Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bar Graphs, Pie Charts, and Darwin

One of Ms. Sandwalk's ancestors is William Playfair (1789 - 1823). Her great grandfather—the great-great-grandfather of my children—was John Playfair Leslie. John's mother is a direct descendant of William Playfair.

William Playfair was an interesting man for many reasons. He is most famous for inventing statistical graphs; especially pie charts and bar graphs. These were printed in his famous book, Commercial and Political Atlas, published in 1786. Two examples of figures from that book are shown here.

But that's not all that Playfair did. His biographers call him an "engineer, political economist and scoundrel." I won't talk about the "scoundrel" part except to mention that it's probably an accurate description. One of the more legal things he did was to participate in the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. (See William Playfair for some of the less legal activities.)

William Playfair was born in Scotland and lived with his older brother John Playfair in Edinburgh. John Playfair was a distinguished Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. Their other brother was the architect James Playfair.

William Playfair was trained as an engineer with Andrew Meikle, the inventor of the threshing machine. Following his apprenticeship, he joined the company Boulton & Watt in Birmingham, England. This company operated a large plant that manufactured steam engines. William Playfair was assistant to James Watt.

It was during his time in Birmingham that Playfair made the connection that's so important to readers of Sandwalk.

In Birmingham, William Playfair associated with the members of the Lunar Society and attended their meetings. In addition to Matthew Boulton and James Watt, his bosses, there were other members whose names may be familiar; Josiah Wedgewood, Joseph Priestly, and Erasmus Darwin. Erasmus is Charles Darwin's grandfather. Josiah Wedgewood was Charles Darwin's other grandfather.

I keep hoping that one or more of my ancestors would have known Charles Darwin or even been related. No such luck. This is as close as it gets. My wife and children have an ancestor who hung out with Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood.

I'm jealous.


  1. How does one learn these things about one's family history?

    I'm wondering if I'm related to anyone important.

  2. Devin asks,

    How does one learn these things about one's family history?

    First you have to identify your immediate ancestors back to the 1700's. This is the hardest part.

    Here's a good place to start if you don't know your family history

    I'm lucky because my mother has done all the hard work.

    The next part is easy. All you have to do is google the names of your earliest ancestors and search through the genealogical databases. If you've got half a dozen lines extending back to the 1700s and they are from Western Europe, then the chances of hitting a genealogy that has already been worked out are very high.

    It's almost certain that you will connect to nobility at some point.

    I'm wondering if I'm related to anyone important.

    I dunno. Is your last name famous?

  3. I already knew of William Playfair as inventor of the statistical graphic (as will anyone who knows Edward Tufte's excellent books) but your information about his other activities was new to me, and I found it interesting. If he was in Birmingham at that time he probably knew John Baskerville (originator of the Baskerville typeface) as well (though he was about a generation older).

  4. The motivation for much personal genealogical research is to identify high status individuals in the past to whom one might be related. "Kings" etc. Failing that, people want to find exotics in their past: Instead of discovering that they are related to a long series of miserable peasants and hunter-gatherers, they seek distinction. Why? What is it about us that makes us long for high status ancestors? So what if you're related to some ignorant, brutal, over-sexed potentate in the past?

    And yet it is a very primal urge and has become a lucrative cottage industry.

    Then there is the ethno-identity or tribal aspect, with its unsavory undertones. Why do we all long to dance ands sing at tribal totem ceremonies?

    Anthropologists and sociologists have considered these questions from an evolutionary point of view and there is currently a resurgence in this kind of thought.

    Of course there are good medical reasons to know something about your genes and those of your siblings and parents. Perhaps your grandparents. Beyond that, the impulse to know is no longer reasonable; it is driven by the same brain centres that drive much religious behaviour, suspicision of outsiders and mysticism, as if there were some spooky secret power passed down from generation to generation....

  5. You see this is what happens if you keep up the digging. I was joking about you trying to make a connection of your own to Darwin. You married well, didn't you??!!!

    Who knew!

    This is good stuff. I only wish you had found this when Dad was alive, he would have been so excited.

    Good work.