Charles Cros

French inventor and poet Charles Cros (1842–1888) became known for his work in the fields of recorded sound and color photography. Credited by some as developing the phonograph, Cros also made headway in developing a process to generate colored photographic images.

French inventor and poet Charles Cros was an innovative man who had many ideas, several that he nearly transformed into workable inventions. These scientific theories were just as different, and influential, as Cros's poetry; While his poetic body of work has been described as avant-garde (the expression of new or unusual and experimental artistic ideas), much of his scientific and theoretical work involved the new fields of sound recording and photography. Within photography, Cros attempted to develop an effective method for producing color photographs. In sound recording, he was the first inventor to develop a method of reproducing recorded sound. Cros was also interested in the successful transmission of graphics by means of a telegraph, a quest that contemporary scientists considered odd and even ludicrous.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Bettmann/Getty Images

An Intellectual's Son

Cros was born Émile-Hortensius-Charles Cros on October 1, 1842, in Fabrezan, Aude, France. His father was a doctor of law and a philosopher. As a young man in 1860, Cros took up the study of medicine, but he eventually realized that he was much more interested in literature and practical science applications. From 1860 to 1863, he taught chemistry at the Paris Institute, where his students were young people who were deaf and lacked the ability of speech. After this short period in academia, he became passionate about scientific research; when he was not engaged in scientific studies, he wrote poetry.

During the decade of the 1860s, Cros produced a great deal of written material, both scientific and poetic works. He also generated tangible solutions to problems. At the Exposition of 1867, held in Paris from April 1 to November 3, he delivered both a paper on an automatic telegraph and a prototype of his described device.

Published Scientific Papers

Cros produced two important publications in 1869, the first describing his theory on color photography. In a paper presented to the French Society of Photography, he set forth a process of color photography that anticipated and preceded the modern method of trichromy (producing any color by a combination of primary colors). He believed that one image could be photographed through colored glass filters (red, yellow, and blue). The three resulting negatives could eventually produce positive impressions with differing amounts of green, violet, and orange (the filters’ “anti chromatic” colors). The superimposing of these positive impressions would recreate the image's original colors. Cros's theory served as a forerunner to the later and better subtractive photographic method devised by a contemporary, French inventor Louis Ducos du Hauron (1837–1920), and he conceded this area of research to Hauron.

Cros's second scientific publication, Studies on the Means of Communication with the Planets, elaborated on his idea that an enormous concave mirror would enable written communications with beings from other planets. The huge mirror described had a focal length equal to the distance of Mars or Venus from Earth. When sunlight was concentrated by the mirror, the planet surfaces would be fused into geometric patterns that might be understood as a form of language by the higher forms of life on Venus and Mars. Cros was never able to prove any of this through practical means and he never created a physical prototype.

Cros was not the first person to explore the means of producing color images. In 1861, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879) created the first-ever color photograph using a set of three black-and-white images captured through red, green and blue color filters. Maxwell's methodology was impractical for use in the commercial marketplace, and his images could only be viewed as projections. For those reasons, his efforts were soon forgotten.

In 1891, Gabriel Lippmann (1845–1921), a professor of physics at the Sorbonne (the University of Paris), would develop a method of reproducing colors on a single plate. But this method, too, was complicated, and its results could be unpredictable. It was not until 1907, when Louis Lumiere (1864–1948) developed and introduced an autochrome process of color photography, that the technology was commercially viable. Autochrome plates demonstrated maximum intensity when projected, but they could also be printed on paper with excellent results. The process proved easy to use and Lumiere was able to market the invention. Lumiere's process remained the standard until 1932, when glass plates were replaced with film.

Lived a Bohemian Lifestyle

Absinthe is a beverage known for its very high alcohol content. As such, it was meant to be diluted with water before drinking. It was made from botanicals, which gave it a distinctive light green appearance, and it became a popular beverage in Paris, France, where it was associated with artists and writers who embraced a bohemian (or nonconformist) lifestyle. Some famous absinthe drinkers included writers Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) and Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), musician Erik Satie (1866–1925), and actor John Barrymore (1882–1942). Considered highly addictive, absinthe could produce hallucinations due to its psychoactive composition, and it was believed to lead some to alcoholism, madness, and early death. While these harmful effects have been deemed exaggerated, some famous absinthe drinkers did have serious alcoholism or mental problems, especially Poe, Hemingway, and Barrymore. In 1915, absinthe was banned in United States and Europe, but by the end of the 20th century it had found its way back onto store shelves and into barroom stocks.

Cros's saloon hopping and parlor meetings surrounded him with friends from the Parisian Symbolist and Decadent artistic movements. Two of his best friends included famous French poets Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) and Paul Verlaine (1844–1896). During the 1860s, he met French writer and poet Nina de Villard (1843–1884), a young woman who invited artists into her home for social get-togethers; she would be his mistress until 1877. Cros also swam in other literary circles, among them the Circle of Zutistes (a group for poets, which he created), the Vilains Bonshommes, and the Hydropaths.

Despite, or perhaps inspired by his social life, Cros produced a substantial amount of publishable poetry, and his first verses appeared in the literary journal Contemporary Parnussus. In 1873, a collection of his poetry, Le Coffret du Santal, was also released. A year later, in 1874, hes served as the editor-in-chief of La Revue du monde nouveau (“The New World Review”), and he published Le Fleuve (“The River”), a book of verse decorated with water color paintings by French artist Édouard Manet (1832–1883).

Continued to Focus on Technology

While he never prospered from his own photography experiments, Cros became recognized as one of the pioneers of color photography. He also helped advance sound technology, shifting his interest there in the latter part of the nineteenth century, In 1877, he wrote a paper that described a process of recording sound on a glass disk. He delivered the paper in a sealed envelope at the French Academy of Sciences on April 18, 1877. At his request, the envelope remained sealed until December 3, when it was opened and the paper read.

In Process of Recording and of Reproducing Audible Phenomena, Cros described a process involving tracing the back-and-forth movements induced by sound on a sensitive membrane, then using this tracing to reproduce the same sound vibrations. Cros's paper went on to explain that sound vibrations can be engraved in metal with a “pencil” attached to a vibrating membrane. With the subsequent sliding of a stylus attached to a membrane on this engraving, it would be possible to reproduce the intended sound.

Unknown to Cros, his delivery of his paper to the French Academy came three months before Thomas Edison invented the first feasible phonograph apparatus. Cros did not patent his own, similar process until May of 1878 and he never developed a working model of his idea. Cementing Cros's deserved reputation, AbbéLenoir, a French clergyman and science writer, described Cros's process in an October 1877 article. Lenior provided a more apt name for the theoretical device than Cros's “paléophon.” Lenior called the device a “phonographeto,” a prototype of the modern phonograph.

Cros ultimately became respected for his innovative ideas, but not all of his theories met with support. His idea about using a huge mirror to foster interplanetary communication was far too odd for scientists and government to take seriously. For many frustrating years, he tried to convince the French government that a giant mirror, appropriately positioned, could be used to communicate with inhabitants of Mars and Venus. One of the idea's major problems was that no one could be certain that Martians or Venusians even existed. He also envisioned that his mirror could focus sunlight on planetary surfaces, burning marks into the Mars and Venus landscapes. He was convinced that the mirror's usage was important, as he believed the spots of light seen on these planets were lights from otherworldly cities.

Life Cut Short by Habits and Temperament

Despite his frustration and the lack of financial reward for his inventive ideas, Cros continued to write for scientific journals, although much of his scientific research and his poetic works never saw publication. Then, at age 46, he died, on August 9, 1888, in Paris, France. Reportedly, he was a depressed alcoholic when he passed away. French writer Alphonse Allais (1854–1905) remained a close friend and defender during Cros's life, and at his friend's funeral he delivered a eulogy. “Charles Cros immediately appeared to me as I always knew him,” said Allais, “a being miraculously gifted in all respects, a strangely personal and charming poet, a true scholar, a disconcerting fanciful, a most reliable and good friend.”

On the strength of his short but creative life, Cros received several posthumous honors. In 1944, an anthology of his literary work, Poèmes et proses, was edited by Henri Parisot and published. Three years later, as a tribute to his life and works, his name was attached to the annual Prix du Disque of L’Académie Charles Cros. This prize honors achievements in the arts and sciences, and also awards annual prizes for the year's best musical recordings.


Cros, Charles, Solution génerale du problème de la Photographie des Couleurs, Chez Gauthier-Villars, 1869.


Audio Engineering Society website, (December 28, 2016), “Charles Cros.”

FNAC website (in French), (December 28, 2016), “Charles Cros.”

JeSuis Mort website, (December 28, 2016), “Charles Cros.”❑

(MLA 8th Edition)