We’re in the golden age of infographics. Everything from the death toll in Breaking Bad to the sinking of the Titanic to trends in men’s jewelry has been rendered in fancy little charts, graphs, and maps. Infographics transform dense and dry facts into eye candy, and the Internet can’t get enough. But where did this data-viz craze begin?
Born in 1888, German scientist, doctor, and author Fritz Kahn was one of the grandfathers of modern data visualization. A new 390-page monograph of Kahn’s work, published by Taschen, takes readers into an illustrated world that features winged fish, insect-size parachutists, and blood cells used as boats. Surreal as these scenes seem, they're actually meant to visualize scientific facts.
"The first time my brother Thilo and I saw Kahn’s illustrations in spring 2008, we felt really hooked," the book’s co-editor, Uta von Debschitz, tells Co.Design. "We made jokes about the ‘Kahn virus’ being severely contagious, since everyone whom we showed the images seemed to have caught it, too." The siblings, both designers, began collecting Kahn’s books from secondhand shops and sifting through his estates in German, Swiss, and U.S. archives.
Remember Miss Frizzle’s Magic School Bus rushing through the human digestive system? Well, Kahn did it first, decades before. In "A Fairytale Journey through the Bloodstream," he imagines shrinking into a Lilliputian and sitting on the banks of the human vein-stream, watching the cells drift by, then sailing cell-boats to explore the body’s many caverns. "Entering a gland cave," reads one caption from this illustrated journey.
Originally trained in medicine, Kahn is perhaps best known today for a poster called "Man As Industrial Palace," which depicts the insides of the human body as a factory run by tiny humanoids (as many of us suspect it might be).
In 1933, the Nazis chased Kahn out of Germany. His books were burned, banned, and put on the "list of damaging and undesirable writing." Fortunately, enough of his illustrations survived to show us, among other things, how the human heart could move an elevator up five floors in 40 minutes, how dessert cleans the tongue, and how Mercury is so small that it could plunge into the Atlantic Ocean without touching the continents.
One of co-editor Thilo’s favorite images, "Daily Hair Growth," illustrates the fact that each single hair on a human head grows 0.01 inches per day. By itself, this fact is just another boring, abstract figure. But in Kahn’s drawing, daily hair growth converges into a single 100-foot-long strand, which spirals snakelike around a woman’s body. A clock at each end indicates speed. This surreal picture is "a wonderful example for early information design and leaves the viewer amazed by his own body’s performance," Thilo tells Co.Design.
Thilo also points out that Kahn was a visionary who anticipated telemedicine—the practice of remotely diagnosing a patient—half a century before its actual invention. "‘The Doctor of the Future’ is another of my favorite images," he says. "An example of Kahn’s talent for visual storytelling, it presents two different locations at the same time: A doctor sits in his loftlike and modern furnished urban practice, using TV and other electronic devices to give a consultation to his patient aboard a cruise ship named India. Both settings are connected by overlaid radio waves and a hinted globe."
During their work on this monograph, Uta and Thilo were stunned to realize that they had actually known Fritz Kahn's younger son, Emanuel, for about 25 years. Because Kahn had left his family early, and their relationship had been troubled, Emanuel knew very little about his father’s work, and he was not interested in learning more. But that changed when the editors began feeding him little bits and pieces of their findings. "Some months later, Emanuel told us that through our work he had not only gotten to know his father better, but also himself. When we finally handed him the book, fresh from the press, on his 85th birthday, he had tears in his eyes."
Fritz Kahn is available for $59.99 here.