Isotype books on history

Isotype Institute (1944)

Editorial note (SW). In 1944 Otto Neurath and Joseph Lauwerys were working together on the 'Visual history of mankind', a series of three books for children eventually published in 1948 by Adprint under the Max Parrish imprint. The books combined Neurath's ideas about visual education with Lauwerys's experience of teaching in schools. The typescript presented here is one of a series of papers probably written for consideration by the 'Visual history' editorial committee; it explains the rationale behind this innovative approach to teaching history. The use of questions it proposes would encourage children to engage with the content of charts. The charts themselves would be designed according to Isotype principles: purposeful use of colour; use of comparison; making sure that the most important things could be seen at first glance, with more detail being evident on closer scrutiny; and the consistent use of pictorial symbols. The paper presents early ideas on the content of each of the three books that demonstrate the extraordinary reach of Neurath's historical, scientific and geographical awareness and knowledge, as well as his confidence and ambition in the use of Isotype charts to convey this information.

('Isotype books on history' typescript: I.C. 3.2/101)

Suggestions prepared by the Isotype Institute
in collaboration with Mr. J. A. Lauwerys


We wish to develop a historical time sense in children, basing it on gradually accumulated impressions of how things are always changing. Therefore we have to start from family life: what grandpa tells about his time, and his forefathers time, showing that ways of living were different.

It is usual to start teaching history from personal anecdotes, but children are quite prepared to accept and appreciate vivid stories of life in the past. We may tell verbally or visually: "Once upon a time people lived in pile houses just above the surface of the water in lakes." And then we may tell how they lived and acted in these circumstances. Then we may speak of the cavemen in the same way. We can compare that with what Robinson Crusoe did. This way of arguing seems to be more cautious than guessing at the reasons of the cavemen's behaviour - their actions may have been connected with some magical or religious beliefs. The Mexicans made new lakes on the plateaux between the mountains, and the Dutch settlers built canals in the Dutch East Indies - continuing old customs.

We shall distinguish between more or less generally accepted statements on historical events and conjectures, with perhaps one double page picture devoted to alternative guesses.

Since charts are less comprehensive that textbooks, we have to use synchronistic charts for indicating items not discussed in the single charts.

The pictures are connected with explanations of symbols. There are no stories told outside the charts. Questions may stimulate the interest in further details. There might be three types of questions:
(1) questions which can be answered from one chart only.
(2) questions which can be answered from more than one chart.
(3) questions of the type: can you find out this or that from these charts?
(answer: yes or no)

All charts should be made so that, even without a teacher's guidance children may understand the main points. The charts should give the teacher an opportunity to add as much as he likes, and there should be instructions etc. issued as separate booklets; but this scheme is not under discussion here.

The Isotype material should fit into the pattern of the accepted history curriculum, thus enabling the teacher to use the stuff he learned himself when at school, or to use the popular text books, doing so in the traditional manner, if he wishes to. Wherever possible historical names and events, usually spoken of in schools, as The Glorious Revolution, The Hundred Years' War, American Independence etc. should at least appear somewhere in the charts to create a similar atmosphere: but that does not imply that such matters will be treated in the traditional way.

In principle, one should not make too rigid a programme, because many new problems will arise during the words and new proposals will be made. The following selection of topics should not be regarded as final, the same being valid for the suggested visual presentations.


We suggest that wherever possible comparisons should be given. When telling about cave drawings they should be compared with pictures in palaces or stained glass in churches, or the drawings of African tribes of today make in connection with hunting.

Cave men, lake dwellers etc. may be pictured in many aspects of their lives so avoiding the impression that the whole of their existence was more concerned with technical matters than ours is.

Hunting, drawing, making tools and weapons, using boats etc. will be brought into the picture.

Since comparison is to be the backbone of all the sets of Isotype charts, it should be stressed in the questions, and much of the material will be presented not in form of single stories, but in comparative charts. Therefore we shall present stages in history, such as Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age etc. even introducing sub-ages.

Volume I will give a history of the various crafts and trades throughout the centuries, just touching the present, which may be assumed as sufficiently well known from a child's point of view. Therefore, we may give the evolution of all these activities up to the present time, concentrating mainly on the primitive life in Africa, Pacific etc.

This attempt forces us to start with some kind of general survey of history even at this stage. Where possible the child's out-of-school knowledge should be used, e.g. the Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe etc. One might ask about the difference between a cave man and Robinson in certain points. What about drawing? Robinson reading the bible. Did cave man "read" anything?

The charts should include "trees-of-uses" (like family trees), e.g. ways of using strings (violin, archery, parcel, etc.).

Roughly estimated, about 2/3 of the space in the 44 pages (mainly double page charts) will deal with activities of primitive peoples and about 1/3 with evolution.

Tentative list of charts (for selection)

A chart starting from family stories, comparing e.g. dresses, furniture, lighting, transport etc. of today with the time when father and grandfather were young.
After this, a sequence of charts, showing development of tools, techniques etc. without giving exact time scales.
Hammer, saw, axle etc.
Plough, wood and metal.
Flint. Mining, metal work throughout the ages
String in various uses.
Pipes in various uses.
Boats and ships.
Bridges and roads
Sledge, roll, wheel, types of wheel.
Carrying loads, draft animals.
Barter over long distances (map)
Fire: getting (by lightning), making, various uses.
Technique of hunting. Killing big animals.
Domestication of animals
Invention of agriculture.
Development of intense agriculture.
Fields and pastures throughout the ages.
Storage of food.
Forests throughout the ages. Disappearing forests. Use of wood.
Cave dwellers, lake dwellers.
Map of cave men settlements.
Types of houses and building. Walls, roofs.
Cutting stone, baking bricks.
Cooking. [ handwritten: ] Footwear and clothing
Ornaments in various material.
Musical instruments. How they evolved.
Cave drawings, compared with other pictures, throughout centuries. Where they appear.
Perhaps something about menaces of natural earthquakes, floods etc.


This volume may make use of what was learned in Volume I. In principle: not the tools and single activities will be in the foreground, but how people worked together. We suggest the following topics:

The division of labour in a primitive society; there it is important to show that some activities were more complicated then than now, such as marriage laws, which illustrate the falsity of the wide spread idea that social institutions have become more and more complicated.

How people organised life in the Oases, such as the Nile Oasis, Jordan Oasis, Euphrates-Tigris Basin, these being countries mentioned in the Bible.

How what are called "brown men" live between Morocco and China, this being the world of the Arabian Nights where Brown, Black, White and Yellow meet.

How people in the river civilisations, outside the Mediterranean oases lived, for instance India, China. Similarity of Indian and Mediterranean civilizations.

Mountain civilizations. Here the dangers of living on tropical plains can be contrasted with the greater safety of mountains.

How people lived in the civilizations without wheel and draught animal.

How cities were built. Various types. Here the history of Troy would form an interesting topic, together with some account of excavations.

Nomadic and agrarian peoples could be contrasted, and peace and war compared. (Here the African tribes with neutral no-man's land between them could be mentioned.)

The idea that throughout the centuries the biggest buildings did not serve "technical" purposes should be stressed, also that many inventions and activities may have been connected just with these building and not with making war or building huts.

A comparison of the biggest buildings with the smaller ones all over the world, today, 100 years ago, 1000 years ago etc. may be of use, Stonehenge, Avebury will appear within these Isotypes in one way or another.

How big buildings such as the pyramids need skill, measuring etc. Calendar a religious institution. How one may measure the time by means of the Nile flood, or by means of stars. (We do not know much about the connection of all this with daily life. The builders' skill was largely combined to religious structures, and it may be that the calendar was used for religious rites too. In Asia Minor today there are calendars in use, which are not adapted to this area: the gardening rules invented by the Romans were used without change by the Medieval monks for a long time. In telling of all these matters we should be very cautious.)

From the stories of the nations details of daily life can be picked out and so the pupils may learn of Homer, the Icelandic Sagas, Indian songs etc, but the selection should be carefully made.

Suggestions for visual representation:

How many people live together on, say, 1 square mile, as hunters, as farmers etc. and in various types of agriculture
Nomadic and agrarian peoples, life and social structure. Division of labour.
Animal societies. Ants.
Primitive societies compared.
Oasis civilizations. Mediterranean etc.
River civilizations. India, China
Mountain civilizations. Mexico etc.
History of typical towns. Several examples.
Troja excavated and reconstructed. History throughout the ages.
Village types.
Big building and their use, throughout the ages.
Big and small buildings in various societies.
Population trees (see groups).
Language. Numbers. Maps. Measuring time (clocks, calendars).


About international relations, mankind. We should prefer this view. It will deal with the big empires, too, as one of the possible social organisations.

The world of the Greeks, composed of many small city states, related to mother countries as are the British settlements to the motherland.

Roman and Chinese Empire, treated as equally as possible, not one too thoroughly just because we know more about it. Of course the well known names such as Hannibal, Caesar etc. have to appear beside the less well known Chinese names. The silk route, all kinds of international contacts, particularly peaceful ones, should be stressed, without concealing the wars.

Telling of discoveries and travellers, with the romantic element appearing, gives a good opportunity to combine history and geography. The map of the world appears again and again.

Suggestions for visual representations:

Eurasiatic contacts East-West
North-South contacts (Europe-Africa) in Cavemen period (less known, should be stressed)
The world of the Greeks.
Egypt, supplemented by remarks about Babylonia.
Rome and China, Parthian empire, silk route (map)
Arabian empire
Mongolian empire
Sea routes
Discoveries, travellers.
Mediterranean history throughout ages.
Spain and Britain
Development of colonial empires.
World empires throughout history (25% of mankind)
Synchronistic chart, general survey (including details which have not been mentioned in extra charts)
Spreading of religious creeds:
     Christian religions
     Judasim, Islam
     Eastern religions.
Persecution and migrations
Great wars
Earthquakes, typhoons and other natural menaces
Epidemics, their spreading through the countries.
International fight of Plague etc.
Organised flight of inundations etc.
International contacts, postal service, air lines, league of Nations, etc.
Interrelations between states, simplified.


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