Moving Pictures That Talk – Part 1: 


– How is it Possible?

By Mark Ulano, C.A.S.

Last summer, I was asked to deliver a talk to the California Antique Phonograph Society on the early history of film sound. Ed Somers asked if I would be interested in expanding my talk to be applicable to the professional filmsound community through the CAS and also serialize the general topic as a column for the CAS Journal. So here I am at what seems to be the beginning. Some knowledge of the history of the phonograph, a vast area of study in its own right, would be helpful to the reader and is beyond the scope of this series. I recommend Allen Koenigsberg’s The Patent History Phonograph (second edition) for the most concise and recent historical survey, or the flawed but wonderful From Tin Foil to Stereo by Read & Welch.It is enough to say here that the tin foil phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. It was a stretched diaphragm with a needle mounted to the center of it. The tin foil was wrapped around a brass cylinder which had a spiral groove. The cylinder was mounted on a threaded shaft and the needle rode in the groove as the shaft was turned, driving the cylinder across the fixed position of the needle. The user would speak into the diaphragm causing it to vibrate. Since the needle was in contact with the tin foil, the diaphragm’s vibrations would be recorded as indentations in the foil. After the recording, the needle would be reset, to the beginning of the groove and the shaft was turned again, the indentations passing across the needle causing the needle to vi-brate the diaphragm in a similar fashion to the original sound thus creating audible playback of the recording. This is the basic phonographic principle which drove the technology until the advent of the compact disk.

Here we are, professionals in the World of Film Sound and yet what do we really know about the genesis of our work? This is the question I asked my self when, at the end of a long day, I looked at my sound cart and realized how little I knew about it’s history. Most of what I did know came from hearsay and popular culture optimized by the Singing in the Rain version of the transition into sound films.

This was in the back of my mind while on location for a feature film in Portland. I was browsing in one of the many used bookstores when I came upon a cache of early film books. There were wonderful items like the rare and massive, 620 page, two volume tome, Cyclopedia of Motion Picture Work/I> (1911) by David Hullfish which includes a large Talking Pictures section giving an in-depth survey of the state of the art of film sound circa 1911. From another book in the group I learned that the motion picture studios had funded a technical school to train a film sound work force in the late 1920’s. Each student was given his own binder and as he attended classes he was given a technical paper covering the individual class’ content. Here was a complete set of these papers in an originalbinder. It was the preliminary draft for the first bound volume issued in 1931 by the Motion Picture Academy called Recording Sound for Motion Pictures. I knew this because there were copies of the 1931 and the 1938 editions in the group. (The changes in just 7 years were just enormous.) Another book, The Talkies by Arthur Edwin Krows (1930) had a twenty page film sound bibliography including both books and periodicals. These and other significant works, about eight in all, formed the core of a new area of research for me and made me realize that a whole body of literature existed on this subject dating back to the 1870’s and no one seemed aware of it, especially people like myself who currently work in the film sound disciplines: I was hooked.

I began to specialize in sound related subjects while seeking out early published works of the cinema more systematically from dealers around the country. I also decided to create and publish a historical bibliography of film sound literature, something I am still working on.

Allen Koenigsberg, an old friend and publisher of The Antique Phonograph Monthly, generously guided me towards an important reference book written by Harry M. Geduld called The Birth of the Talkies: From Edison to Jolson (1975). This extensively researched and well written book has been my Rosetta Stone, establishing a legitimate chronology, rich with foot notes leading to much primary material. It had to start somewhere, the first inklings…

The popular perception is that film sound burst on the scene with Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer staring Al Jolson in 1927. In truth, The Jazz Singer represents the beginning of real commercial acceptance of the transition to sound films.

It didn’t just happen out of the blue. Actually, sound with film as an idea seems to have started fourteen years before the invention of the motion picture, during the phonograph’s infancy. The December 22, 1877, issue of Scientific American contains the earliest printed report of Edison’s new tin foil phonograph, just days old, commenting:

“It is already possible by ingenious optical contrivances to throw stereoscopic photographs of people on screens in full view of an audience. Add the talking phonograph to counterfeit their voices, and it would be difficult to carry the illusion of real presence much further.”

Responding to this article the next month in Nature (January 24, 1878) Wordsworth Donisthorpe, and English inventor lets loose with: “Ingenious as this suggested combination is, I believe I am in the position to cap it. By combining the phonograph with the Kinesigraph I will undertake not only to produce a talking picture of Mr. Gladstone which, with motionless lips and unchanged expression shall positively recite his latest anti-Turkish speech in his own voice and tone. Not only this, but the life-size photograph itself shall move and gesticulate precisely as he did when making the speech, the words and gestures corresponding as in real life. Surely this is an advance upon the conception of the Scientific American! …

…I think it will be admitted that by this means a drama acted by daylight or magnesium light may be recorded and reacted on the screen or sheet of a magic lantern, and with the assistance of the phonograph the dialogues may be repeated in the very voices of the actors.

When this is actually accomplished the photography of colors will alone be wanting to render the representation absolutely complete, and for this we shall not, I trust, have long to wait.”

Although not wrong about the eventual result, the world waited about fifty-seven years for sync sound, 3-color Technicolor films (Becky Sharp 1935). Nonetheless, Wordsworth helped define the path of the future. Never mind that there was no such thing as moving pictures or even celluloid roll film for that matter. Nor that his Kinesigraph would remain Vaporware until 1889 at which time it didn’t work anyway. What counted was that the public desirability of such a device created the inevitability of its ultimate invention. Although no one really knew where it would lead, the sporadic race was on.

The 1880’s…

The 1880’s saw a lot of technological development and at the forefront of most of it was Thomas Alva Edison, The Wizard of Menlo Park. For the first two thirds of the decade, things like the telephone, telegraph, the light bulb and developing a practical system of electrical power distribution kept Edison, a high stakes industrial gambler, and his wildly fluctuating resources ($$$) far away from what he considered his favorite invention, the phonograph. William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, the real inventor of the motion picture (while in Edison’s employ) and later, the silent, most significant partner of the Biograph Company (D.W. Griffith’s Alma Mater), claimed that Edison didn’t really get interested in talking pictures until the late 1880’s when he revived his dormant interest in the phonograph. This revival was stimulated by the legitimate fear of losing control over his invention. The Bell and Tainter interests (the future Columbia Phonograph Company with Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter behind it) had approached Edison with a significantly improved form of the phonograph with the idea of selling it as a business dictation machine called the Graphophone. Edison, a man of no small ego, told them to take a hike and spent the next year or so developing 33 patents for the phonograph. To Edison, the motion picture was an accessory or visual analog of the phonograph and he supported its development as such. The idea of photographing motion was years away from becoming a medium for story telling. Edison’s business philosophy was centered around the idea that money was to be made by the sale of machines. His Kinetoscopes would eventually become visual versions of his phonographs. During the early stage he proved to be fairly slow in recognizing the limited riches that lie ahead in the sale of software. This reveals itself in his lukewarm attitude towards the phonograph as a machine for mass entertainment as well as the foot dragging he displayed towards developing a viable projection device for film, fearing destructive competition to his sale of peepshow Kinetoscopes.By the end of 1888, Tom had his improved cylinder phonograph on the market, in competition with Bell & Tainter and as 1880 draws to a close, Edison’s employee, W.K.L.Dickson, has built a device that strikes close to being a sync sound, single system, motion picture camera/viewer,… almost. It was still years away from having any commercially practical form, the viewer needed a microscope to see the pictures and joining it to the phonograph hadn’t happened yet but The Wizard was finally putting his money where his mouth was and the pictures moved. Dickson had some of his remembrances of these early years published in the SMPE Journal (precuser to the SMPTE Journal) in 1933:

“Edison’s idea… was to combine the phonograph cylinder or record with a similar or larger drum on the same shaft, which drum was to be covered with pin-point microphotographs which of course must synchronize with the phonograph record…. I just slotted the aluminum drum and wrapped a sheet of Carbutt’s stiff sensitized celluloid over it. This proved quite satisfactory… The pictures were sharp and good…”

However, before this single shaft, microphotograph with phonograph went much further, Dickson shifted to reel to reel 3/4″ wide celluloid making possible much longer periods of time to be photographed and much higher resolution pictures to be made. Sync sound would have to wait a little longer.

In 1887 William Friese-Greene, the British film pioneer, claimed to have been experimenting with synchronizing his phonograph with his experimental film equipment with less than satisfactory results. Although he did not succeed he did ponder, “…Why should not moving pictures be combined with records of other sounds – all sounds, speech, traffic, the thud of horses’ feet on the turf, the striking of the ball on bat at a cricket match, the sounds of human speech? Synchronization of sound and sight was surely only a matter of improvement in mechanism.”

Friese-Greene contacted Edison proposing collaboration on developing synchronized sound films. He was asked to send all his research and drawings to Edison. Happily he sent Edison copies of his patent papers anticipating a fruitful partnership and that was the last he heard from Edison. Edison claimed that he never saw such papers. But when Edison applied for his Kinetoscope patent in 1891 he did so only in the US. One could surmise fear of not standing the test of novelty in England because of Friese-Greene’s prior patent. (In my next article we’ll take a look at Edison’s patent Caveat IV).

In 1888, Eadweard Muybridge met with Thomas Edison in New Jersey. Muybridge always claimed that his meeting was to discuss combining his Zoopraxiscope, he device he used to project motion studies of animals and humans, with Edison’s phonograph. Of course Edison denied this. Gordon Hendricks, author of Edison: The Motion Picture Myth does some tracking of Muybridge’s’s visit to Edison and finds verification of Muybridge’s claim in a June 3, 1888 article in the New York World noting Muybridge’s scheme met with Edison’s approval and his intention to perfect it.

Things start to get a little fuzzy here as Edison travels to the Paris Exposition in 1889. While there he meets Etienne Marey, another inventor in early motion pictures. Marey shows Edison his primitive projection device, a machine using a disk of sequential photographs around a circumference, more importantly, it used a “single camera” process, a great advance over Muybridge’s 24 camera device. Augustine Le Prince also obtains a British patent at this time for a functioning single lens motion picture camera/projector and likewise openly shares his achievement with Edison in the spirit of science and with the hope of support. It just wasn’t in the cards. Marey went on to other things and Le Prince mysteriously disappeared forever.

Aside from not being much interested in partnerships, Edison only grudgingly acknowledged others for their intellectual or practical contributions eventhough he personally was the patron of the invention rather than its inventor. There were many contributors to the motion picture’s birth. In October of 1889, Edison returns from Paris. In 1895, Dickson writes this recollection, just shortly before his irreconcilable estrangement with Edison (this after 14 years together).

“The crowning point of realism wasattained on the occasion of Mr. Edison’s return from the Paris Exposition of 1889, when Mr. Dickson himself stepped out on the screen, raised his hat and smiled, while uttering the words of greeting, Good morning Mr. Edison, glad to see you back. I hope you are satisfied with the Kineto-phonograph.”

Sync sound projection in October of 1889? Not likely. None of the subsequent developments give any reason to verify this grandiose assertion. Still, the thrill of the idea rings with magic and after all, it was very good press.

In the next issue we will take a look at the Kinetophonograph, the 1890’s and wonder aloud if sync sound films really happened before the beginning of the 20th century.