Pie Charts Of The Life Of The Londoner Who Invented Pie Charts

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 37 months ago
Pie Charts Of The Life Of The Londoner Who Invented Pie Charts
William Payfair's pie chart. Much better and less frivolous than our own examples.

While he was in London, Scottish-born William Playfair (1759–1823) invented three forms of statistical chart which we see every day and from which we glean meaning which would otherwise be buried in columns of figures.

The time-series line graph and the bar chart first appeared in his Commercial and Political Atlas of 1786, and the pie chart emerged from his Statistical Breviary of 1801.

Although Playfair's brother John was a noted mathematician, it was William who thought of the charts. As a young man William worked in engineering with steam pioneer James Watt and the inventor of the threshing machine, Andrew Meikle. He invented a process for silver plating spoons but the silver spoon always eluded his mouth. He died in poverty at Covent Garden.

We know that, apart from statistics, there are lies and damned lies. Beyond his honest toil as an engineer, Playfair scraped a living and at various times in his life was a journalist (and from this his charts emerged), went into debt, committed libel, sailed close to the wind in a banking enterprise, embezzled funds while working on colonial land dealing and resorted to blackmail. We unleashed Londonist’s vast supercomputer on the task of reducing Playfair’s life to chart form.

How he stacks up against his siblings

Where he lived

William Playfair lived a varied life — and spent time across the UK as well as in Paris. Here's how his domestic arrangements break down in another of his inventions: the bar chart.

What he did for work

Playfair had a variety of careers, with varying success.

The French Revolution

The storming of the Parisian prison, la Bastille, on 14 July 1789 was the flashpoint of the French Revolution. Among those involved was our man, William Playfair.

The pie chart was not invented by Florence Nightingale as is sometimes heard. Playfair was better appreciated on the continent during his lifetime and it took decades for his innovations to trickle back across the Channel. We hope this goes some way to reaffirming this London legend, and his life of pie (charts).

Last Updated 16 October 2015