The First Time, the Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854-1913)

Originally published as an essay accompanying the print portfolio The First Time, the Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854-1913); re-published in the exhibition catalog The Heart's Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto, The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University

From the first time one human placed their ear to another’s chest, the mysteries of the heartbeat and pulse have shaped much of the human imagination around life, death, identity, emotions, and spirituality, to name a few. Today, with the advent of modern neuroscience and cardiology, we are told these sentimental notions of the heart are antiquated, relics of a pre-scientific age—the heart is simply a complex pump, nothing more, nothing less. And yet, even with the rise of brain and mind sciences as the central site of investigation into the subjective self, the historical conception of the heart as the poetic and spiritual embodiment of one’s deepest intimacies remains an enduring metaphor for how we conceive of ourselves and others. The disentanglement between the poetic and scientific conceptions of the heart is not nearly as precise (or complete) as we think. (1)

Traditionally, cultures have looked to the arts, myth, and religion to give shape and interpretation to the inscrutable behavior of the heart. That inscrutability had much to do with our inability to directly observe its movements, hidden beneath flesh and bone, but clearly connected to the rhythm of life. Our imaginations have had millennia to write the story of the heart. For every time we have had an emotionally significant experience—fight or flight, blushes or confidence, love or ache, life or death—the heart was there, pumping accordingly, often letting us intuit something deep about ourselves long before we could consciously articulate it. Perhaps it is only a random feature of physiology that of all our organs, the heart is the one we can feel in consequential, but also trivial, moments of life. But that beautiful “randomness” has left its legacy. There is a reason we have centuries worth of poetry about the actions of the heart and not of the spinal cord, kidneys, liver, or lungs. There is a reason Patsy Cline and Billie Holiday are such exquisite observers of the human condition, why they ring so true, illuminating the legacy of the odd dual consciousness between our hearts and minds. It is unambiguous, though, which organ held sway for them, scientifically “accurate” or not: “What does it matter how my heart breaks/ I should be happy with someone new/ But my heart aches for you,” Cline sang, (2) while Holiday crooned, “Good morning heartache, you old gloomy sight/ Good morning heartache, thought we said goodbye last night.” (3) When we “give” our hearts to one another, risking their acceptance or disregard; “wear” them on our sleeves to signal our authenticity; or “listen” to them as if they reveal another, more decisive version of ourselves—somehow bypassing the rational brain—we are enacting complex interpretations of the heart with deep-rooted, cross-cultural entanglements of poetic, religious, mystical, emotional, and medical knowledge.

Prior to the nineteenth century, the pulsatile motions of the living heart were impossible to record. For most of medical history in the West, the very observation of the heart was prohibitive, both technically and culturally: the presumed divinity (and hence infallibility) of the heart placed it beyond the domain of scientific exploration. The era of dissection slowly opened the heart to scientific knowledge but relied on the beatless hearts of cadavers. And while the practice of pulse reading (direct palpation of the body’s pulse points) in both the East and the West generated a remarkably subtle and significant corpus of knowledge about the interior life of the body (particularly in China), this differed from the project of recording because it was a profoundly tactile, local, and ephemeral knowledge; it relied on a subjective sense of touch, had no visual component, could not be fixed or reproduced, and could not be precisely communicated. (4)

But even with the advances of tactile pulse reading for medical purposes, as long as the movements of the living heart remained ephemeral and enigmatic, resistant to real-time and recordable imaging, it would remain weighted with millennia of creative traditions searching to explain its behavior. As significant as the poetic interpretation of the heart has been, the religious (in particular, Christian) conception of the heart-as-home-to-the-soul also did much to shape the importance the organ still carries today—as well as to complicate scientific advances in its study. If the heart was literally, not metaphorically, considered the vessel for the immortal soul—a sacred conduit between immaterial and material domains—then what right did science have to attempt to measure its actions? Just as Copernicus’s and Galileo’s solar and planetary orbital measurements challenged the literal interpretation of the biblical creation story (prompting not only a radical reordering of humanity’s place in a once-holy cosmos, but also a revolution in the power dynamics between scientific inquiry and religious belief), recording the actions of the heart secularized the sacred in equally provocative ways.

Although artistic and religious thought left behind astonishing legacies (and, indeed, remain crucial interpretative lenses), perhaps this ancient desire to understand our hearts found its most essential form through the scientific invention of an image we often take for granted: the pulse wave. Through this image, for the first time in history, the human mind gained real-time visual access to the movements of a living heart. But to visualize this fundamental movement of life was to also suggest the possibility of visualizing its opposite: the stillness of death. As revolutionary as it was to invent a new image of life through a simple rhythmic curve, that same curve, stretched long and taut, produced no less an iconic image of our existence: the flatline.

I write these two phrases—“pulse wave” and “flatline”—confident in your ability to immediately conjure them in your mind’s eye, confident in your ability, even without the preceding context, to make intuitive connections: movement and stillness, life and death. (5) And yet, even if we can immediately access their power and efficiency to convey fundamental insights about life and identity, we generally know little about the deep history of these images as compared to poetic and religious visions of the heart. These waveforms have become so ubiquitous in our age of “big data” that, we could argue, they have achieved a rare feat in the history of image making: nearly universal interpretation. And if you think these images have become fully absorbed into the background noise of our information age, imagine (or perhaps you have already experienced) their power as you sit next to the hospital bed of an unconscious loved one—the movements of a line signaling between two bodies, their peaks and troughs hinting at your future relief or loss. The pulse wave might have been birthed in science, eager to sever its logics and motivations from those of art and religion, but because we are dealing with the heart—the governing force of life, intuited and revered for millennia—we can argue that any attempt at imaging its actions still carries the residual legacy of our poetic and spiritual concerns.

If we accept the profound historical context and accomplishments of these forms—an innovation in the visual representation of our hearts, and all they might contain, universally conveyed—then how should we acknowledge their legacy? For example, where are the documents of the first pulse wave and flatline ever recorded? For that matter, where are the first recordings of the heart under all of life’s conditions: love, fear, anticipation, desire, eating, sleeping, and laughing? Whose hearts were the first to offer their form, their remnants of a lived, emotionally complex life embedded in the oscillations of a wavy line? What technology needed to be invented to record the long-thought-inaccessible heart?

Like the earliest tracing of a hand on an ancient cave wall, these milestones in the history of images should be remembered, honored, and empathized with because of their ability to universally convey essential features about our humanity over long periods of time: we live and die, we love and ponder, we want to know the depths of one another’s hearts. The portfolio of prints The First Time, the Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854–1913) brings together the first successful scientific attempts to image and document the various experiences of a living heart, which would change the way we understand and communicate our bodies. (6)

As already noted, it has primarily been the domain of art, religion, and myth to interpret the meaning and purpose of the heart, producing a rich legacy of objects, images, music, scripture, and thought. However, the scientific contribution to investigating the mysteries of the living heart advanced significantly in 1853 when the German physiologist Karl von Vierordt (1818–1884) produced the first visual tracings of the human pulse. The now near-universally familiar images of the wavelike pulse lines as they appear on a heart monitor were at the time ground-breaking images that scientists hoped would reveal a “natural language” of life. Evoking the sensibilities and precision of a nineteenth-century Romantic poet as much as the presumed sterility of a scientific laboratory, Vierordt and, especially, the French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) conceptualized strategies to, in a sense, enable the heart to write its own verse, its own message, in its own script. As the British medical journal The Lancet put it, Marey’s pulse technology was “an exquisitely designed instrument, by the aid of which the pulse is armed with a pen.” (7) These hieroglyphics of the heart needed only to be deciphered once the pulse and heartbeat were given visual form.

Frustrated with the limitations of the human senses, language, and memory to record and archive fast-moving, imperceptible, and internal biological phenomena, Marey revolutionized the field of medical imaging through what he termed “the graphic method,” translating these phenomena through another medium outside the body. Marey was especially dubious of the role of language in scientific communication, stating in his landmark 1878 publication, La méthode graphique, “Let us reserve the insinuations of eloquence and the flowers of language for other needs; let us trace the curves of phenomena that we want to know and compare them.” (8) For Marey, language was a system of communication devised long before the objectives of science, and he simply did not trust it was sufficient for expressing and transmitting this interior narrative of life because of its fluctuations and possibilities for misunderstanding. (9)

Vierordt firmly established the principles of the graphic method with his device. A machine of exquisite sensitivity for the nineteenth century, it was called a sphygmograph, or “pulse writer.” The device was designed to absorb the movement of a pulsing artery into a membrane or spring that would then make an attached stylus pulse in unison. After many attempts searching for the most sensitive material for the stylus, which required a balance between rigidity and suppleness, Vierordt settled on a short strand of human hair. The stylus would then trace out the white curvilinear forms on a piece of soot-covered paper on a rotating drum; the powdery residue an ideal surface to embed the delicate vibrations of a heart. (10) Although it was simply a material practicality of the time, it is no less a poetic moment of astounding fragility to know the first pulse ever scientifically recorded was traced by a single human hair in the vestiges of candle flames that burned and extinguished over 160 years ago.

Almost two decades later, in 1870, the French physiologist Paul Lorain (1827–1875) recorded the last fleeting signals of a dying heart as the body succumbed to the ravages of stomach cancer. (11) The line, almost entirely rigid except for a few subtle ripples—the last quivers of a determined heart, is perhaps the most succinct portrait of death ever created.

In short, the pulse wave pulled the heart from its mysterious internal enclosure, previously accessible only to spiritual, speculative, specialized, and poetic understanding, into a public realm outside the boundaries of the physical body, where it became visible, transmissible, comparable, and otherwise accessible to scientific analysis.

Let’s reconsider for a moment the invisible history of the images before us: for millions of years, billions of hearts have been pulsing these patterns, each representing the waves of our internal oceans, carrying both energy and emotional knowledge through the body. Yet, it was only a little over a century and a half ago that we could scientifically record, observe, and preserve, through an undulating line, the past actions of our always-forward-moving hearts. Like ancient starlight absorbed by youthful telescopes—always glimmering, waiting to be seen—images of our pulses and heartbeats finally came into view, oscillating through the delicate residue of candle flames on paper. However, these lines were not only medical but also poetic and philosophical in the long arc of human self-reflection. Humans are beautifully creative in the ways we hope meaning—an essence—is literally in the lines, images, or objects we create to hold them. The first pulse and heart waves should be remembered as part of that history.

Looking through the earliest heart and pulse tracings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one quickly realizes the sense of excitement early investigators must have felt about the possibilities that opened up with the ability to record and visualize the heart’s movements. With these new tools of observation, the modern scientific heart was brought into focus. Previously suspected and newly discovered diseases and malfunctions of the heart were dutifully cataloged, producing a novel type of compendium—the ways our hearts can fail us. And although recording sick hearts for diagnostic reasons remained the early priority behind the research, something else fascinating started to emerge, an accidental by-product of the more extensive study of disease: a poetic portrait of everyday life.

Occasionally, a breakthrough in science will so alter our mental landscape that everything is new again. Mystery reclaims the banal; revelation is possible once more, embedded in the ordinary. The sphygmograph, cardiograph, electrocardiograph (EKG), and other technologies of visualizing the once-invisible inner workings of the heart had this power. They were a unique mixture of science in its grandest efforts at profundity—for what was more profound than attempting to decipher the unknown language of the human heart—and also, more unexpectedly and unintentionally, of tools to unlock the poetics of the everyday.

Underway across laboratories and hospitals in Europe and the United States, there was a grand effort at recording life from the beginning again—in the sense that every experience, no matter how routine, could now be recorded, visualized, and interpreted by science through this most complex of vessels. The inner workings of the heart and pulse in a state of disease, stress, or malfunction were one thing, but what of the other multitude of daily moments that give life its deeper texture—fear, dreaming, eating chocolate, drinking wine, hiccuping, or hearing a whistle? What could science say about our hearts simply living life? Like seismic sensors to the heart’s purposeful mundanities, these recording devices dutifully output their flowing lines, allowing a new type of empathetic connection through time. Just like our hearts, these century-old ones beat a little more quickly when blushing, a little more slowly when sleeping, irregularly when anxious, and wildly when excited.

As the inscriptions of these past hearts ripple forward in time, we are also reminded of the interesting linguistic phenomena they carry along with them. From the mid-nineteenth century forward, miles and miles of heart waves start to fill countless books and research papers, all notated with the new, rhythmic language of heart disease: angina pectoris, atrial fibrillation, tachycardia, endocarditis, myocardial infarction—the intonations of the burgeoning field of cardiology and a reminder of science’s own linguistically generative capabilities to name the unknown. (12) As in singing the songs of Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline, the tongue contorts in naming heartbreak.

But, in a more subtle way that perhaps undermined Marey’s hope for the strict removal of human dalliances in “readings” of the heart (“Let us reserve the insinuations of eloquence and the flowers of language for other needs”), to describe anything in relation to the heart is to carry along, no matter how faint, some echo of all the various meanings humans have asked of its rhythms. As he sought out the heart’s mechanical nature, Marey firmly held to the belief that the pulse wave was itself a newly written language—objective, natural, neutral. But these abstract lines nonetheless required translational work into our own written and spoken language. Parallel with this new language of disease, then, came the observational language of life, otherwise banal in its descriptions, but newly charged with the contextual power of the heart. By merely describing the experience being recorded with the matter-of-factness science excels at, a type of strange, beautiful, “accidental” poetry takes form:

“Pulse of man 6 feet tall”

“Ear lightly touched with feather while sleeping”

“Listening to a melancholic melody with singing”

“Threatening a little girl, 10, to go to dentist”

“Before and after a draught of hot milk”

“Mail carrier with amputated arm”

“Young lady, 28, much debilitated by prolonged mental work, the

entertainment of company, and the cares of a large household”

“Smelling lavender”

Although there was much science to learn about how the heart and circulatory system responded to the effects of height, touch, exertion, drinking, stress, or listening, in these combinations of image and text we are reminded of the heart’s unique ability to inject deeper meaning and reflection into all aspects of life. There is “Listening to a melancholic melody with singing,” and there is the first time a heart was recorded while listening to a melancholic melody with singing. There is “smelling lavender,” and there is the first time a heart was recorded while someone was smelling lavender. On countless dark shelves, in countless forgotten archives, lies the pulse wave as Proustian madeleine (13)—the waves of others’ past sensory and emotional experiences cresting forward to us in time, physiological “data” shifting to the lived poetry of life. It was certainly not the first time that a human felt emotion in response to sound and scent. But like literature, sculpture, dance, or the invention of any expressive genre, with the pulse wave, we had a new method to represent that experience—only this time it came directly from the heart.

Whether through language, drawing, photography, or sound, the act of recording changes our relationship to time and place. With each method, there is always an opportunity to expand empathy, communication, and shared purpose through time. Like the discovery of a decaying, unopened crate of early wax-cylinder recordings documenting languages and songs long assumed lost, these pulse images and texts, taken as a whole, constitute an untapped documentary recording of the daily and emotional lives of another time and place as registered through their hearts.

I chose the fifty pulse waves in my portfolio The First Time, the Heart, researched and gathered from many different libraries and archives, to document a life from birth to death. Each example likely constitutes the first time the heart was recorded undergoing that experience—a locus point for all hearts that followed. Although each pulse wave is from a different person (representing a range of ages, genders, nationalities, races, and religions across many years and locations), together they complete a familiar life. From an eight-months-pregnant woman, to a fetal heartbeat at birth, to riding a bike, to early senility and heart failure, as we watch these former hearts ripple by, we can enact our gift of empathy across time.

As exciting as the possibility of opening a new sensory path into the past is, because of the way these images were originally documented, this act of empathy will always have a gap. As we all have experienced, the intricate gestures we have invented to give one another our hearts matter so deeply to us because of the specifics of whose heart and why it is being given. But the images of pulse and heart waves this portfolio gathers cannot do this, secluding them into a strange, emotionally complex zone between intimacy and anonymity that requires us to develop an appropriate ethical approach to their historical reconstruction. Many of the scientists or doctors conducting the research did not document the names of the individuals who left memories of their hearts in countless books and manuscripts. It was not uncommon for experimenters to freely test new devices or procedures on the constant influx of patients moving through hospitals, who were often merely identified by their sex, age, and medical condition. The paradox is that we can now share a kind of intimacy with thousands of now-deceased individuals by glimpsing fleeting moments of their hearts—moments of birth, laughter, anticipation, suicidality, and death—without ever knowing anything more about them. But because they gave their hearts, we should feel compelled to ask: Whose birth? Was it a boy or a girl? What did they become? What made them fearful? Whom did they love? Where are they buried?

Although these traces quickly slipped into the stream of long-forgotten data in countless medical archives, the intimacy of the emotional technology of the pulse wave means that the wispy wavering lines are the most personal and precious of souvenirs. They are gifts to the future that open a cycle of obligation and reciprocity. As observers today, we are compelled to reciprocate by reflecting deeply upon them and bearing witness. Their names and bodies may be gone, their souls ghosted to the ones they once loved, but they need not be forgotten. In these pulse waves, now freed from the decay of their host bodies, these forebears are still material and alive, ready to be seen, felt, and held in sync with our own pulses. We must take them to heart.

1. For a thorough historical account of the tensions between the cultural and scientific heart, see Fay Bound Alberti, Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, and Emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

2. Patsy Cline, vocalist, “Heartaches,” by Al Hoffman (music) and John Klenner (lyrics), published by Universal Music

Corporation and Hoffman Al Songs Inc., 1931; recorded February 12, 1962, track 3 on Sentimentally Yours, Decca, DL 74282, 12” LP.

3. Billie Holiday, vocalist, “Good Morning Heartache,” by Dan Fisher, Irvin Drake, and Irene Higginbotham, recorded January 22, 1946, Decca 23676, 78 rpm single.

4. For an excellent account of the diverse interpretations of the pulse in the East and West, see Shigehisa Kuriyama, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (New York: Zone, 2002).

5. I use the term “pulse wave” here in its broadest contemporary sense as a marker on matters of the heart. Technically, the pulse wave first appeared as a visual document of the arterial pulse at the wrist (and eventually other locations on the body), and while a consequence of the actions of the heart, the pulse could still be understood as its own entity as well as representing the broader circulatory system. Eventually, devices such as the cardiograph and electrocardiograph (EKG)—which are also included in the portfolio of prints this essay addresses—would image the pulsatile and electrical activity emanating directly from the heart itself, but the pulse wave has come to stand in for all such recordings.

6. For another reading of this portfolio, see Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell’s essay in this volume, “Dario Robleto’s Progress: The First Time, the Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854–1913), William Hogarth, and Line,” 49–57.

7. “Physicians and Physicists,” Lancet 2 (1865): 599.

8. Étienne-Jules Marey, La méthode graphique dans les sciences expérimentales et principalement en physiologie et en médecine (Paris: G. Masson, 1878; 2nd ed., 1885), vi.

9. On the graphic method and its relationship to universal language, see Thomas L. Hankins and Robert J. Silverman, “Science since Babel: Graphs, Automatic Recording Devices, and the Universal Language of Instruments,” in Instruments and the Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 113–47.

10. Karl Vierordt, “Die bildliche Darstellung des menschlichen Areterienpulses,” Archiv für Physiologische Heilkunde 13 (1854): 284–87.

11. Paul Lorain, Études de médecine clinique faites avec l’aide de la méthode graphique et des appareils enregistreurs: Le pouls, ses variations et ses formes diverses dans les maladies (Paris: J.-B. Baillière et Fils, 1870).

12. For a fascinating account of the advancing field of cardiology’s influence on poetic techniques at the time, see Kirstie Blair, Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

13. Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Penguin, 2004).