A stunning and very rare English-language edition of the iconic Fritz Kahn infographic likening the human body to a miniature chemical plant.
Born in Halle, Germany in 1888 to an orthodox Jewish family, physician, science writer and graphic designer Fritz Kahn spent much of his life on the move. He studied medicine in Berlin, eventually focusing on gynecology and obstetrics, but his budding career was interrupted by service in the First World War. After recovering in Algeria from wartime malnutrition he returned to Berlin, where he worked as a surgeon and obstetrician and began churning out works of popular science, with an emphasis on biology and sociology. His books were burned by the Nazis, and facing persecution he emigrated to Palestine before moving to Paris. There, following the German occupation of France, he was briefly interned before escaping to the United States, in part through the intervention of his friend Albert Einstein. He spent 15 years in New York City before returning to Europe, where he spent most of the remainder of his life in Switzerland, dying there in 1968.
Kahn is remembered today as a pioneer of graphic design, with a gift for compelling visual metaphors that rendered complex natural processes accessible and compelling to the layperson.
“Kahn was not an artist himself but compensated for it with the potent combination of his powers of logic and his ability to surround himself with top talent, who would execute his visions while also expanding his taste and visual literacy. Though his innovative methods were themselves a force to be reckoned with, the underlying impetus was as simple as it was profound: Kahn was just a brilliant science communicator who sought to engage the public’s imagination in popularizing science….
“As a scientist, he understood the visual bias of our brains; as an artistically minded design-thinker, he knew how powerfully graphics could convey ideas and ideologies; as a man of medicine, he grasped the importance of visualizing the body to illuminate its inner workings.” (Popova)
Der Mensch als Industriepalast / The Human Factory
Offered here is a very rare English-language edition of Kahn’s most famous image, Der Mensch als Industriepalast, translated here as The Human Factory. The original German version was included as a supplement to the second volume (1926) of his five-volume Das Leben des Menschen (“The Life of Man”), published in Stuttgart between 1922 and 1931. This popular account of human anatomy and physiology was a bestseller, appearing in English translation in 1943, while Kahn was living in New York.
The Human Factory depicts a cutaway view of the upper half of the body, with the different bodily functions represented as processes in a chemical factory (It is worth noting that Germany was at the time the world leader in chemical manufacturing.) The innovative design, unlike anything that had come before, combine with the life-sized scale and the high quality of the printing and coloring to make a stunning overall impression. Closer examination reveals Kahn’s clever, playful, and even captivating treatment of individual bodily processes and their connections. Many of the features are lettered or numbered, being keyed to a short explanatory pamphlet, sadly not present here.
One could spend a great deal of time describing and interpreting the image, but I’ll restrain myself to the brain. As envisioned by Kahn, it is filled with a series of control rooms, within which tiny human figures monitor instrument panels controlling “judgement” [sic], “intelligence”, “will-power”, and the like. Kahn, as far as I know a committed materialist, here falls victim to the “homunculus problem”… the fallacy in which human intelligence is explained by the postulation of a homunculus (literally, “little man”) pulling the levers, as it were, inside our minds.
Rarity and references
The original German edition of the graphic—Der Mensch als Industriepalast—appears on the market with some frequency, but English-language editions are quite rare. OCLC turns up only two institutional holdings under this title (see below), just one of which may be identical to ours. It is equally rare on the antiquarian market: A search of Invaluable.com for “Fritz Kahn” yields roughly 40 examples of Der Mensch als Industriepalast but only one of The Human Factory. By sheer coincidence this sold at Christies London in December 2020 for £2500 including buyer’s premium.
OCLC 591362998 describes an example at the Wellcome Library, very similar to ours—though not identical–with a paste-on label of George Philip & Son, Ltd (London), undated but attributed to 1931. This is accompanied by a 7-page illustrated booklet. OCLC 72487298 describes what may be our English-language edition, but dated 1938, held only by the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek-Leipzig. This is accompanied by an 8-page pamphlet, either in German or English, which apparently can be had in Arabic, Chinese, French, Hebrew, Italian and Spanish.
Some background from Maria Popova, “Fritz Kahn: The Little-Known Godfather of Infographics”, at Brainpickings.org (accessed March 2021).