The History of Information Graphics in Hungary

Beginnings in threefold

Published in
13 min readFeb 18, 2020

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The beginnings of information graphics in Hungary can be traced back to the middle of the 19th century, with the most prominent examples closely associated with three major public works. Here they are presented in chronological order:

  1. The regulation and engineering works of the rivers Danube and Tisza from the 1830s
  2. The foundation of the Central Statistical Office and the first independent Census in 1870
  3. The millennial celebrations of the thousand-year-old Hungary in 1896

In some form or other, all three contributed to the emergence of the Hungarian nation during the 19th century, but on the long road of “surveying the country,” which at first was a righteous and relevant scientific requirement, they later became servants of non-scientific aims. Statistical graphs and thematic maps were often used to justify and verify the superiority of the Hungarian nation in the Carpathian basin after 1900. The results cast long shadows in the first half of the 20th century, culminating in the Trianon tragedy and the revisionist movements after 1920.

For a widespread use of graphs, it is necessary that the public has a common knowledge about what a graph, chart, or diagram is, and it’s essential to have a certain level of professionalism and experts who can draw them. In the first chapter, I briefly introduce how things developed in the 19th century.

Ábra, diagram, grafikon

The first Hungarian reference to graphic presentation of statistics is from the book A statisztika elmélete (The Theory of Statistics) by János Zima from 1844. Zima used “image system” to describe graphic presentation “which shows the existing relations with drawings and colors” (p. 28–29.) (1). Let us look at the first occurrences of the Hungarian word ábra, and two adopted words: diagram and the grafikon, in graphic context (we don’t use the word carte or chart), because they can give us an idea of when they became common knowledge. The Historical-Etymological Dictionary of the Hungarian Language says that the noun ábra (shape, form, schematic representation) has slavic origins from the word obraz (face, picture, shape), but as a verb ábráz was used dating back to the medieval times. According to the Dictionary the noun ábra, as schematic representation, was first used in 1787 in the Hungarian language. The compound grafikus ábrázolás (as tableau graphique) were used first in 1874 (in Budapesti Szemle vol. 7–8, p. 425).

For newly introduced words of foreign origin, the dictionary is not trustworthy. Both diagram and grafikon (as graph, chart, diagram) were often used decades before their first appearance in the dictionary. The newspaper Budapesti Hírlap first wrote down the word diagram with the meaning of schematic drawing on March 3, 1853, in the translation of the short story “Legend of Prince Ahmed al Kamel, or the Pilgrim of Love” by American novelist and diplomat Washington Irving. Finally, the word grafikon’s (archaic: graphikon, graphicon) first appears in 1880 (Központi Értesítő vol. 5 №7 p. 28.). Interestingly, the Pallas Nagy Lexikona (Pallas Great Lexicon, 1894) explains the word grafikon with a specific meaning that is used only for railway timetables that show a Marey-like graphic for illustration. The next entry of the lexicon is about grafikus statisztikai ábrák (graphic statistic diagrams).

Railway guide of the Hungarian State Royal Railways between Budapest and Fiume (Pallas Nagy Lexikona, H-GY, 1894, appendix 045).

The other necessary aspect to assess the state of information graphics in Hungary in the 19th century is a look at professional practitioners. The methods, the problems, the value and the standardization of graphic presentation were largely discussed at the meetings of the International Statistical Congress in the second half of the 19th century. The internationally acknowledged Hungarian statistics took large part in the professional discussions, and knew the best examples of graphic presentation (2). Even so we don’t have a lot information about professional discussions and disputes on graphic presentation in Hungary. Practitioners of the 19th century have rarely written about their profession, or about the value of graphics for understanding, demonstration, argumentation, and education. What we know is that the Hungarian Academy of Sciences translated the Die Gesetzmäßigkeit im Gesellschaftsleben (1877) by the German statistician Georg von Mayr in 1881 which had a detailed chapter on graphic methods (Hungarian version is available digitized here), and the Central Statistical Office had copies from the original German book. We also know that there was at least one copy of Étienne-Jules Marey’s La méthode graphique dans les sciences expérimentales et principalment en physiologie et en médecine from 1878, and is still available in Hungary.

After this short summary on the use of some general terms related to graphic presentation and some remarks on the level of professionalization of practice in the 19th century, I will proceed to describing the threefold beginnings.

The regulation of the rivers Danube and Tisza from the 1830s

The irregularity and the floods of the rivers Danube and Tisza caused some of the most horrible tragedies in Hungary in the 19th century, killing hundreds of people and destroying 10,000s of homes. The result of the “Great Flood of Pest” in March 1838 was that around 60,000 people lost their homes. The flood of Szeged in 1879 razed to the ground the entire medieval and post-medieval downtown, and in the next few years a completely new city was built. Both dramatic events are part of the national memory and are commemorated in movies, novels, poems, and on statues and plaques all around the two cities.

Water level Scala of the Danube River after the Bratislava gauge in 1840 S_12_-__XIX._-_No._155:6 Hungarian National Archives
Detail of the water level scala of the Danube River.

The first graphs in Hungary—except functional algebraic and geometrical visualizations—were the result of systematic observations of water and ice levels. The first that I know of is a time-series line graph showing daily water levels in Pozsony (in that time Pressburg in German, now Bratislava, Slovakia) from 1841. The 63 x 49cm chart was ordered by the Resident Committee, the author was Emil Ledemann, and the craftsman was Anton Rothbauer. Rothbauer also drew some beautiful hydrological maps on river flows, floodplains and dikes.

Hydrographic hydrometric overview map of the Danube river in the stretch from the Bratislava pontoon bridge to the mouth of the Pischdorf arm … Ground plan of the lengths and cross sections of the in 1844. newly produced for the siltation of the Altau arm. C 128 Miscellaneous Act I. 1844:6 (193–194, 196. l.) Hungarian National Archives
Detail of the Hydrographic hydrometric overview map of the Danube river.

Hungarian archives may be found in the National Archives, the National Széchenyi Library, the Budapest City Archives or the Institute and Museum of Military History. They have a large number of situation plans, survey maps, water- and ice-level graphs from the beginning of the 1810s (the earliest are situation plans, cross-section drawings of river courses and dikes) to the end of 19th century.

The visualization below by engineer Dániel Sperlágh shows both the daily ice- and water-level at the Danube, near the Hungarian town Paks, from November 1859 to March 1860. On the enlarged detail, we can see that gauging occurred twice a day. Yet what is really interesting is that Sperlágh wanted to show the position of the observed ice-tables in the section of the Danube and did so by annotating the left and the right bank (Linkes Ufer, Rechtes Ufer) and the gravity the tables were congested by coloring them.

Dániel Sperlágh — Ice conditions, and water level of the Danube in 1859/60 in the Szekszárd-hegy k. k. river districts of Paks D 257 1865 No 69 Hungarian National Archives (link)
Dániel Sperlágh — Ice conditions of the Danube in 1859/60 in the Szekszárd-hegy k. k. river districts of Paks (Detail) D 257 1865 No 69 Hungarian National Archives
József Berényi — Geographic Map of the Ice Arrangement of the City of Adony, January 8, 1864 D 257 1864 No 6386 The Hungarian National Archives

Maps of the river Tisza, created by engineer Arthur Sziberth, show the drift of the river before and after the regulation on different transparent layers. In the map below, we can see the non-colored dead channels, i.e., the drift before the regulation in purple, and the actual flow in blue. Sziberth also annotated the points where the old drift was cut across or deflected.

Arthur Sziberth — Site map of the Tisza. (Tisza used to be and now. Part II. Site map of the Tisza River, Volume I Annex.) B IX b 225 1902, Institute and Museum of Military History

Szibert also attached to the map series standardized views of floodplains to show their extent.

Arthur Sziberth — Site map of the Tisza. (Tisza used to be and now. Part II. Site map of the Tisza River, Volume I Annex.) B IX b 225 1902, Institute and Museum of Military History

The fact that most of the graphs treasured in archives and museums from the 19th century are water- and ice-level graphs, reflects the enormous problem rivers caused in everyday life. The regulation required systematic surveys and observations based on rigorous data collection, and the works lasted until the first decade of the 20th century.

The first independent Census of 1870

The first census (conscriptio) was ordered by emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Joseph II. in 1784. It was based on the Austrian principles initiated by empress Maria Theresa in 1777 and it was completed between 1784 and 1787. The Monarchy later held some other micro-census during the 19th century, but as the demand for an independent Hungarian statistical office grew (it was on agenda from 1848 onwards), it was clear that the census also should be organized independently from the court in Vienna.

In 1860, the Statistical Committee was set up under the supervision of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, later in 1867 the Statistical Office was launched as a department of the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Trade. The preparation works of the first census started in 1869, and when the census was successfully accomplished in 1870, it eventually led to the creation of the independent and autonomous Central Statistical Office (originally: National Hungarian Royal Statistical Office) with the leadership of statistician Károly Keleti.

The official publication of the census, the Results of the Census Executed in the beginning of the year 1870 in the countries of the Hungarian Crown did not contain any graphics or maps, only tables. While the available data increased significantly, the number of created graphics, time-series charts, and comparative diagrams grew slowly nationwide. Károly Keleti’s book on the census, Hazánk és Népe (Our Country and Our Nation) from 1871 had only 12 choropleth maps on ethnics, religions, education, agriculture etc. Other authors filled their thousands pages books with tables and textual explanations. Only the Budapest Statistical Office, led by József Kőrösy (sometimes Körössi), which operated separately from the Central Statistical Office, published charts focusing only on the capital city.

József Kőrössy — Religions in the districts of Pest. In Preliminary Report on the Results of the Pest Census of January 1, 1870 (Budapest Statistical Releases 3, 1871, p.4.)
József Kőrössy — Literacy by profession. In Preliminary Report on the Results of the Pest Census of January 1, 1870 (Budapest Statistical Releases 3, 1871, p.10.)

In the next couple of years, the Budapest Statistical Office started publishing graphs in its Bulletin, but still quite rarely.

Mortality in Pest in the year 1872 and 1873 In József Kőrösy: The Mortality of the City of Pest in 1872 and 1873 and its Causes (Budapest Statistical Releases 11, 1876, p. 169.)

Although the offices and the state bureaus had enough data for exploring them visually, we can’t say that graphs, charts and thematic maps were widely used by statisticians or other professionals. The significance of the first census was that it was the first systematic nationwide survey and data collection about the country in the series of census in every ten years.

After the second census of 1881, the number of charts grew remarkably, but only after the census of 1891 it became common to publish the results in short reports using graphics.

Population growth of Budapest In 1881, the capital of Budapest. Results of the census and the census (Budapest Statistical Releases 15/1, 1881, p. 9)
Proportion of married and widow by gender, age groups and religions In Budapest capital in 1881. Results of Census and Population Census (Budapest Statistical Releases 15/2, 1882, p. 198)
Distribution of the population by age groups and gender In Results of the census conducted in the early 1891 in the countries of the Hungarian Crown. Part I. Genealogy (1893) p. 92.

The celebrations of the thousand-year-old Hungary in 1896

Hungary celebrated its 1,000th anniversary in 1896, and the whole country was waiting for the state celebrations, exhibitions and even for the construction of some representative new buildings to be completed on time. The largest exhibition was held in the Városliget (City Park) with dozens of buildings and pavilions promoting Hungary’s historical, economic and cultural greatness.

The economist, lawyer and politician Sándor Matlekovits was commissioned for compiling and editing the articles about every aspect of Hungary in a historical-comparative perspective. The colossal nine volumes and nearly 10,000 pages, The Economic and Cultural Status of Hungary in the Millennium and the Outcome of the Millennium Exhibition of 1896 (3), was published in 1897–98. The budget of the series was also colossal, because it had to be worthy to the occassion. Last but not least, the reason why I’ve chosen these tomes is that this enormous, representative book series should give the highest and most up-to-date quality of authors, texts, images, maps and graphs. They should tell us something about knowledge, talent, taste, creativity and progress with the highest international standards. Some might find the result rather disappointing for a representative work about greatness and wealth. Hereby, I focus only on information graphics and charts, and I find them quite fair, although there are just a couple of them in the nine volumes.

Out of them I find very interesting those which illustrate the article “Sugar industry” (volume 8. p. 102–232) by economist and officer Endre Bossányi. Not because they are good, but because they are unconventional—they weren’t commonly used that time: 3D proportional cubes, sunbursts (or multilevel pie charts) and randomly sorted proportional squares. I don’t know if Bossányi drew them or someone else contracted by Matlekovits or by the printing house.

Endre Bossányi — Sugar production in the world by countries in five year cycles from 1852 to 1896 In The Economic and Cultural Status of Hungary in the Millennium and the Outcome of the Millennium Exhibition of 1896 Volume 8 Budapest, 1898, p. 148.
Endre Bossányi — Sugar production of the world by countries In The Economic and Cultural Status of Hungary in the Millennium and the Outcome of the Millennium Exhibition of 1896 Volume 8 Budapest, 1898, p. 150.
Endre Bossányi — Sugar production of the world by countries in 1894–95. In The Economic and Cultural Status of Hungary in the Millennium and the Outcome of the Millennium Exhibition of 1896 Volume 8 Budapest, 1898, p. 156.

The following two (4) pieces are from the next article in the volume (p. 254–324). It was written by economist and politician Konrád Burchard-Bélaváry and it’s about the mill industry. I’ve choose them because of their fresh, vivid colors.

Konrád Burchard-Bélaváry - Incomes of different grains in Hungary. In The Economic and Cultural Status of Hungary in the Millennium and the Outcome of the Millennium Exhibition of 1896 Volume 8 Budapest, 1898, p. 302.
Konrád Burchard-Bélaváry — The chemical components of wheat flour by source of origin (detal). In The Economic and Cultural Status of Hungary in the Millennium and the Outcome of the Millennium Exhibition of 1896 Volume 8 Budapest, 1898, p. 258.

The visualizations associated with the millennial celebrations signaled the end of the 19th century. For highlighting the difficult transition to the 20th century, I chose two maps to show how national pride, widely common in Europe at the time, slowly transformed into ethno-chauivinism.

The consequences of the growing chauvinist heat

The last visualization that I show in this article serve two purposes. On the one hand, it might be the first equal area/tile/mosaic map in the world, and the method the authors used is yet to be investigated. On the other hand, these two maps mark the end of the liberal-national ambitions of Hungary in the 19th century and open the path toward a pure propagandistic use of visualizations and maps (5). No matter one’s feelings toward the ideology they serve, the two maps are methodologically and aesthetically amazing. As the statistician and journalist Pál Balogh wrote in the book A népfajok Magyarországon (The ethnic races of Hungary, 1902) about their work:

“Despite our ill fortune historical past, and despite our difficulties in the present, we demonstrated that the Hungarian race is not just able to fulfill its leading role, but the Hungarian race is the only one which can practice hegemony over the other nations.” The ethnic races of Hungary, 1902, p. 1106

Pál Balogh and Sándor Kocsárd — The ethnic composition of Hungary by districts and in percentages. B IX c 605, 1902, Insitute and Museum of Military History
Pál Balogh and Sándor Kocsárd — The religious composition of Hungary by districts and in percentages. B IX c 605, 1902, Insitute and Museum of Military History

The book and the maps as an appendix were published by the Ministry of Religion and Education.

The book about the theory, the methodology and explanations was written by Pál Balogh, the maps were designed by the baron Sándor Kocsárd. Balogh does not explain why they used this graphic method, or where they saw a similar method before, if they did.

The method displays calculated proportions of ethnicities and religions of the census of 1891 for every town in every district. One district is represented in a 10x10 square equally. One unit within a square is equal to 1 percent proportion. With the coloring they also could show the positional density of the ethnicities within a square.

Detail of the ethnic composition of Hungary by districts and in percentages.

The fact that the words for information graphics were already commonly used by the general press in the 1880s, and two seminal handbooks on graphic methods were available for professionals (6), gives the impression that Hungary also lived in the “golden age of statistical graphics” (Michael Friendly).

The truth is that information graphics were considerably rare in Hungary in the 19th century, and high quality, memorable visualizations were really sporadic in the publications. Naturally, most of the examples I show don’t represent the ordinary and typical graphics of the era. I also have to admit that I don’t know yet what can lurk in the dust on storage shelves of many Hungarian archives. It’s possible that in the future new gems will come to light. Consider this article as the first attempt at discovery and exploration, which was never done before in Hungary.

Research of historical visualizations got a new impulse in the past few years resulting in a series of monographs, journal papers and informative articles. I hope this piece contributes to the international study of information graphics with up until now unknown and interesting Hungarian examples.

Most of the originals are available digitized on the Hungaricana (the central site of the Hungarian archives) and the Arcanum.

  1. János Zima also knew William Playfair’s Statistical Breviary (1801). He put in the list of references. A statisztika elmélete. Pozsony, 1844, p. 36.
  2. About the international discussions and disputes on graphic methods in the 19th Century see István Klinghammer: “Statisztikai térképek-térképes statisztikák…” (“Statistical Maps-Mapped Statistics”). In Geodézia és Kartográfia (Geodesy and Cartography) Vol. VLIII. №10. pp. 37–44.
  3. Art historian Emese Révész drew my attention to the book.
  4. The reader might wonder why I don’t show more thematic maps in this article, if ethnic, and other thematic maps showing statistics with mostly point and choropleth method were widespread in the last quarter of the 19th century. The reason is that the history of Hungarian cartography is well researched and elaborated.
  5. On the use of cartography and maps for propagandistic purposes in Hungary see: Zoltán Krasznai: Földrajztudomány, oktatás és propaganda. A nemzeti terület reprezentációja a két világháború közötti Magyarországon (Geography, education and propaganda: the representation of the national territory between the two world wars). Pécs: Publikon, 2011 and Dániel Segyevy: Térképművek Trianon árnyékában. Magyarország etnikai térképe. (Maps in the shadow of Trianon. The ethnic map of Hungary). Budapest: KSH, 2016.
  6. To understand the importance of having up-to-date handbooks on methodology, consider that the next handbook was published 70 years later in Hungary (1951). Moreover, György Rejtő’s handbook is rather a brief booklet than a book.

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Master instructor and Phd-student of journalism and information graphics at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. Head of ATLO.Team Portfolio: batorfyattila.com