Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fritz Kahn - Man as Industrial Palace

 Fritz Kahn, Fairytale journey along the bloodstream – Entering a glandular cavity with an idealized cell-scape, illustration by Arthur Schmitson for "Life of Man, Vol. II", 1924

Ever since Fantastic Voyage, the 1966 sci-fi film about a crew of biologists who were miniaturized to fit into a microbe-size submarine that sailed perilously through the human bloodstream - encountering dangers like parasites and immune-system defenses along the way  - one could easily fantasize that tiny homunculi actually control our bodies. And  that our bodies are really huge factories. A German scientist, gynecologist and author named Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), had not only developed this idea in the 1920s but created a copyrighted graphic system that visually codified the metaphoric notion of man as machine, which he introduced to the world in a humorous diagrammatic poster (executed by an unknown artist) from 1926 called Man as Industrial Palace. Humor aside, Kahn was quite serious. In the 1920s, his magnum opus, Das Leben des Menschen (The Life of Man) was renowned as an accomplishment of global repute.

 Dr. Fritz Kahn, c. 1920

Fritz Kahn was born in Halle. Just like his father, doctor and writer Arthur Kahn, Fritz was very talented and interested in various topics. He grew up with a Jewish-Orthodox tradition and received a classical humanistic education. The family immigrated to the USA in 1893 (Fritz spent his first two school years in Hoboken, New Jersey) but returned to Germany three years later. In 1905, after several relocations, the family settled in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Kahn studied medicine and microbiology at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-University (1907-1913). During his studies, he began writing popular science articles for nationwide newspapers. During World War I, Fritz Kahn served as an army doctor in France and Italy.

Fritz Kahn, Car and Ear Match, 1929

After the war, Kahn worked as a surgeon and obstetrician in Berlin and wrote two successful books: Die Zelle (The Cell) and Die Juden als Rasse und Kulturvolk (The Jews as Race and Cultural Nation). In 1920, he married Irma Glogau and opened a gynecological practice. Kahn's success in the field of publishing soon required a separate studio where he employed secretaries and professional illustrators, who executed his exceptional image ideas in various styles of modernism. Kahn also wrote regularly on science and medicine for the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, Weimar Germany’s most widely read weekly. 

 Fritz Kahn, Man eats 1.400 times his weight in 70 years, 1926

Kahn produced illustrations that drew a direct functional analogy between human physiology and the operation of contemporary technologies, especially industrial machines. Kahn's best known work, The Man as Industrial Palace poster (below), was originally designed as a special offer for those Kosmos readers (a widely read popular science magazine named for Alexander von Humboldt's 1885 publication of the same name) who had subscribed, in 1921, to the five-volume book Das Leben des Menschen (The Life of Man), an anatomy and physiology of the human body (1922-1931). The book finally had more than 1.600 pages, with the last of its 50 binders issued and distributed in 1931, a decade after the start of the project. More than a thousand illustrations were included in the five volumes, and almost 150 colour plates. The Life of Man series' circulation finally amounted to an astonishing couple of hundred thousand copies.

Fritz Kahn, Man as Industrial Palace, 1926

The poster, a cutaway schematic of a human form, reveals a complex industrial apparatus housed in numerous compartments that were analogous to bodily organs and cellular functions. In these rooms, dozens of hopefully skilled homunculi (some wearing business suits) control the body as though in a normal day at the industrial park. The poster is reproduced full-size in a new, profusely illustrated monograph, Fritz Kahn: Man Machine by Uta and Thilo von Debschitz (Springer Wein, NewYork). Walter Gropius and Herbert Bayer were among those who responded directly to this work; for example, Gropius used several of Kahn’s images for his lectures in "Design Topics". Bayer, a Bauhaus student (later Bauhaus teacher and head of the printing section), used Kahn’s visualization style in, for example, the Wunder des Lebens (Wonders of Life) show in Berlin in 1935.

Fritz Kahn, The Life of Man, 1931. The physiology of vision, with the rods and cones of the pupils as receptors of light, is compared to the technology of photographic reproduction in which an image is screened and broken down into dot patterns.

In a climate of growing anti-Semitism, the liberal Kahn was elected chairman of the Jüdische Altershilfe (Jewish Senior Aid). In 1933, his books were publicly burned. Because of his Jewishness, he lost his medical accreditation, and immigrated to Palestine. Five years later, Kahn returned to Europe with his second wife and settled in Paris. His internationally successful book Unser Geschlechtsleben (Our Sex Life) was published in Switzerland (in Germany, it was immediately put on the index):

 Fritz Kahn, The Male Erection System, 1937

After the German occupation of France in 1940, Kahn fled to Bordeaux, where he was arrested and imprisoned. Kahn escaped to Portugal via Spain, and, with the help of Albert Einstein, he immigrated with his wife to the United States in 1941. During these difficult times, Der Mensch gesund und krank (Healthy and Ailing Man) was published in Switzerland:

 Fritz Kahn, Healthy and Ailing Man (Vol. II), 1940

Kahn's last European publication - Man in Structure in Function -­ was subsequently translated for Alfred Knopf and published in the United States in 1943 where it went through two printings in its first year. The first image of the book - refered to in the first sentence - introduces the primary themes which Kahn utilized throughout: the functional analogy between man and machine. In the image a silhouetted male figure is set inside a cut­out drawing of a train locomotive; both man and locomotive have specific internal parts drawn, which are compared functionally (Man and Machine):

 Fritz Kahn, Man in Structure in Function (Fig. 208), 1943

The accompanying text explains the functional analogy explictely: "Man and machine exhibit far­reaching similarities. Both derive their energy from the combustion of carbon, which they obtain from plants. Man, the weaker machine, utilizes fresh plants for fuel, while the locomotive, a stronger machine, uses fossilized plants in the form of coal."

 Raoul Hausmann, Dada (Collage for the First International Dada Fair in Berlin), 1920

The analogy between functional anatomy and technology was not exactly new. Contemporary art styles (like Raoul Hausmann's above Dada collage) also dealt with modernity and made use of the man-machine amalgams: Dada, Constructivism, Surrealism and New Objectivity all dealt extensively with it. Many writers and visual artists had experienced the terrible mechanized battles of the First World War (and the widespread use of protheses thereafter). In part, it was the war induced man­-machine analogue that made Kahn's illustrations possible. 

Reeducation of mutilés de guerres at the Maison blanche reeducation camp for agricultural workers, January 8, 1919. Reproduced in Surrealist Masculinités.

In another illustration (below) contained in Man in Structure in Function the speed of a nerve impulse is compared to the speed of a telegraph signal and an air plane. We are told that: "In earlier times the rapidity with which an impulse was conducted along a nerve fibre was considered the quintessence of speed. This idea has been superseded, however, by the accomplishments of modern technology." The illustration's subtitle rather coldly explains: "A person reaching from Cape Horn to Alaska would first feel a shark's bite after eighty hours."

 Fritz Kahn, The Speed of Thought, 1943

Kahn continued his successful career in the United States. In addition to Man in Structure and Function, Kahn's US publications included The Atom - Finally Explained, The Book of Nature, and Design of the Universe. In 1956, Kahn returned to Europe and settled in Switzerland. Among others, he wrote a matrimony guidebook entitled Muss Liebe blind sein? (Must Love Be Blind?). After surviving the Agadir earthquake in 1960, Kahn lived and worked in Denmark. Aged 79, during a trip to Switzerland, Fritz Kahn died in a clinic in Locarno. By the time of his death, Kahn had written more than a dozen books, most of them translated into several languages, including Chinese, Indonesian, and Finnish.


  1. Outstanding. Thanks for collecting this and providing it in such a well organized and well illustrated form.

  2. Find more facts on Fritz Kahn and visual highlights from his books in »Fritz Kahn – Man Machine« (SpringerWienNewYork, 208 pages, 250+ images, including Poster »Der Mensch als Industriepalast«).

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