Etienne-Jules Marey - Foreword

Professor at the Collège de France
Member of the Institut de France. Académie des Sciences
Translation by Karine DEBBASCH

May 2006

How could one better pay tribute to E.J. Marey than by gathering together the documents that are presented here? A Professor at the Collège de France and a member of the Academy, Marey was extremely famous in his lifetime, and his work is immensely rich and versatile. Although numerous books have already been devoted to him, this database gives the general public access to all these documents for the first time ever. Here are Marey’s writings, freed from the exclusiveness of specialized libraries and opened up at last to the wide readership that they deserve. This project is even more remarkable in that it finally reveals the entire scope of his work, which is often believed to be limited to the fields of photography and cinematography.

Marey was undoubtedly a pioneer of animated images, and his experiments and techniques had great implications on the development of cinematography, for example; but he also was among the first scientists to study movement of live beings as well as of matter. On a parallel track, the Russian physiologist N. Bernstein founded the discipline of the physiology of movement, which also involved « cyclograms » of human movement. Because of his theory on the cerebral organization of movement – which Marey failed to propose – Bernstein is today an intellectual father figure for a whole generation of physiologists.

But Marey’s contribution, thanks to the extraordinary diversity of his descriptions of movement, is as important as Bernstein’s. He is in fact one of the founders of biomechanics, even though he did not work on the essential mathematical part of this science. He nevertheless laid one of its bases when he showed that movement, in its spatial and temporal course, could be described rigorously. The invention of the microscope revealed to Cajal the details of the nervous system and its organization, making way for the theory of neurons and for neurophysiology; in the same fashion, Marey’s rifle, or his « cinematic macroscope », initiated the analysis of movement.

Watching Marey’s pictures generates in one’s brain what I have called « the pleasure of movement » . Psychologists have shown that simply seeing a series of photographs of one gesture produces in the brain a prediction of the movement to come. The brain is capable of dynamic inferences, even from static figures. Marey’s work reveals the marvellous congruity between natural movement and our perception of it.
As far as the movement of live beings is concerned, I would like to emphasize the present-day importance of Marey’s work. We are witnessing an explosion of research and of applications related to movement in all the sciences. Neurology, psychology, otorhinolaryngology, pediatrics are only a few of the many clinical disciplines to use movement analysis. Digital imaging, cinematography, sports and robotics all use modern methods to describe movement, such as digital cameras, which Marey would certainly have liked to use. Measuring movement is also essential in fields related to physics, mechanics, aeronautics, and even the conquest of Space. And the list could go on.

One of the exceptional qualities of the file presented here is that, in addition to human movement, it covers numerous other aspects of Marey’s work. There are documents on animal heat, the working of the heart, cardiography applied to man, cardiac pathology, breathing, the nervous and muscular systems, phonation, epidemiology, aerodynamics and aerial locomotion, hydraulics, ballistics, and the assesssment of the measuring devices used in physiology. The file also gives access to translated works, which gives it an international dimension and will certainly promote world-wide consulting, especially given Marey’s reputation beyond our borders.

The 243 documents presented here, along with « Marey’s plates » which will be digitized by 2007, are an absolute treasure-trove. We must thank the team from the Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de médecine et d’odontologie de Paris for having accomplished, in cooperation with the Collège de France and the Académie nationale de Médecine, the enormous task of digitizing all these documents for the benefit of all.

[1] A. Berthoz. Le sens du mouvement. O. Jacob 1997 ( Traduction: The brain’s sense of movement. Harvard University Press. 2000)

© Alain Berthoz