In September 1896 seven men sat around an elaborate camera and thought of a cat, the resulting photographic plate was remarkable. The sympsychograph (shown above) and an article describing the scientific adventures the Astral Camera Club of Alcalde was published in the September 1896 issue of Popular Science Monthly. The club’s function, according to the article, was ‘the cooperative study of man’s latent psychical powers, that these might be made helpful in the conduct of life.’
To this end Mr Marvin;
‘… devised a camera with a lens having curved facets arranged on the plan of the eye of the fly. To each one of the seven facets led an insulated tube provided within by an electric connection, so that electric or odic impulses could be transferred from the brain or retina through the eye of each different observer to the many-faced lens. From the lens these impulses would be converged on a sensitive plate, as the rays of light are gathered together in ordinary photography.’
Seven men ‘having greatest animal magnetism and greatest power of mental concentration were chosen for the experiment’ and they fixed their minds on a cat. Not a particular cat, but of a cat as represented by the innate idea of the mind or ego itself’ in order to ‘to bring out the impression of ultimate feline reality.’
Of course there was no ultimate feline reality going on, this was a playful hoax (for want of a better work). However, the magical thinking that followed meant the article was taken very seriously; it had authority, the author was David Starr Jordan a well-respected scientist and president of Stanford University.
According to Jordan’s The days of a man : being memories of a naturalist, teacher, and minor prophet of democracy (Volume 1):
One clergyman even went so far as to announce a series of six discourses on “the Lesson of the Sympsychograph,” while many others welcomed the alleged discovery as verifying what they had long believed, and an eminent professor soberly opined that my reputation as a would not be enhanced by such discoveries! (p. 599-600)
The experience, however, taught me two lessons: first, that very few people ever read a sensational article through to the end, even much beyond pictures and headlines, and second, that with Dr. Holmes, I should never again “dare to write as funny as I can.” p. 600
For me the Sympsychograph is an interesting way of tapping into the realm of magical thinking. While not its intention, its playful nature was received at face value by those of read it. Jordan appears genuinely surprised by the reaction. Even though the clues are peppered throughout the article; for instance, the experiment takes place on April Fool’s day.
The new vistas opened by the article was acted upon and new boundaries where played with.
A big part of me wishes that the article, while a fantasy, were never acknowledged as such. It would be lovely if it were left as a mystery
Jordan, D.S. The Days of a Man: Being Memories of a Naturalist, Teacher, and Minor Prophet of Democracy. World book co., 1922.
Jordan, D.S. (1896) ‘The Sympsychograph: A Study In Impressionist Physics’. The Popular Science Monthly, 49 (September), pp.597–602.