Principles of Cerebral Mechanics

Principles of Cerebral Mechanics

Charles Cros

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Translated, with an introduction, by Doug Skinner / August 2021 / 4.5 x 7, 96 pp. / 978-1-939663-79-5

Though lesser known among the scientific writings of Charles Cros, Principles of Cerebral Mechanics is a visionary work that further establishes the author’s standing as the inventeur maudit of his time. First presented to the Academy of Sciences in 1872, it wasn’t published until 1879, and then only in fragmentary form before the journal in which it appeared folded, and what Cros claimed to be the only manuscript copy had been thrown into a fire by his mistress during a lover’s quarrel.

Setting out to understand the mechanics of perception, the organs of which were too small and inaccessible to be studied directly at the time, Cros attempted to reverse engineer the sensory apparatus. Whereas his inventions in the realms of audio recording and color photography focused on technology for the senses, with this ambitious essay Cros turned to conceptualizing the technology of the senses themselves: rather than the transmission of color to the retina, here he tried to conceive of how color was transmitted from the retina to the brain. By approaching the human brain as a “mechanism of registration” and conceptually dissecting it into the gears of an image recorder, Cros’s essay can be set alongside the groundbreaking work of such revolutionary figures who transformed modern vision as Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge.

Charles Cros (1842–1888) was as much Renaissance man as he was poète maudit. A bohemian poet who drank with Verlaine and at one point provided housing to Rimbaud, he also developed the comic monologue as a theatrical genre, and invented both the phonograph (which he named the “paléophone”) and color photography (though he failed to patent either before Thomas Edison or Louis Ducos du Hauron), among other such inventions as a non-metallic battery and a musical stenographer. “The freshness of his intelligence was such that no object of desire seemed utopian to him a priori,” André Breton wrote of him, adding: “The pure playfulness of certain wholly whimsical portions of Cros’s work should not obscure the fact that at the center of some of his most beautiful poems a revolver is leveled straight at us.”

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