitative information. The Atlas is full of line graphs or area graphs showing the balance of trade between Britain and various other countries through the 1700s. A bar chart made an appearance in one of the early editions of the Atlas but was later dropped. The Breviary has pie charts.

In their introduction, Wainer and Spence address the obvious question, which is not “How did Playfair come up with these novelties?” but rather “Why didn’t anyone do it before?” Although the costs and difficulties of reproducing graphics were surely a factor, Wainer and Spence argue that the major impediment was distrust of such graphic devices. Scholars and scientists of the time might have drawn graphs for their own private use, but in publications they wanted to see raw data, in big tables of numbers. Graphs and charts had the same doubtful reputation then as Powerpoint presentations do today.

And perhaps Playfair’s colleagues were justified in their skepticism. Wainer and Spence point out that Playfair’s interpolation often looks either careless or fanciful, and some of the circular charts in the Breviary suffer from perceptual problems that still plague graphic artists today. All the same, it’s great to have the book in one’s hands.

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