Neurath on maps

chart 18 from Bildstatistik nach Wiener Methode in der Schule, Otto Neurath, Wien-Leipzig: Deutscher Verlag für Jugend und Folk, 1933 (I.C. 8.1 Bil) | read more...

In an early draft of his 'visual autobiography', From hieroglyphics to Isotype (1945), Otto Neurath explained:

'I like maps that try to simplify a network of roads or railroads (as the London Underground schemes do it) and therefore I always looked at the old Roman road map, which is known under Peutinger's name. Wherever I discovered a descendent of this map I tried to orientate myself and to grasp the main points of the presentation.'

This adds weight to a suggestion made by Robin Kinross in The transformer (pp.108-9) that Isotype has something in common with Harry Beck's London Underground diagram. The 'Peutinger' map Neurath referred to is the unique, surviving map of the Roman road network: a parchment scroll copied in the thirteenth century from a fourth-/fifth-century original. It is held in the Austrian National Library.

Neurath continued:

'Very soon I liked to compare different map projections and already as a boy I disliked heavily the Mercator projection, I think not only because the sizes of the different parts of the earth are distorted but also because one could never reach the poles. They are in the infinite. Later on as a museum director I asked [Karl] Peucker, the famous map-maker, to prepare a drawing which could show that clearly. Usually one presents two countries, e.g. Greenland and South America in an equal projection and in Mercator projection, but then the child never realizes the deformation in size. A human being in equal area projection and in Mercator projection serves this purpose better, because a child immediately realizes that the Mercator projection makes the head gigantic, and the shoes too, which can hardly fit on the page.' (see above)


Karl Peucker was an experienced cartographer and a prolific theoretician of this subject, who taught at the Hochschule für Welthandel (High School for World Trade) in Vienna. He acted as the cartographic advisor for Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft (1930), in which world maps were based on the equal-area planisphere developed by Max Eckert in 1906 (specifically his pseudocylindrical projection known as 'Eckert VI'). Part of the intention, perhaps, in using this map (see above, from Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft) was to escape from the Eurocentricity of the Mercator projection - Europe appears smaller in relation to Africa and South America in Eckert's projection. An appreciation of the world's non-white peoples was common to much of the work produced at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum (see Die bunte Welt). In this sense, Neurath anticipated the motive of the controversial Gall-Peters projection made in 1973. (CB)

area of research: Development of the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Vienna (Burke); Otto Neurath's 'visual autobiography' (Eve, Burke)

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