Otto Neurath (1882–1945), was a polymath whose life’s work encompassed political economy, sociology, philosophy, urbanism, and visual communication; in the last of these fields he was the leading figure in the work that is now most commonly termed ‘Isotype’.
Neurath was born in Vienna, the son of the political economist Wilhelm Neurath (1840–1901). After university studies in Vienna and Berlin, he taught political economy at the Neue Wiener Handelsakademie (New Vienna academy of commerce) from 1907 until war broke out in 1914. Towards the end of the war he became the director of the newly-established Deutsches Kriegswirtschaftsmuseum (German museum of war economy) at Leipzig, where he first experimented with methods of visual education. In 1918–19, working as a civil-servant, Neurath ran an office for central economic planning in Munich. When the Bavarian ‘soviet republic’ was defeated, he was arrested and, after trial, sentenced to one-and-a-half years’ imprisonment, but was soon released after an intervention from the Austrian government – with a condition that he did not return to Germany.
Back in Vienna, Neurath became general secretary for the Österreichischer Verband für Siedlungs- und Kleingartenwesen (Austrian association for estate-housing and allotments), a collection of self-help groups that aimed to provide housing and garden plots for its members. From this grew a Siedlungsmuseum (housing museum), of which Neurath was the director. At the beginning of 1925 he established the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Wien (Social and economic museum of Vienna), for which he became fully engaged in the use of visual methods for explanation and education. Working with Marie Reidemeister (from 1925) in a gradually developing team of collaborators – the main other one was the artist Gerd Arntz (from 1928) – Neurath created Isotype.
Alongside his work for this museum and for the housing movement, Neurath also became a committed logical empiricist. He was the main author of the Vienna Circle manifesto (1929). Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, he was the driving force behind the successor Unity of Science movement. After the brief civil war in Austria of February 1934, Neurath and his core group at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum left Vienna for The Hague, where they continued work under the aegis of the International Foundation for Visual Education. The international spread of their work, which had already started in Vienna, intensified and extended. In 1935 the name ‘Isotype’ was devised to describe what had been known as the Wiener Methode (Vienna method). With the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, Otto Neurath and Marie Reidemeister escaped to Britain. After internment – along with all other ‘enemy aliens’ – they resumed their work, now living in Oxford; the Isotype Institute was established in 1942. Otto Neurath died suddenly in December 1945, with many new projects in progress.