PLAYFAIR, William (1759-1823). The Commercial and Political Atlas: Representing, by Means of Stained Copper-Plate Charts, the Progress of the Commerce, Revenues, Expenditure and Debts of England during the Whole of the Eighteenth Century. [London], n.d. (plates dated 1785-86).
Oblong 8o (175 x 215 mm). 40 engraved plates containing 44 charts, all but one hand-colored (one chart shaved on fore-margin just catching letter). Contemporary calf-backed marbled boards with vellum-tipped fore-corners.
FIRST EDITION OF "THE FIRST PUBLICATION TO CONTAIN STATISTICAL CHARTS" (Oxford DNB). William Playfair was a Scottish engineer and political economist who founded graphical methods of statistics. Early in his career he worked for the inventor James Watt at his steam engine manufacturing works in Birmingham, where he received a scientific and engineering training. His varied and fascinating resume included engineer, draftsman, accountant, inventor, silversmith, merchant, investment broker, economist, statistician, pamphleteer, among other things. On leaving Watt's company in 1782, he set up a silversmithing business and shop in London, which failed. He moved to Paris in 1787, where he took part in the storming of the Bastille two years later. Among his most significant contributions were his inventions of four types of diagrams used by us today: in 1786 the line graph and bar chart of economic data, and in 1801 the pie chart and circle graph, used to show part-whole relations. His work was largely unacknowledged until after his death.
In this ground-breaking work, Playfair lays down his new graphical method through contrast with the imperfect quality of traditional tabular presentation of data: "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" (pp. 3-4).
"For Playfair, graphics were preferable to tables because graphics showed the shape of the data in a comparative perspective. Time-series plots did this, and all but one of the 44 charts in the first edition of The Commercial and Political Atlas were time-series. That one exception is the first known bar chart, which Playfair invented because year-to-year data were missing and he needed a design to portray the one-year data that were available" (Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, pp. 32-33). Kress B.1112 (apparently the same issue without place or date on title). See Akerman & Karrow, eds., Maps: Finding Our Place in the World (Chicago, 2007), pp. 229-31.