PLAYFAIR, JOHN, an
eminent mathematician and natural philosopher, born March 10, 1748, at
Benvie in Forfarshire, was the eldest son of the Rev. James Playfair,
minister of the united parishes of Liff and Benvie. He received the
rudimentary part of his education at home; and, at the age of fourteen,
was sent to the university of St. Andrews, where he soon became
distinguished for his love of study, and especially for the rapid
progress which he made in mathematical learning. While yet a mere
student, he was usually selected by Dr. Wilkie, author of ‘The Epigoniad,’
then professor of natural philosophy, to deliver the lectures to his
class during his own absence from indisposition. In 1766, when only
eighteen years old, he became a candidate for the professorship of
mathematics in Marischal college, Aberdeen. After a lengthened and very
strict examination, only two out of six rival competitors were judged to
have excelled him, namely, Dr. Trail, who was appointed to the chair,
and Dr. Hamilton, who subsequently succeeded to it. In 1769 he went to
reside at Edinburgh; and on the death of Dr. Wilkie, in 1772, he offered
himself as his successor, but was again unsuccessful. The same year his
father died; and the care of providing for the support of his mother and
her young family having in consequence devolved upon him, he considered
it his duty to enter upon the ministry, for which he had been educated,
notwithstanding his strong predilection for scientific pursuits. He
accordingly applied to Lord Gray, the joint patron with the Crown, for
the vacant living of Liff and Benvie, and his request was at once
complied with; but his lordship’s right of presentation being disputed,
he did not obtain induction till August 1773.
During the nine following years his time was chiefly occupied with his
pastoral duties, and the superintendence of the education of his
brothers. He did not neglect, however, the prosecution of his own
philosophical researches. In 1774 he visited Schichallion, in
Perthshire, to witness the experiments of Dr. Maskelyne, the astronomer
royal, on the attraction of the mountains in that district, on which
occasion he formed a permanent friendship with that celebrated
philosopher. His earliest contribution to science was a paper
communicated to the Royal Society of London, and inserted in their
Transactions for 1779, ‘On the Arithmetic of Impossible Quantities,’
which is said to exhibit a greater taste for purely analytical
investigation than had been shown by any of the British mathematicians
of that age.
In 1782 he was induced,
by an advantageous offer made to him by Mr. Ferguson of Raith, to resign
his charge, and to become the tutor of his two sons, Mr. Robert
Ferguson, subsequently a member of parliament, and his brother,
afterwards Sir Ronald. In consequence of this arrangement, he removed to
Edinburgh with his pupils.
In 1785, when Dr. Adam
Ferguson exchanged his chair of moral philosophy for that of
mathematics, taught by Mr. Dugald Stewart, and, in consequence of
declining health, retired from the duties of the professorship, Mr.
Playfair was admitted into the university of Edinburgh as his assistant,
being appointed joint professor of mathematics. On the institution of
the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in 1783, he became one of its original
Fellows, and in subsequent years he contributed many valuable papers to
its Transactions. In 1789 he communicated his ‘Remarks on the Astronomy
of the Brahmins,’ which excited considerable attention both in Europe
and India, and gave rise to much speculation and controversial
discussion. The same year he succeeded Dr. Gregory as secretary to the
physical class of the society; and, owing to the illness of Dr. Robison,
the duties of general secretary, with the arrangement of the Society’s
Memoirs for publication, were for many years chiefly performed by him.
In 1792 he communicated to the Society’s Transactions a learned treatise
‘On the Origin and Investigation of Porisms.’ In which he gives a clear
and beautiful philosophical analysis of this class of geometrical
In 1795 he published his
‘Elements of Geometry,’ for the use of the pupils attending his class, a
work which has gone through numerous editions. In 1802 he published his
‘Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth,’ in one vol. 8vo, a
work on which he had been engaged for five years, and in which he
powerfully, and with all the arguments he could derive from reason,
science, and philosophy, effectively supports the geological system of
his friend Dr. James Hutton, an admirable biographical account of whom
he communicated in 1803 to the Transactions of the Royal Society.
On the death of Dr.
Robison in 1805, Mr. Playfair succeeded him as general secretary to the
Royal Society, and also as professor of natural philosophy in the
university of Edinburgh. He resigned, in consequence, his former chair
of mathematics, on which occasion his class presented him with a
valuable astronomical circle, not in the Observatory of the Astronomical
Institution at Edinburgh. The opposition of the clergy to the
appointment of Mr. Leslie as his successor in the vacant chair, induced
Mr. Playfair to come forward in his vindication, which he did, first, in
a Letter to the lord provost, and afterwards in a strongly-written
pamphlet, published in 1806, neither of which have been reprinted in the
collection of his works.
In 1807 he was elected a
Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and soon afterwards communicated
to that learned body his ‘Lithological Survey of Schichallion,’ which
appeared in the Philosophical Transactions for 1811.
In 1814 appeared, in two
vols. 8vo, his ‘Outlines of Natural Philosophy,’ being the heads of
lectures delivered to his class, an elementary work of great value. In
1815 he drew up for the Royal Society of Edinburgh a very interesting
memoir of his distinguished predecessor, Dr. John Robison, which was
published in their Transactions. To the Supplement of the ‘Encyclopaedia
Britannica’ he contributed an Introductory Dissertation on ‘The Progress
of Mathematical and Physical Science since the Revival of Letters in
Europe;’ which masterly production comprises not only a succinct history
of the sciences, but also gives comprehensive biographical sketches of
those persons by whom they have been principally cultivated in this and
other countries. For the same work he also wrote the valuable
biographical account of Æpinus, and the learned article on ‘Physical
Having planned a greatly
enlarged edition of his ‘Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory,’ he had
at different times made excursions to various parts of Scotland and
England, for the purpose of extending his geological inquiries, besides
deriving materials for his intended republication, from the most
approved works on geology; but he had no opportunity of visiting the
Continent till the general peace of 1815 threw it open to travelers from
Britain. At the age of sixty-eight he undertook a long journey through
France and Switzerland into Italy, and spent a considerable time in
exploring the mineralogical and geological phenomena of the Alps. On his
return, after eighteen months’ absence, other occupations unfortunately
prevented him from maturing for publication the vast body of valuable
materials he had collected for the proposed second edition of his
Illustrations. For some time before his death he suffered much from a
severe attack of disease is the bladder, which occasionally interrupted
his literary labours, and of which at last he died on the morning of
July 19, 1819, in the 72d year of his age. A monument has been erected
to his memory on the Calton Hill, Edinburgh. His portrait is subjoined:
[portrait of John Playfair]
His works are:
Elements of Geometry, containing the first six books of Euclid, with two
books on the Geometry of Solids; to which are added, Elements of Plain
and Spherical Trigonometry. Edin. 1794, 8vo. Numerous editions.
Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth. Edin. 1802, 8vo.
A Letter to the Author of the Examination of Professor Stewart’s
Statement. 1806, 8vo.
Outlines of Natural Philosophy, being Heads of Lectures delivered in the
University of Edinburgh. Edin. 1812, 1816, 2 vols. 8vo.
On the Arithmetic of Impossible Quantities, Phil. Trans. 1778, Abr. Xiv.
An Account of a Lithological Survey of Schichallion, made in order to
determine the Specific Gravity of the Rocks which compose that Mountain.
Ib. 1811, 347.
On the Causes which affect the Accuracy of Barometrical Measurements.
Trans. Soc. Edin. 1786, vol. i. 87.
The Life of Matthew Stewart. Ib. vol. i. p. 57.
Remarks on the Astronomy of the Brahmins. Ib. 1789, vol. ii. 135.
On the Origin and Investigation of Porisms. Ib. 1792, vol. iii. 154.
On the Trigonometrical Tables of the Brahmins. Ib. 1795, vol. iv. 83.
Meteorological Abstract for the years 1794, 1795, 1796. Ib. 213.
Investigation of certain Theorems relating to the Figure of the Earth.
Ib. 1798, vol. v. 1; and in Nicholson’s Journal, vii. 102.
Meteorological Abstract for the years 1797, 1798, and 1799. Ib. 193.
Biographical Account of the late Dr. James Hutton. Ib. 1803, vol. v. 39.
On Solids of Greatest Attraction. Ib. 1807, vol. vi. 187.
On the Progress of Heat when communicated to Spherical Bodies from their
Centres. Ib. 353.
Biographical Account of the late John Robison, LL.D., &c. Ib. 1815, vol.
vii. 495. The same, in Thom. Ann. Philos. Vii. 169, 1816.
Dissertation second; exhibiting a general view of the Progress of
Mathematical and Physical Science since the revival of letters in
Europe. Part I. Part II. unfinished, in the Supplement to the
enclyclopaedia Britannica. 1816 and 1819.
From 1804 Professor
Playfair was a frequent contributor to the Edinburgh Review, the
majority of his articles being of a scientific nature. The most
celebrated of these is his admirable analysis of the ‘Mecanique Celeste’
of Laplace, and his masterly review of ‘Leslie’s Geometry.’ In general
literature he wrote for the same periodical an able and interesting
paper on Madame de Stael’s ‘Corinne.’ The whole of his articles are
reprinted in the fourth volume of the collected edition of his works
published at Edinburgh in 1822, in four vols. 8vo, with a Life prefixed
by his nephew, Dr. James G. Playfair. An unfinished Memoir of John Clerk
of Eldin, the inventor of the Naval Tactics, left by him in manuscript,
was published, after his death, in the 9th volume of the Edinburgh
Transactions. An interesting account of the character and merits of this
illustrious mathematician, from the pen of Lord Jeffrey, has been
inserted in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and in the Memoir prefixed to
his works by his nephew.
PLAYFAIR, WILLIAM, an ingenious mechanic and miscellaneous
writer, brother of the preceding, was born in 1759. His father dying
when he was very young, his education and support devolved on his
brother. He early discovered a strong predilection for mechanical
science, and when of sufficient age was apprenticed for a short period
to a millwright of the name of Meikle, in Dundee, where he had for his
fellow-apprentice John Rennie, the celebrated engineer. He subsequently
went to Birmingham, and was engaged, in 1780, as a draughtsman, at the
Soho Works, in the employment of Mr. James Watt. Being ambitious to be
known as an author, he turned his attention to politics and political
economy, and published a great variety of pamphlets connected therewith.
During the early period of his literary career, however, he did not
altogether neglect his mechanical pursuits, having successively obtained
five patents for various inventions. He also invented a machine to
complete the ornamental part or fretwork of silver tea-boards and
sugar-tongs, which had hitherto been executed by the hand only. The same
machine was applicable to the manufacture of coach ornaments, buckles
and even horse shoes.
After residing some time
at Birmingham he went to London, where he opened a silversmith’s shop
for the sale of plate of his own manufacture; but this he soon
relinquished, and proceeded to Paris, where he entered on some
mechanical speculations, particularly a rolling-mill on a new plan, for
the manufacture of which he obtained an exclusive privilege. One of the
most important of his discoveries was that of the plan of the telegraph,
then in constant use in France, which, with an alphabet invented by
himself, he communicated to the British government; though the great
service he thus rendered to his country was not only totally unrewarded,
but was even very tardily acknowledged. He happened to be at
Frankfort-on-the-Maine, when a member of the parliament of Bordeaux
arrived at the same inn, and described to him a telegraph which had been
erected on the mountain of Belville. Having at once comprehended the
plan, in the course of the next day he executed two working models of
the instrument, which he sent to the duke of York; “and hence,” says the
Encyclopaedia Britannica, “the plan and alphabet of the machine came to
While residing in Paris,
Mr. Playfair became acquainted with Mr. Joel Barlow, who had been sent
to France as agent for the sale of about three million of acres of land,
on the banks of the Scioto, a river falling into the Ohio, which had
been purchased by a company at New York, to be disposed of in lots to
intending emigrants. As Mr. Barlow was without connections in Paris, and
unacquainted with the French language, Playfair undertook the management
of the business. The lands were to be sold at five shillings per acre,
one-half to be paid on signing the act of sale, and the other half to
remain on mortgage to the United States, to be paid within two years
after taking possession. In November 1789 he opened an office in a
street contiguous to the Palais Royal, and in less than two months fifty
thousand acres of land were disposed of. Two vessels sailed from Havre
laden with the first settlers in the colony of Scioto, which was thus
formed by Mr. Playfair. Having soon after unfortunately expressed
himself in an unguarded manner concerning the French Revolution, he
incurred the hostility of Barrere, the president of the National
Convention, who obtained an order for his arrest. Being, however,
seasonably apprized of his danger, he succeeded in escaping into
Holland, and thence returned to England. On his arrival in London, he
projected a Bank, under the name of the Security Bank, which was opened
in Cornhill. Its object was to divide large securities, so as to
facilitate the negotiation of small loans; but sufficient attention not
being paid to the nature of the securities, bankruptcy ensued. He now
devoted himself more closely than ever to literary pursuits, and his
life, like that of most authors, was henceforth much chequered. His
pamphlets and other publications, which are chiefly on subjects of
temporary interest, amount to nearly a hundred distinct works. In
politics he was a firm supporter of government, and able vindicator of
its measures towards France.
On the restoration of the
Bourbons, he went again to Paris, and was for some time editor of
Galignani’s Messenger, until obliged to quit France by a prosecution for
libel. From that period he picked up a precarious living in London by
essay-writing and translating. He died February 11, 1823, in the 64th
year of his age; leaving a widow, two sons, and two daughters, one of
the latter being unfortunately blind.
His principal works are:
Regulations for the Interest of Money. 1785, 8vo.
The Commercial and Political Atlas. Lond. 1786, 4to.
On the National Debt, with copperplate Charts. 1787, 4to.
The Inevitable Consequences of a Reform in Parliament. 1792, 8vo.
A General View of the Actual Force and Resources of France in 1793; to
which is added, a Table, showing the Depreciation of Assignats, arising
from their increase in quantity. Lond. 1793, 8vo.
Better Prospects to the Merchants and Manufacturers of Great Britain.
Lond. 1793, 8vo.
Thoughts on the Present State of French Politics. Lond. 1793, 8vo.
Peace with the Jacobins impossible. 1794, 8vo.
Letter to Earl Fitzwilliam, occasioned by his two Letters to the Earl of
Carlisle. 1795, 8vo.
The History of Jacobinism, its Crimes, Cruelties, and Perfidies;
comprising an Inquiry into the manner of disseminating, under the
appearance of philosophy and virtue, principles which are equally
subversive of order, virtue, religion, liberty, and happiness. Lond.
A Real Statement of the Resources and Finances of Great Britain. 1796,
Letter to Sir W. Pulteney, Bart., on the Establishment of another Public
Bank in London. Lond. 1797, 8vo.
Statistical Tables, exhibiting View of all the States of Europe;
translated from the German of Boetticher, with a Supplementary Table
containing the changes since the publication of the original Work. Lond.
Strictures on the Asiatic Establishments of Great Britain, with a view
to an Inquiry to the true Interests of the East India Company. Lond.
The Statistical Breviary, on a principle entirely new; the Resources of
every State and Kingdom in Europe, illustrated with Plates; to which is
added, a similar exhibition of the Ruling Powers in Hindostan. Lond.
Proofs relative to the Falsification by the French of the intercepted
Letters found on board the Admiral Aplin East Indiaman. Lond. 1804, 8vo.
An Inquiry into the permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful
and Wealthy Nations, illustrated by four engraved Charts. Lond. 1805,
Smith’s Wealth of Nations, with Notes, Supplementary Chapters, &c.
Eleventh Edition, 1805, 3 vols. 8vo.
A Statistical Account of the United States of America, translated from
the French. 1807, 8vo.
British Family Antiquity. Lond. 1809-10, 5 vols. 5to.
Plan for establishing the Balance of Power in Europe. 1813, 8vo.
Political Portraits of this new Era, with Notes Historical and
Biographical. 1814, 2 vols. 8vo.
The Statement of Buonaparte’s Plot made to Earl Bathurst and the French
Ambassador. 1815, 8vo.
Supplementary Volume to Political Reports in this new Era, with
Explanatory Notes, Historical and Biographical. Lond. 1816, 8vo.
France as it is; not Lady Morgan’s France. 1820, 2 vols. 8vo.