skip to main content skip to footer

Who Was Playfair?

Spence, Ian; Wainer, Howard
Publication Year:
Report Number:
ETS Research Memorandum
Document Type:
Subject/Key Words:
Biographies, Playfair, William, Graphics, Statistical Analysis, Statistics


The Cartesian tradition of graphical representation of mathematical functions worked against the use of graphs to depict empirical regularities. The switch to the view that a graph can help us formulate an understanding of nature by plotting data points and looking for patterns required a change in paradigm. A person who might affect such a change would not only have to be in the right place at the right time, but would also have to be an iconoclast. In all aspects, William Playfair fits the bill. This biographical essay sketches some of the events of his life. The essay concludes with a previously unpublished short memoir of Playfair's that characterizes his personality, courage, and sense of values. (TLS) Reprint of publication in Chance, Volume 10, No. 1, Nov 1, 1997. pp 35-37. Also printed in ETS Research Division's serial publication: "Visual Revelations."

Read More