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The Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary

af William Playfair

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A scientific revolution began at the end of the eighteenth century with the invention and popularization of the graphic display of data by the remarkable Scot, William Playfair. His marvellous Atlas showed how much could be learned if one plotted data atheoretically and looked for suggestive patterns. Those patterns provide evidence, albeit circumstantial, on which to build new science. Playfair's work has much to teach us, but finding a copy has been almost impossible. Until now. This full colour reproduction of two of his classic works, with new explanatory material, makes Playfair's wisdom widely available for the first time in two centuries.… (mere)
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A Christmas gift. The introduction is at least as interesting as the book. Playfair more or less invented the use of graphs and charts to display statistical data. He invented the time series line graph, the bar chart, the pie chart, the use of text notes as event markers within a line graph, the chronological bar chart (to show the duration of the reign of various English and French rulers on the same scale as a time series showing imports and exports), multiple scales on charts, major and minor divisions in a graph, dashed lines for extrapolation, and probably a bunch of other stuff. He was also fairly politically insightful - he argued that the American colonies would be of more economic benefit to England as an independent country, that Russia was a sleeping giant, and that the Ottoman Empire was on a downhill slide to insignificance. At the same time, he was very careless with his data - modern analysis of the tables he used for his charts shows that they were sometimes egregiously misplotted, and he was a small-time crook, spending some time in prison for various cons and attempted blackmail.


The meat of the book is a photocopy of one of the originals; exact enough, unfortunately, to show things like places where the colors from a chart have bled on to the facing page. The charts themselves are of more interest for their innovations, rather than the actual data - unless you have a particular fascination for (say) the export trade with Spain in the eighteenth century. The accompanying text, as mentioned, can be insightful, although it’s in one of those typefaces where the internal or leading “s” looks like an “f”, leaving you with sentences like “Nothing can be more hurtful to real induftry, than to perceive the fuccefs in acquiring wealth of thofe who come from that part of the world.”


The “statistical breviary” section (originally a separate volume) is a summary of available statistical facts for the nations of Europe plus India in 1800. The tables include land area, population, military force, number of naval vessels, and so on. Some of this is pretty interesting; I never would have guessed that Naples was the fourth largest city in Europe (after London, Constantinople, and Paris) in 1800. Playfair uses pie charts here to show the relative area of countries and sizes of cities.


Historically interesting for the data and the way it’s presented. If you like this sort of stuff you might also enjoy the works of Edward Tufte. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 21, 2017 |
This is famous because of Playfair's role in inventing statistical visualization. If your main interest is in the charts themselves, then any online images or those available in other books, such as Tufte's, would suffice. I find them to be an odd mix of the professional and precise copperplate printing with amateurish hand water-coloring, almost like a drunkard let loose with a highlighter. The introduction by Wainer and Spence contains a biographical sketch and career overview which is interesting.

As for Playfair's writing, be prepared to slog through a bunch of late eighteenth century British exceptionalism and his pontifications on the nature of nations and people. His most interesting digression might be on what statistics he would love to be able to get his hands on in the Statistical Breviary.

I feel that an annotated edition would be of more use than the faithful reproduction Wainer and Spence decided to go with. I found the long-s's particularly annoying. ( )
  encephalical | Jan 14, 2017 |
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A scientific revolution began at the end of the eighteenth century with the invention and popularization of the graphic display of data by the remarkable Scot, William Playfair. His marvellous Atlas showed how much could be learned if one plotted data atheoretically and looked for suggestive patterns. Those patterns provide evidence, albeit circumstantial, on which to build new science. Playfair's work has much to teach us, but finding a copy has been almost impossible. Until now. This full colour reproduction of two of his classic works, with new explanatory material, makes Playfair's wisdom widely available for the first time in two centuries.

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