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The Pioneering Information Visualizations of William Playfair, Who Invented the Line, Bar, and Pie Charts (Circa 1786)


“Should you see a pie chart projected twelve ft excessive in entrance of you, you’re within the palms of an fool.” These phrases have caught with me since I heard them spoken by Edward Tufte, probably the most revered residing authorities on information visualization. The latter-day sins of pie-chart-makers (particularly these who make them in PowerPoint) are many and different, however the authentic sin of the pie chart itself is that of basically misrepresenting one-dimensional info — an organization finances, a metropolis’s inhabitants demographics — in two-dimensional kind.

But the pie chart was created by a grasp, certainly the primary grasp, of data design, the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Scottish economist William Playfair. Tufte consists of Playfair’s first pie chart, an illustration of the land holdings of assorted nations and empires circa 1800, in his ebook The Visible Show of Quantitative Info.

“The circle represents the realm of every nation,” Tufte explains. “The road on the left, the inhabitants in tens of millions learn on the vertical scales; the road on the appropriate, the income (taxes) collected in tens of millions of kilos sterling learn additionally on the vertical scale.” The dotted strains between them present, in Playfair’s phrases, whether or not “the nation is burdened with heavy taxes or in any other case” in proportion to its inhabitants.

Playfair was experimenting with information visualization lengthy earlier than his invention of the pie chart. He additionally got here up with the extra truthful bar chart, historical past’s first instance of which appeared in his Industrial and Political Atlas of 1786. That very same ebook additionally incorporates the placing graph above, of England’s “exports and imports to and from Denmark and Norway from 1700 to 1780,” whose strains create fields that make the steadiness of commerce legible at a look. A a lot later instance of the road graph, one other kind Playfair is credited with inventing, seems just under, “exhibiting the revenues, expenditure, debt, worth of shares and bread from 1770 to 1824,” a interval spanning the American and French Revolutions in addition to the Napoleonic Wars.

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It’s protected to say that Playfair lived in fascinating occasions, and even inside that context lived an unusually fascinating life. Throughout Nice Britain’s wars with France, he served his nation as a undercover agent, even developing with a plan to counterfeit assignats, a French foreign money on the time, as a way to destabilize the enemy’s financial system. “Their assignats are their cash,” he wrote in 1793, “and it’s higher to destroy this paper based upon an iniquitous extortion and a villainous deception than to shed the blood of males.” Two years after the plan went into impact, the assignat was nugatory and France’s ship of state had roughly run aground. Playfair’s measures could appear excessive, however then, you don’t win a struggle with pie charts.

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The Artwork of Information Visualization: Tips on how to Inform Complicated Tales Via Sensible Design

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Primarily based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and tradition. His tasks embody the Substack publication Books on Cities, the ebook The Stateless Metropolis: a Stroll by way of Twenty first-Century Los Angeles and the video collection The Metropolis in Cinema. Comply with him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Fb.

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