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Moving Pictures That Talk - Part 2: 

The Movies are Born a Child of the Phonograph

By Mark Ulano, C.A.S.
"Edison invented the motion pictures as a supplement to his phonograph, in the belief that sound plus a moving picture would provide better entertainment than sound alone. But in a short time the movies proved to be good enough entertainment without sound. It has been said that although the motion picture and the phonograph were intended to be partners, they grew up separately. And it might be added that the motion picture held the phonograph in such low esteem that for years it would not speak. Throughout the long history of efforts to add sound, the success of the silent movie was the great obstacle to commercialization of talking pictures." 
Edward W. Kellog ,June 1955, Journal of the SMPTE
In our last article we took a look at some of the prehistory of film sound. The 1870's and 1880's experienced dramatic development of technologies that were converging to make film sound possible. Conceptually, sound recording and the ability to photograph and reproduce motion pictures began intersecting at the very beginning. 

Since recording technology was born approximately 14 years before motion pictures it naturally lead the way. An economic template for the entire entertainment industry was evolving in the phonograph business. In these early years precedents were set that stand even today in the way these businesses are run. Among the most significant developments is the shift from emphasizing hardware as the primary source of profit to software. As the 1890's drew to a close the idea of the recording artist as superstar came closer to being fully formed. This phenomena is paralleled in the technology itself. (Some of the most cogent and detailed writing on these early years of the record business is to be found in a series of articles by Ray Wile presently being published in the ARSC Journal, The Antique Phonograph Monthly published by Allen Koenigsburg since 1973, The Hillandale News published by the CLPGS in the UK since 1960) 

Many of the loftier expectations for sound recording technology became subordinated to the need for income. Without a stable marketing strategy the technology would die on the vine. Initially, sold as a boon to business and amunensis, the phonograph was not available for sale. Expensive, finicky battery operated hardware was marketed by a leasing scheme based on regional syndication, copying the successful model of the telephone business. Entertainment received far less, emphasis at the beginning. This misunderstanding of the market lead to impending financial disaster soon after the birth of film (1891). In fact by 1893, The North American Phonograph Company, a forced coalition of the patent holding Edison and Bell interests was pushed into bankruptcy by Edison straining to be free from the shackles of an inequitable and forced partnership. This partnership was the result of certain legal victories won by the Bell & Tainter people regarding improvements to Edison's invention and the entry of Jesse Lippincott, a business man with a vision, financially inducing the two conflicting interests to collaborate for the sake of mutual profit. Unfortunately Lippincott's vision was not meant to be. 

Although rapidly improving, phonograph technology was proving itself a financial dud. The stenographers were up in arms with fear of being replaced by automation (Sound familiar?) and the manufacturers were placing the burden of Beta testing on the paying customer base (hmm...). The regional companies were desperately looking for ways to survive the impending doom to their substantial investments. 

One of the most significant of these companies was based in Washington, D.C. (District of COLUMBIA) It was the home base for the Bell interests and was originally involved in building and marketing the Bell & Tainter phonograph as North American's less dependable alternative to the Edison machine. 

An independent inventor, prominent in early phonographic history as well as early sync sound for film, named Edward Amet was among the first to develop a practical coin operation mechanism to convert the increasingly idle Bell & Tainter machines. Amet also invented the first $5.00 phonograph, something that dramatically altered the economic landscape of popular recorded music. When he did this the next cheapest machine was around $25.00 in the late 1890's. Suddenly anyone could play records at home! The patent interest immediately crushed him and then flooded the market with their own cheap machines. It was a hit. It is not surprising that a lot of the same individuals are important players in both early sound and early film. 

In 1891 a Dr. Georges Demeny makes claim to synchronous sound. He invented and built a device called the Phonoscope as a tool for teaching the deaf to speak. It essentially was a frame by frame close up of photographs of words being mouthed for imitation by the deaf. He claimed the possibility of synchronizing with the phonograph to aid the hearing impaired but no documentation of his showing this to anyone exists. 

Even earlier, in 1891, Edison was making inflated claims of achieving synchronous projected sound films. He even included the words in his Motion Picture Caveat IV a paragraph to the combination of the Kinetoscope and the Phonograph, later to be called the Kinetophone, claiming that "...all movements of a person photographed will be exactly coincident with any sound made by him...

With the very beginning of film in 1894 and Edison's and Dickson's Kinetophonograph. There are even earlier references. Gordon Hendricks, in his book, The Edison Motion Picture Myth, really delves into the actual sequence of events during this period and pretty much dispels Edison's personal claims of invention here, attributing most of the credit to W.K.L. Dickson and others. More recently a Mr. Rawlinson, in his book The Missing Reel throws additional credit towards Augustine Le Prince. 

In Harry Geduld's book, The Birth of the Talkies, he quotes a reference from an 1893 Scientific American article describing a demonstration at the Chicago Worlds Fair of a synchronous sound version of the Kinetoscope but validity of this is greatly suspect considering the technology that actually surfaced during the next few years. Although over 1,000 Kinetoscopes were built, only 45 Kinetophones were made. They did NOT play synchronously other than the phonograph turned on when viewing and off when stopped. 

Ultimately the nineteenth century did not produce sound film but the ground work was all there. By Christmas of 1895 the French Lumiere Brothers had begun the first successful commercial projection soon followed by Thomas Armat's and C. Francis Jenkins' Vitascope in April of 1896 under the manufacturing and marketing of Edison. This was silent projection but The New York Herald reported "...Mr. Edison is not quite satisfied yet. He wants now to improve the phonograph so that it will record double. 

The Kinetophone had shown that Edison had for the time being abandoned the idea of synchronization but now he had a new problem, i.e., amplification. Commercially he had time, for "movies" were in their birth and the fact that they moved at all brought in the crowds. 

As Harry Geduld wrote, "The silent film was not silent. Before 1928 movies were customarily accompanied by sound effects, live music, live singers, speakers or actors, and phonograph recordings or any combination of all of them." One early example of this transitional time was Henri Lioret's partnership with Gratioulet Clement-Maurice. They created the Phono-Cinema Theatre around 1900. This system used an operator adjusted non-linkage form of primitive synchronization. The scenes to be shown were first filmed, and then the performers recorded their dialogue or songs on the Lioretograph (usually a Le Eclat concert cylinder format phonograph) trying to match tempo with the projected filmed performance. In showing the films,synchronization of sorts was achieved by adjusting the hand cranked film projector's speed to match the phonograph. the projectionist was equipped with a telephone through which he listened to the phonograph which was located in the orchestra pit. There was a successful European tour of the Phono-Cinema Theatre during the fall and winter of 1900-1901. The home base of the Phono-Cinema Theatre was a beautiful building in Paris where for the price of one franc you could see the great stars of theater and opera. The Phono Cinema-Theater got rave reviews and survived successfully for two or three years and created quite a bit of competition from similar systems. It eventually went under as the novelty wore off and the defects of the sound and synchronization technology wore thin on the audience. Also they could see the same stars down the street live. Gaumont starts in about this same time with similar technology and develops continuously into the 1910's. He adds a clutch device around 1902. In 1903 he patents a telephone/microphone connection to the projectionist and in 1907 he patents a synchronizing gearing device and an automatic change over for switching from one record to the next. Gaumont's system was called Chronophone and he linked up with C.A. Parsons by adding the Auxetophone, using compressed air, to his system for improved amplification. Generally, the French seem to have dominated the sound film technology during the first ten years of motion pictures as a commercial entity. 

In Part 3 we will take a look at Sync Sound after the turn of the Century. We will see that things really began to happen, especially in France. 

Part 1| Part 3 | Part 4

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