Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Playfair, William (1759-1823)

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1169490Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 45 — Playfair, William (1759-1823)1896John Goldworth Alger

PLAYFAIR, WILLIAM (1759–1823), publicist, was the fourth son of the Rev. James Playfair of Benvie, near Dundee, where he was born in 1759. His father dying in 1772, his elder brother, John Playfair [q. v.], the geologist, took charge of the family, and apprenticed him to Andrew Meikle [q. v.] of Prestonkirk, the inventor of the threshing-machine. Rennie was a fellow-apprentice. In 1780 Playfair became draughtsman to Boulton & Watt at Birmingham. On leaving their service he took out a patent for a so-called Eldorado sash composed of copper, zinc, and iron, also for a machine for making the fretwork of silver teatrays and sugar-tongs, and for buckles, horseshoes, and coach ornaments. He opened a shop in London for the sale of these articles, but, not succeeding in this business, he went over to Paris. There he obtained a patent for a rolling mill, and in 1789 succeeded Joel Barlow as agent to the Scioto (Ohio) land company. ‘Some hundreds of unfortunate families were lured to destruction by the picture of a salubrious climate and fertile soil’ (Gouverneur Morris, Diary). He probably assisted in the capture of the Bastille, for he was among the eleven or twelve hundred inhabitants of the St. Antoine quarter who had on the previous day formed themselves into a militia, and most of them joined in the attack (Lecocq, Prise de la Bastille). In February 1791 he rescued from the mob in the Palais Royal Gardens the well-known ex-judge Duval d'Esprémesnil, who had been a subscriber to the Scioto company. Whether on account of alleged mismanagement in the company's agency, or, as he himself says, of his plain-speaking against the revolutionists, Playfair quitted France, and while at Frankfort, about 1793, he heard from a French émigré an account of the semaphore telegraph. So thoroughly did he understand the apparatus that next day he made models of it, which he sent to the Duke of York. He henceforth claimed to have introduced the semaphore into England, but the credit, both for its invention and adoption in the United Kingdom properly belongs to Richard Lovell Edgeworth [q. v.] On returning to London Playfair opened a so-called security bank, intended to facilitate small loans by subdividing large securities, but this soon collapsed. In 1795 Playfair, henceforth living by his pen, began writing vehemently against the French revolution, advocating the issue of forged assignats as a legitimate and effective weapon. He claimed credit for having given the British government some months' warning of Napoleon's intended escape from Elba. After Waterloo he returned to Paris as editor of ‘Galignani's Messenger,’ but in 1818 some comments on a duel between Colonel Duffay and Comte de St. Morys led to a prosecution by the widow and daughter of the latter, and Playfair, aggravating his offence by a plea of justification, was sentenced to three months' imprisonment with three hundred francs fine and one thousand francs damages. To avoid incarceration he left France, and spent the rest of his life in London, earning a precarious livelihood by pamphlets and translations. He died on 11 Feb. 1823, leaving a widow and four children.

A list of forty of his works appears in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ 1823 (pt. i. p. 564), the ‘Edinburgh Annual Register,’ 1823, and the ‘Annual Biography,’ 1824; and it is added that pamphlets would swell the number to at least a hundred. His chief productions are the ‘Statistical Breviary and Atlas,’ 1786; ‘History of Jacobinism,’ 1793; ‘Inquiry into the Decline and Fall of Nations,’ 1805; an annotated edition of Smith's ‘Wealth of Nations,’ 1806; ‘A Statistical Account of the United States of America,’ 1807; ‘Political Portraits in this New Æra,’ 2 vols. 1814; and ‘France as it is,’ 1819, which was translated into French in the following year.

[Short Biography in the three books above mentioned; Playfair's France as it is, not Lady Morgan's, 1819; Louis Blanc's Révolution Française; Moniteur, 1818 (indexed as ‘Pleffer’); Alger's Englishmen in French Revolution; Mag. of American History, 1889; Rev. Charles Rogers's Four Perthshire Families, 1887.]

J. G. A.