The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VI (The history of sound on film)

The Dickson Experimental Sound Film, 1894 or 1895

One of the myths about the early sound era is that The Jazz Singer was the very first talking picture. While it was certainly the most successful up to that date, and has become the best-known early talkie, it was far from the first experiment.

The thing that elevated TJS above all over sound-on-film experiments was Al Jolson’s incredible star power, charisma, personality, talent, personal affinity with the story. Had George Jessel’s demand for a higher salary been granted, silent cinema may have continued much longer.

This is a Kinetophone (or Phonokinetoscope), the technology used to create The Dickson Experimental Sound Film. It was Thomas Edison and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson’s attempt at creating a sound-on-film system, a Kinetoscope accompanied by a phonograph. A Kinetoscope is a single-user film-viewing device with a peephole.

The Kinetophone didn’t attempt to synchronize sound and image. Instead, people listened to the phonograph through a tube. Only 45 were ever made, and only three Kinetophone films are known to survive. The others are Nursery Favorites (1913) and a 1912 demo.

Other early sound-on-film systems included Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, Théâtroscope, and Phonorama (or Cinemacrophonograph), all used by the 1900 Paris Exposition. While interesting experiments and novelties, they weren’t practical or popular.

Lack of efficient synchronization was the main problem. Audio and visual images were both recorded and projected with different devices, and thus rarely worked in exact harmony. Proper playback volume was also difficult to achieve, particularly in large theatres.

Sound recording systems of this era were of generally low quality, unless the performer were planted right in front of the clunky acoustic horn. In the early sound era, this dilemma manifested itself again.

In 1902, Léon Gaumont, a pioneer of the French film industry, demonstrated his sound-on-disc Chronophone system to the French Photographic Society, using an electric connection he’d patented. In 1906, he débuted the Elgéphone, which used compressed air for amplification. The Elgéphone was based upon the British Auxetophone.

U.S. inventor E.E. Norton’s Cameraphone was Gaumont’s systems’ main competition, though neither adequately addressed the three main issues with sound-on-film technology. They were also too expensive.

In 1907, Eugene Lauste, a former Edison employee, got the first sound-on-film technology patent. His system transformed sound into lightwaves which were then photographically recorded directly onto celluloid. However, he never made effective use of this.

In 1913, Edison débuted a new cylinder-based sound-synching system, also called the Kinetophone. Unlike the earlier Kinetophone, this one projected films onto a screen instead of necessitating individual viewing through a peephole.

An intricate pulley system connecting the projector and phonograph enabled synchronization, though conditions weren’t often ideal. After barely more than a year, this system too was retired. Popular interest in sound-on-film had also abated.

The Photo-Drama of Creation (1914), a four-part, eight-hour Jehovah’s Witnesses’ film, synchronized live action and slides with music and lectures on phonograph discs. This was the first major film of that type.

Over nine million people in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand saw it. The budget was $300,000 ($7,173,000 today).

Slides used in The Photo-Drama of Creation

In 1914, Eric Tigerstedt (one of early 20th century Finland’s most important inventors) got a German patent for his sound-on-film innovations, and demonstrated this to scientists in Berlin.

In 1918, Hungarian inventor and engineer Dénes Mihály submitted his Projectofon system to the Royal Hungarian Patent Court. He received his patent in 1922.

In 1919, U.S. inventor Lee De Forest got several patents which led to the first optical sound-on-film system with commercial potential. Soundtracks were photographically recorded onto a filmstrip’s side to create a composite print. If audio and visual were properly synchronized while recording, it would be accurate in playback.

Another system came from research engineer Joseph Tykociński-Tykociner. In 1922, he demonstrated it to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, but it was never used commercially.

15 April 1923 by New York’s Rivoli Theater, De Forest Phonofilms gave the very first commercial screening of sound films. A series of shorts accompanied a silent feature.

Though the company created some original films, most of them were celebrity documentaries, and comedy and musical performances. De Forest’s sound-on-film system was used through 1927 in the U.S., and till the end of 1930 in the U.K., but Hollywood remained skeptical.

In 1919, German inventors Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massolle patented the Tri-Ergon system, and gave a public screening 17 September 1922, by Berlin’s Alhambra Kino. This became Europe’s dominant sound-on-film system.

In 1921, Orlando Kellum created Photokinema, which was used for a few shorts. It was most famously used for sound effects, singing, and an introduction in D.W. Griffith’s bomb Dream Street.

In 1923, Danish engineers Axel Petersen and Arnold Poulsen created the Cinéphone system.

Things began changing with the advent of Vitaphone. In 1925, Sam Warner of Warner Bros. saw the potential of Western Electric’s sound-on-disc system, and convinced his brothers to experiment with it by New York’s Vitagraph Studios, which they’d recently bought.

They renamed the system Vitaphone, and publicly débuted it 6 August 1926, with a full-length synchronized soundtrack and sound effects for Don Juan. The film was accompanied by eight musical shorts and a four-minute introduction by the infamous Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

While sound-on-film technology ultimately triumphed, sound-on-disc was initially superior due to lower costs and greater audio quality. More and more films were released with synchronized soundtracks and sound effects, along with more Vitaphone shorts, until the historic night of 6 October 1927.