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Significant Scots
William Playfair


PLAYFAIR, WILLIAM, an ingenious mechanic and miscellaneous writer, brother to John Playfair, was born in the year 1759. The personal history of this man when compared with that of his brother, shows in striking colours the necessity, not only of industry, but of steadiness and consistency of plan, as adjuncts of genius in raising its possessor to eminence. Being very young when his father died, his education was superintended by his brother. His early taste for mechanics prompted his friends to place him as apprentice to a mill-wright of the name of Miekle. He afterwards went to England, and in 1780, was engaged as draughtsman in the service of Mr James Watt. How long he remained in this situation we do not know, but the vast mass of pamphlets which he was unceasingly producing must have speedily interfered with his professional regularity, and he seems to have spent the remainder of his days in alternately making mechanical discoveries of importance, and penning literary or political pamphlets. Among the most useful of his mechanical efforts, was the unrequited discovery of the French telegraph, gathered from a few partial hints, and afterwards adapted by an alphabet of his own invention to British use. At the period when he was most busy as a writer, he received no less than five patents for new inventions; one of these was for the manufacture of sashes, constructed of a mixture of copper, zinc, and iron. These he termed Eldorado sashes. Another was for a machine for completing the ornamental part of fretwork on small implements of silver and other metal; such as sugar tongs, buckles, &c., which had previously been executed by the hand. For some time he occupied a silversmith’s shop in London, but, tiring of the business, or finding it unprofitable, he proceeded to Paris, where, among other mechanical speculations, he procured an exclusive privilege for the manufacture of a rolling mill on a new plan. While living in Paris, he was the means of forming the colony of Scioto in America. Having formed an acquaintance with Mr Joel Barlow, who had been sent to Paris to negotiate the disposal by lots of three millions of acres which had been purchased by a company at New York, on the banks of the Scioto, he undertook to procure for him the necessary introductions, and to conduct the disposal. The breaking out of the French revolution favoured the scheme. It was proposed that the lands should be disposed of at 5s. per acre, one half to be paid at signing the act of sale, the other to remain on mortgage to the United States, to be paid within two years after taking possession. In less than two months 50,000 acres were sold, and two vessels sailed from Havre de Grace, with the nucleus of the colony. Soon after accomplishing this project, he made a narrow escape from being arrested by the revolutionary government, a fate which his strongly expressed objections to the French revolution rendered a very likely event. On his return to London he projected a bank termed the Security Bank; its object was the division of large securities so as to facilitate small loans;—this bank unfortunately belied its name, and became insolvent, too little attention having been paid to the securities taken. On the restoration of the Bourbons, he returned to France, and became editor of Galignani’s Messenger, but he was driven back to England by a libel prosecution, and continued to gain his subsistence by essay-writing and translating. His works being in general connected with the passing politics of the day, need not be all named and characterized. In books and pamphlets, his distinct works are said to amount to about a hundred. Several were politico-economical in their subject, discussing the sinking fund, the resources of France, the Asiatic establishments of Britain, the prospects of the manufacturing interest, &c. His political remarks were generally for the purpose of supporting and vindicating the conduct of Britain towards France, and received the designation "patriotic." Among his principal publications were a "History of Jacobinism," published in 1795; an edition of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, with Notes, in 1806; and "British Family Antiquities," in 9 vols. 4to, published in 1809-11. This last work forms a Peerage and Baronetage of Britain and Ireland. It contains a great mass of matter, and is splendidly illustrated, but it is not looked on by genealogists as a work of much authority. He spent the last days of his laborious but irregular life without the competence which well-directed talent generally acquires, and his death was hurried on by anxiety of mind. He died in Covent Garden on the 11th February, 1823, in the sixty-fourth year of his age. "In private life," says a biographer, "Mr Playfair was inoffensive and amiable; not prepossessing in his appearance and address, but with a strong and decided physiognomy, like that of his late brother. With a thoughtlessness which is too frequently allied to genius, he neglected to secure that provision for his family, which from his talents they were justified to expect; and although he laboured ardently and abundantly for his country, yet he found it ungrateful, and was left in age and infirmity to regret that he had neglected his own interests to promote those of the public." [Annual Obituary, 1824, 460.]


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