Category Archives: Inventions

Talking Machines, Part 1: Charles Cros

Sheet music cover of 'L'Orgue'
‘L’Orgue’ composed by Gabriel Fabre on a poem by Charles Cros. Published by Henri Lemoine (Paris, [1900]) and illustrated by Charles Léandre.

The cover of L’Orgue, magnificently illustrated by Charles Léandre, oozes end-of-the-century gloom, a typical form of expression of the Parisian Symbolist and Decadent artistic movement. The composer of the music for L’Orgue is Gabriel Fabre, now a forgotten symbolist, but in his time a well known artist, successful in all of the salons. For his short melodies and piano works he sought inspiration from texts by Verlaine, Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and Charles Cros. He —or his publisher— chose fine artists to illustrate the covers of his scores, such as Lepère, Signac, Le Sidaner or Léandre.

The poet who wrote the lyrics for L’Orgue is Charles Cros (1842-1888), one of the poètes maudits. Cros was friends with the notorious Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. This friendship halted in 1872 when Cros sided with the abandoned wife (and son) of Verlaine, who preferred to continue his stormy affair with Rimbaud in faraway London…

Cover of sheet music 'L'Archet'
‘L’Archet’ composed by Gabriel Fabre on a poem by Charles Cros. Published by Henri Lemoine (Paris, [1895]) and illustrated by Auguste Louis Lepère.

The unconventional Charles Cros was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He was largely self-taught and had a wide interest, amongst others in chemistry, physics, medicine and oriental languages. His scientific papers include theories on improved telegraph equipment, colour photography, and communication with the inhabitants of Mars or Venus by means of signals flashed by huge mirrors. Contemporary scientists considered his work as ludicrous.

Charles Cros by Atelier Nadar. Source: Wikipedia.

Charles Cros, who most of the time was penniless, lacked the flair for business. Often he was too late or without financial resources to create prototypes, or he forgot to patent his inventions. His biggest missed opportunity was the invention of the phonograph.

In April 30, 1877, he deposited a paper in a sealed envelope with the Parisian Académie des Sciences describing the principle of a sound reproduction device, which he called paléophone. He stated that sound vibrations can be engraved in metal using a pencil attached to a vibrating membrane. Subsequently, by sliding a stylus attached to another membrane over this engraving, one would be able to reproduce the original sound. Before Charles Cros had the opportunity to follow up on his idea, or even build a prototype, Thomas Edison in the US developed and patented his phonograph on January 15, 1878. When this news reached Paris, Cros asked the Academy to open his sealed envelope to prove that he had invented this technical concept first.

The bohemian lifestyle of Charles Cros and his addiction to absinthe contributed to his early death in 1888, aged 45. It is said Cros drank as many as 20 absinthes a day. Sadly, he is now remembered for almost having invented the phonograph.
And I, I almost cut my hair!

Hugo d’Alesi: Spiritist and Language Creator

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is au-revoir-785x1024.jpg
‘Au Revoir’ by R. Noghi, published by Cranz (Bruxelles, 1884) and illustrated by Hugo d’Alesi.

We focused previously on Hugo d’Alési as a painter, illustrator and inventor of the Maréorama. Besides, as a young man Hugo d’Alési was drawn to spiritualism or the belief that the dead can communicate with the living. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was not so exceptional for people to attend seances where a medium claimed to contact the dead. Victor Hugo, to name but one, was also known to dabble in this macabre divertissement.

The origins of modern spiritualism have been traced to the Fox family in Hydesville, New York. In 1848 the two youngest Fox daughters reported hearing a series of raps on their furniture and bedroom walls. They claimed that these rappings were communications from spirits. Although many years later they confessed to the hoax, their public demonstrations of rappings and the seances of hundreds of imitators gave rise to a widespread interest in spiritualism.

‘Spirit rappings’ by Rossington & Garrett, published by Oliver Ditson (Boston, 1853). Courtesy The Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

Marie, the first wife of Hugo d’Alési, passed away when he was only 32. In her lifetime she had posed as a medium who automatically wrote down poems dictated to her by spirits. And Hugo d’Alési himself was able, without looking at his paper, to make drawings of spirits, who he insisted were present during seances. The couple had been guided into spiritism (the French branch of spiritualism) by Rufina Noeggerath who was born in Brussels in 1821 but later lived in Paris. There she held a salon for artistic and philosophic followers of spiritism.

La Survie. Sa réalité. Sa manifestation. Sa philosophie. Echos de l’Au-delà.‘ by Rufina Noeggerath (Paris, 1929). Cover illustrated by Hugo d’Alési. (source:

The song Au Revoir illustrated by d’Alési is dedicated to Karl, Jacques and Marie Noeggerath. The woman in the medallion is Rufina Noeggerath and she seems to be in mourning. The gothic image depicts three children in a flowered sailboat. It looks to me that Hugo d’Alési perfectly demonstrated the transition of three persons close to Rufina from this world to the next, with guardian angel, flower wreaths, black sail e tutti quanti. We have two more songs created by R. Noghi in our sheet music collection. All three covers share a gothic illustration of grieving about children lost. Though we still have to find proof, we can safely assume that R. Noghi is the pseudonym for Rufina Noeggerath.

Deux Mélodies‘ by R. Noghi published by Schott Frères (Bruxelles, s.d.) and illustrated by Hugo d’Alési.

Rufina Noeggerath not only held literary and spiritistic salons in Paris, she was a medium herself. Once she sat at a small round table together with Jacques Offenbach‘s nephew when all of a sudden Offenbach’s spirit started to talk to them. Well, kind of talking, the table leg tapped out the messages: one tap meant a, 26 taps meant z. After some chitchat Offenbach started to compose a melody called Air from beyond the grave.

Offenbach’s post-mortem composition, as published in L’Humanité Intégrale, Dir. J.-Camille Chaigneau, 1 january 1897.

Rufina then asked Offenbach what words should accompany the melody. “Choose the most suitable one in your bundle of mediumistic poems written by Marie d’Alési.” the table answered. Rufina did what was asked and the table approved. Rufina claimed that she was not allowed to disclose the identity of Offenbach’s nephew, so conveniently, the story could not be confirmed and maybe she wrote this little melody herself.

‘Le Dernier Sommeil’ by R. Noghi published by Schott Frères (Bruxelles, s.d.) and possibly illustrated by Hugo d’Alesi.

This 1906 British short film features a medium exposed as a fake during a seance. The mechanisms of the special effects are revealed when the light is switched on (at around 3:25).

Hugo d’Alési was not only an engineer, a gifted illustrator and a spiritist, in 1901 he also wrote a method for international correspondence by numerical language. His universal language used nothing but the ten numerical digits: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 and the letter x for indicating the plural. The language should enable everybody to exchange letters with the whole world without knowing any foreign language. All you needed was a french-numerical, english-numerical or japanese-numerical dictionary. The conjugation of verbs was also indicated by digits. Needless to say that his method never became successful nor popular, and I don’t think any numerical dictionary was ever printed. Surely his promotion of a numerical Esperanto made less waves than his Maréorama in the real world. But perhaps it became more accepted in the afterlife…

Méthode de correspondence internationale: la langue numérique par Hugo d’Alési. source:

The Maréorama of Hugo d’Alesi: Illusion of a Sea Voyage

Illusion d’un voyage en mer. Venise.’ by Henri Kowalski, published by Victor Courmont (Paris, 1901) and illustrated by Hugo d’Alesi. (Source :

The French painter F. Hugo d’Alesi (1849 – 1906) was born as Frédéric Alexianu in Transylvania. Although he originally trained as an engineer, he was best known for his large number of imaginative and brightly coloured travel posters for railway companies at the end of the 19th century. He also illustrated sheet music, mostly in the 1880-1890s.

Almost forgotten is his creation of one of the first amusement attractions that triggered all senses of the spectators: the Maréorama. Olivier Castel, who previously diverted us with Venetian gondola prows, will embark with you on this fascinating journey.

The Maréorama was one of the flagship attractions at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Maréorama simply means sea panorama. It faithfully reproduced the deck of a steamer, pitching and rolling while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Apart from the movement of the ‘ship’, other effects ensured the illusion of a sea trip: there was the sound of rain or thunder, mist, iodized and saline sea breezes that blew over the deck, undulating ‘waves’ of blue cloth all around, special lighting for creating night- and daytime atmospheres, and even the odour of seaweed. All this made the Maréorama the first ‘4D’ attraction ever. For the price of a cab ride, the seven hundred passengers embarked on a fast-track cruise that promised the same sensations as from an actual voyage on the Mediterranean. At that time travelling was a privilege for the aristocracy and the emerging high bourgeoisie. With the Maréorama almost everyone could now afford an exotic boat trip.

The principle of the Maréorama. M. Voirin, ingénieur-constructeur. La Vie Parisienne, 7 janvier 1899 (Source :

The moving platform of the ship (30 metres long and 9 metres wide) rested on a pivot supported by four hydraulic pistons which imitated the motion of the sea. After the ‘trip’ visitors could go downstairs to admire the imposing machinery.

For the record, “maréo” also means “seasick” in Spanish …

Pavillon du Maréorama. La Vie Parisienne, 7 janvier 1899. (Source :

The Maréorama was built in a large palace located in the amusement section of the World Fair on the Champ-de-Mars next to the Eiffel Tower, itself a reminder of the previous exposition in 1889.

Constantinople aboard the Maréorama, postcard published during the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1900.

While on board ‘passengers’ could send postcards from the Maréorama, just as if they had actually sailed the Mediterranean Sea. The ‘sea trip’ departed from Villefranche-sur-Mer, a commune on the French Riviera near the French-Italian border. As soon as the siren of the ‘ship’ sounded the departure signal, two immense canvasses of 825 meters long and 15 meters high started to unfold simultaneously on either side of the ship. Each of the two canvasses was attached to two huge rollers driven by hydraulic motors on either side of the ‘ship’. The upper edge of the canvas was hooked to a rail and reinforced to prevent sagging.

Workshop created to brush the canvases of the Maréorama. In: Revue illustrée de l’Exposition universelle de 1900. (Source:

Hugo d´Alési himself created the views of the different cities. He had spent a year travelling to draw all the stages of this journey on a series of notebooks. On his return, he hired ten painters to reproduce the landscapes on the canvasses.

After about half an hour, the ‘ship’ made its first stopover in Sousse on the Tunisian shore, then left for Naples and arrived in Venice by ‘nightfall’. Leaving the peaceful Venetian lagoon the ship soon was caught in a terrifying storm but safely reached its final destination, Constantinople, at the crack of dawn. For the following session, the canvasses were then unrolled back to their starting point, and thus showing the return trip from Constantinople to Villefranche.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is mareorama-1024x434.jpeg
‘Illusion d’un voyage en mer. Naples. by Henri Kowalski, published by Victor Courmont (Paris, 1901) and illustrated by Hugo d’Alesi. (Source : Bibliothèque Nationale de France, département Musique, VM12-15265)

Actors and dancers complemented the nautical experience, portraying deck hands, the captain and his officers, pirates or indigenous people. Folk dancers performed a tarantella in Naples or a belly dance in Constantinople.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is mareorama-venise-1024x429.jpeg
Illusion d’un voyage en mer. Venise.’ by Henri Kowalski, published by Victor Courmont (Paris, 1901) and illustrated by Hugo d’Alesi. This edition distributed by ‘Les grands magasins Le Louvre – Paris’. (Source : collection of Olivier Castel)

To heighten the sensorial experience during the trip Hugo d’Alesi had asked the eminent Henri Kowalski to compose a symphony: Illusion d’un voyage en mer. The orchestra was hidden below the deck and directed by the composer himself. It was a work in four parts: Sousse, Naples, Venice and En vue de Constantinople.

Illusion d’un voyage en mer. Sousse.’ by Henri Kowalski, published by Victor Courmont (Paris, 1901) and illustrated by Hugo d’Alesi. (Source : Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

The score was adapted in 1901 by Victor de Courmont for piano solo, and then illustrated with lithographs by d’Alési. With his drawings of the French vessels anchored in the harbour of Sousse —accompanied by a the firing of a salvo and the Marseillaise— Hugo d’Alési clearly wanted to emphasize that Tunisia was part of the French colonial empire.

Alas, the story of the Maréorama ended sadly. Normally, it was to stay put for a year after the end of the exhibition, and then even make a tour of the world. But despite the undeniable public success of the attraction, the company Maréorama – Hugo d´Alési went bankrupt as early as December 1900. The shareholders of the company sued him for reimbursement of the subscribed capital. Their claim was dismissed by the court.

Olivier Castel