William Playfair Would Be Disappointed

In the beginning we had geographic maps and tables of numbers. And that suited us just fine for hundreds of years. Fast forward to today, and we’ve got gaudy preso’s with ugly 3D stacked bar charts. Where did we go wrong?

In 1759 a kid was born in Scotland who would change the way we consume information. By the age of 18, William Playfair was a draftsman for James Watt, the guy who didn’t invent the lightbulb but somehow got his name on every bulb sold (sorry Edison). Playfair tried silversmithing, stormed the Bastille during the French Revolution, and started a bank. In between he wrote pamphlets and developed a taste for economics.

In 1786 he published The Commercial and Political Atlas which was the first major work to contain statistical graphs; 43 time series plots and the one bar chart, the first one ever published. Fifteen years later his Statistical Breviary introduced the first pie chart. Playfair wrote:

Information, that is imperfectly acquired, is generally as imperfectly retained; and a man who has carefully investigated a printed table, finds, when done, that he has only a very faint and partial idea of what he had read; and that like a figure imprinted on sand, is soon totally erased and defaced. The amount of mercantile transactions in money, and of profit or loss, are capable of being as easily represented in drawing, as any part of space, or as the face of a country; though, till now, it has not been attempted. Upon that principle these Charts were made; and, while they give a simple and distinct idea, they are as near perfect accuracy as is any way useful. On inspecting any one of these Charts attentively, a sufficiently distinct impression will be made, to remain unimpaired for a considerable time, and the idea which does remain will be simple and complete, at once including the duration and the amount.

Statistical Breviary, p. 3-4

And from that eloquent beginning we now have the Excel Chart Wizard. William Playfair would be disappointed.