Weird & wonderful: Hungarian data graphics
With data-scholar Attila Bátorfy + Steven Heller + London recap
Legendary design journalist Steven Heller interviewed me about Information Graphic Visionaries for Print magazine: “The series is skillfully designed by Lorenzo Fanton, making vintage material seem timeless—and it is a must-have collection for information framers and users.”
Heller and I dove into the inspiration for the 📚series, including lots of behind-the-scenes details. Enjoy the 9-minute read of our interview here.
We have officially sold over half of our first print run, a tremendous milestone. See for yourself why Heller named it a “must-have collection”:
Consider gifting Information Graphic Visionaries this holiday season. They are the perfect delights for nerds of all stripes.
Let’s go to Budapest!
Attila Bátorfy is a data visualization expert and media scholar based in Budapest. For years he has been sharing his discoveries of spectacular Hungarian data graphics.
I got to catch up with him about some of his favorites in the interview below, which has been edited by me for this newsletter.
RJ Andrews: What’s a favorite Hungarian thematic map?
Attila Bátorfy: This may be the first equal square tile map: The ethnic and the religious map of Pál Balogh and Kocsárd Proff from 1902. Balogh, who was responsible for the concept, understood the distortion of the choropleth maps and tried to find a solution.
There is one subject that interested Hungarians more than any other when it came to representation: ethnicities. Many methodological innovations and experiments can be linked to Hungarian cartography, and the fact that these maps were also used by Hungarian politics and science as evidence of Hungarian superiority.
Probably the best-known Hungarian map of all time is the famous carte rouge, or red map, which showed the ethnic composition of Hungary according to the 1910 census using a special choropleth method.
The Hungarian delegation took this map to the negotiations that ended the First World War at Trianon, in order to convince the winning powers that they were wrongly dismembering historical Hungary. This map, or a version of it, was burned into the Hungarian historical memory, hanging on the walls of schools and homes.
If I may say one more favorite map, it is the 3D column map of the population of Hungary published in the first Budapest album by Illyefalvi in 1933. They even drew the shadows of the columns!
Can you give me a rough understanding of how these came to be, related to Hungary’s history?
Although the first known Hungarian data graphic dates from 1763, we have really few examples from the 19th century. There are several reasons for this:
First, there was little systematic data collection, partly due to the fact that there was no independent Hungarian statistical service within the Habsburg Empire until 1869. In addition, Hungarian statistics was still at the end of the 19th century an adherent of the German descriptive school of statistics, whereas in Europe mathematical/analytical statistics had been dominant for decades. Finally, it is not incidental that the great Hungarian theoretical statisticians of the 19th century—Sándor Konek, Elek Fényes, and Károly Keleti—could not stand the graphic method. They considered it to be an inferior method for the intellect, which tended to mislead the mind, and therefore tried to dissuade statisticians and economists from using it.
It was not until the very end of the 19th century that the aversion to the graphic method abated, but the verdict remained that it was unworthy of the high mind, albeit a useful method for informing the uneducated and illiterate. After the turn of the century, however, graphic production increased, and from the 1920s onwards simpler graphs began to appear in some daily newspapers.
The communist takeover after the Second World War was a caesura. The quantity and quality of graphic production declined significantly, while factories, exhibitions and TV newsreels were covered with 'increasing graphs', the simple and silly line or bar charts on productivity that the Communist Party had issued directives to produce.
Only the end of the 1960s would bring some improvement, especially in cartography, where there was more than just the possibility of cheap and dumb propaganda.
What’s a favorite Hungarian abstract statistical chart?
The graphics in the statistician Sándor Farkasfalvi’s Plant and production statistics for Budapest factories from 1930. Because of the use and abuse of polar diagrams, like pie, radar, star and radial bar chart.
I also really like the below diagram of the Danube ice dams from 1865. Many of these were born in the 1860s, and this is perhaps the most beautiful of them. A very striking but simple depiction of where ice typically accumulates on the Danube at the city Szekszárd and in what quantities.
How did you get into all of these historic graphics?
At first I wanted to get good at graphing data, so I started buying a crazy amount of practical books, and I started reading papers, watching tutorial videos. They always had specific references to old data graphics and more and more I asked the question, "Oh my god, how did they do that?”
In addition, I had an Eastern European pride, and I was annoyed that these books not only cited almost exclusively Western examples, but also suggested that the representation of information was a typical Western phenomenon. Which is understandable, since no one was really doing local history or publishing them in English.
That was five years ago, and since then I have spent untold hours in digital archives, libraries, antiquarian bookshops. I share only the parts of the finds that I find interesting, exciting or aesthetic, which may be barely one or two percent of the total output, while the remaining 98 percent is just as much part of the story.
There are a lot of naïve and strange Hungarian data graphics, which are not the way they are because of the joy of experimentation, creativity, but because they didn't know the rules of data graphics at the time, or they didn't know much about other works.
No one has done this before in Hungary, so it's a rewarding field, because you're probably the first to find something cool, or you're the first to recognize the data graphics quirk.
Is Hungary special? Should we expect other less-familiar countries to have as many unknown and wonderful data graphics?
It is unlikely that Hungary was unique, the currents of the times did not stop at national borders. My work can be misleading—I am churning out discoveries, but there is no Czech, Austrian, Polish, Romanian, Japanese or Egyptian researcher who is sharing the same quantity at the same speed.
I know of remarkable national statistical atlases from Lithuania, Finland, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Cuba and Greece, there are many exciting Romanian statistical maps, and a few Polish examples, of which the methode polonaise is the best known.
So we don't really know how much we are talking about potentially. Maybe the Brazilians or the Swedes were the biggest data visualisers in history, but nobody is researching them. Three years ago, would you have thought we would be talking about Hungarian data graphics?
If local research were to get underway, we would have a lot of interesting and exciting data graphics to add to our knowledge. Until these studies are started, I don't think we can talk about history. I see more and more people recognizing that we still have a limited understanding of the history of information graphics.
I can't imagine what they have in their own archives waiting to be discovered!
Do you have a favorite Hungarian pictorial diagram?
I would choose the natural scientist and imperial general Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli’s fantastic graphic about the mining activities around the city of Selmecbánya (now in Slovakia) from 1726.
I know you are, like me, a working practitioner. How does studying these historic graphic help your craft today?
Studying old visualizations has made me realize how vulnerable, fragile software or code-written data graphics are.
I have visualizations from six or seven years ago that no longer work, no copies exist, so they are lost forever. So I've started frantically documenting my work and, if possible, making a print version of it. I also started drawing by hand, and I ask my students, even if they are working with software, to make their work as if it were for print, forgetting that they have the possibility of interaction or animation.
Any last words?
I am less interested in the individual works, although they are spectacular and essential to historiography. I am much more interested in the social history of information graphics and the role they play in the history of humankind.
When we talk to students about the history of information graphics, we often find that the history of information graphics is also the history of human creativity and problem solving.
Greetings from London
I had a magical trip to London and Oxfordshire. Highlights include watching football with UK’s dataviz royalty, visiting sites associated with Florence Nightingale’s diagrams, an evening out with globemaker Peter Bellerby, and an enchanting day in medieval Oxford with Andy Cotgreave. My week was capped with an event focused on the future of the fourth estate, magnificently hosted at the extraordinary 1722 Ditchley Park house.
Working through the pandemic’s isolation has made it difficult for me to keep doing the thing. This trip was the first experience in years where I received such a large volume of in-person encouragement. It was deeply needed, and deeply appreciated.
Thank you England for returning excitement and energy to my craft.
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