The Pre-History of Sound Cinema, Part 1: Thomas Edison and W.K.L. Dickson

By Spencer Sundell

This is an archived copy of a blog post originally published on April 10, 2006 at
URL: www.spencersundell.com/blog/2006/04/10/the_pre-history_of_sound_cinema_part_1/
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“Motion pictures will do for the eye what the phonograph has done for the ear.”
Thomas Edison

Contrary to popular conception (if one can call interest in such arcana “popular”), the history of sound cinema begins far earlier than 1927′s The Jazz Singer. Indeed, efforts to synchronize recorded sound and film are very nearly as old as motion pictures themselves.

Engraving depicting the interior of an Edison KinetoscopeFirst, some background. A prototype of the Edison Kinetoscope — a peepshow-in-a-box (pictured at left) that was arguably the first successful true motion picture system (cf. Augustin Le Prince and others) — was first demonstrated outside the lab in May of 1891 at the annual convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs. Two years later, the (mostly) finished product was first publicly unveiled in May of 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Within a year, Edison’s Kinetoscopes were offered for sale with the first Kinetoscope parlor opening in New York City on April 1, 1894. By the end the year, Edison’s latest wonder had spread (and was being reverse-engineered) across the globe.

The earliest Kinetoscope films released to the public were storyless vignettes, lasting 30 seconds at most, predominantly featuring vaudeville performers (including a “boxing cats” act and serpentine dancer, Annabelle Whitford — in one of the very first hand-colored films), athletes, and others who were brought to Edison’s Black Maria tar-paper film “studio” in West Orange, NJ from New York City, just across the river. There were also staged scenes (again, storyless) enacted by Edison’s workers, such as “blacksmiths” at “work”, gentlemen at a “barbershop,” and what is probably the first horror/special-effects film (of a sort), a still-startling reenactment of The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots that, at the time, must have had early audiences running for the doors. But even without faked beheadings, it is hard to overstate the impact on the public of pictures that could move. For the first couple years, anything that moved was literally a jaw-dropping wonder.

(It must be noted here that a number of the very earliest Edison films, including ultra-rare experiments dating to 1889, are available on the wonderful and invaluable Kino Video four-DVD box set, Edison: The Invention of the Movies, co-produced with the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and Library of Congress. The set includes 140 films produced up through 1918, two hours of commentary from top scholars, and reproductions of more than 200 original documents. Suffice to say that if you’re serious about film history, it’s worth every red cent. And no, I don’t get any kick-backs.)

The true inventive force behind Edison’s motion pictures was the Scottish-English immigrantPhotograph of William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, the man responsible for Edison's 'invention' of motion pictures William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (pictured at right), who joined Edison’s staff in 1883 and quickly ascended to “senior associate.” Work on motion pictures first began at the Edison labs in 1888, the year Edison met Eadweard Muybridge, though progress was stop-and-start at best. Dickson was one of the first assigned to work on the project.

In addition to the movie work, Dickson’s professional interest in sound recording dates at least to the spring of 1894, when an article in Phonogram magazine noted that Dickson was an “artist” working (probably as a violinst) with Dr. Wangemann, the “musical expert” in charge of Edison’s recording department.

From the earliest days Dickson and his staff made efforts to combine motion pictures and sound. By Dickson’s own account, he produced a more-or-less successful synchronized sound film circa October 1889 (three and a half years prior to the Brooklyn unveiling of the Kinetoscope), combining phonographic sound and kinetoscopic visuals. Upon Edison’s return from the Paris Expedition of 1889, a brief welcome-home film was presented to him in which, reportedly, Dickson “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.” Alas, no physical trace of this very earliest of sound films is known to survive, although other (silent) test films from 1889 do. Because of this, some have questioned whether the 1889 “welcome home” sound film was ever actually made or if it is simply yet another example of early cinema braggadocio.

But there is no question whatsoever that W.K.L. Dickson appears in an unreleased but surviving test film shot sometime between the autumn of 1894 and the spring of 1895. Never officially titled, but known to archivists by the supplied title of Dickson Experimental Sound Film, it is the earliest known surviving experiment at creating sound film (see below). The idea was quite simple, and based on its apparent 1889 predecessor: shoot motion picture film while also recording the live sound using another Edison invention, the wax cylinder phonograph. Lasting only 21 seconds, the film depicts two men dancing together as a third — Mr. Dickson — plays violin into the recording horn of the phonograph.

The archival history of the film and its soundtrack is a little convoluted. Following Edison’s death, all of the Edison archives were kept in the holdings of the Edison Historic Site, under the control of the National Park Service. To quote from an account in The Sounds of Early Cinema (Indiana Univ. Press, 2001):

The physical separation of the film and sound artifacts first occurred when the Museum of Modern Art acquired a 35mm nitrate print, measuring forty feet in length, from the Edison Historical Site and preserved it to safety film in 1942. The sound track lay dormant until the US National Park Service began the task of inventorying and cataloging the holdings of the Edison Historical Site (EHS) in 1960. At that time the EHS staff found and catalogued a brown wax cylinder in the Music Room of the Edison Laboratory in a metal canister labeled “Dickson — Violin by W.K.L. Dixon with Kineto.” [National Park Service catalog number: EDIS 30142; E-number: E-6018-1.] In 1964 it was discovered that the cylinder had broken into two pieces. In the same year, the EHS staff arranged the transfer of all surviving nitrate film materials at the Site to the Library of Congress for preservation. Included in that collection was a nitrate print, measuring thitry-nine feet and fourteen frames [two frames short of 40 feet], which the Library staff cataloged in 1968 as Dickson Violin, probably after the title information found on the EHS cylinder [sic?] container. That was the second occasion when the film and sound artifacts were separated to two different locations.

Judging by this information, it appears that the EHS and LOC archivists were not able to specifically link the film with its sound cylinder. However, it was at least generally known that the cylinder survived. Specifically, the MoMA catalog of 16mm Early Edison Shorts in its collection stated that the wax cylinder soundtrack survives at the Edison Historical Site.

And there the matter rested for the next 30 years, with efforts at reuniting the visual and sound elements hampered by governmental inter-agency bureaucracy and a general lack of sufficient interest (and thus funding) to motivate such a project.

Finally, in 1998 the Domitor film society succeeded in breaking the logjam. Working with EHS curators George Tselos and Jerry Fabris, and obtaining funding from the Library of Congress, the audio from the broken wax cylinder was recovered. Since the EHS lacked the needed facilities, Fabris contracted with Peter Dilg and Adrian Cosentini who, thanks to the LOC backing, were able to use the lab at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound of the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. According to notes by Fabris (dated June 3, 1998), quoted in The Sounds of Early Cinema:

Dilg, Cosentini, and Fabris pieced the cylinder together on the phonographic mandrel, secured the parts with thin tape around the outer edges of the cylinder (outside the groove area), then carefully filled the open crevices in between the cracks with small shavings from another broken wax cylinder.

Using a period recording lathe phonograph specially modified by Dilg to incorporate an electrical pick-up, the delicately restored cylinder was then recorded onto analog 1/4-inch reel-to-reel tape. DAT copies were subsequently made from that master.

A still from the 'Dickson Sound Experiment' film of 1894Two days later, on June 5, 1998, one of the audio DATs and a 35mm film print were delivered to the closing session of the annual Domitor conference. There, for the first time in a century, the film and its audio were reunited, albeit imperfectly. The film had been shot at approximately 40-46 frames per second, but the variable-speed projector available could only do a maximum of 30 frames per second. There was also the fact that the audio recording is almost two minutes long — considerably longer than the film — and contains various false-starts and indistinguishable studio chatter. At one point, there is “an audible command to ‘Go ahead,’ followed by a clear segment of unidentified violin waltz music, lasting twenty-three second.” After two attempts at playing the off-speed film and the DAT simultaneously, the attendees agreed that the 23 second waltz fragment was the true soundtrack.

Ultimately, the music was identified as being from Les cloches de Corneville, an 1877 operetta by Robert Planquette. This is a little less arcane than it might seem at first. It was a huge hit in its day, and its English-language version, The Chimes of Normandy, actually had a longer run in London — 708 performances — than the contemporary original production of HMS Pinafore. In 1917 it was still popular enough in Britain to be produced there as a (silent) feature film (released under its original French title) directed by Thomas Bentley. Because the lyrics of the particular tune played by Dickson — “Song of the Cabin Boy” — describe the joys of being at sea without any women around, coupled — as it were — with the image of two men dancing together as another man plays violin, has given this film the reputation in some circles as being the first gay movie. This is undoubtedly stretching things a little.

In 2000, two years after the historic Domitor screening, Oscar-winning film sound designer and editor Walter Murch was recruited to perform a true reconstruction. Working at George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound and using an Avid digital editing system, the film was digitized, readjusted to a standard video frame rate of 30fps, and then carefully synced up with the audio. (Murch’s remarks on the project to a now-defunct message board are reproduced in part at FilmSound.org. Murch also discusses the reconstruction in this excerpt from a 2004 interview by William Kallay.) 35mm sound prints were ultimately struck.

The reconstructed Dickson Experimental Sound Film is today available to the public on the aforementioned Kino Edison DVD box set. A 15-second sound version of the film is also available on the equally invaluable DVD box set, More Treasures from American Film Archives, 1894 – 1931 (National Film Preservation Foundation / Image Entertainment, 2004). A public-domain downloadable version of the reconstructed film (image and sound) is available in various MP4 and MP2 resolutions from Archive.org (web site of the Internet Archive in San Francisco), which worked from a 35mm sound print loaned by Walter Murch. A silent version of the film can also be downloaded from the Library of Congress web site in Mpeg and streaming RealVideo formats. (Unfortunately and inexcusably, a downloadable copy of the original cylinder audio in any form is not available there.)

Edison, ever attuned to profit potential, was fairly quick to exploit this marriage of technologies (especially since he owned them both). This is not too surprising since as early as 1890 he spoke to reporters about his desire to merge sound and film. (See Rick Altman, Silent Film Sound [Columbia Univ. Press, 2004], p. 78.) By April 1895, the novelty of his silent Kinetoscopes was already beginning to wane just a year after their commercial introduction. At that time, Edison introduced the Kinetophone, which was nothing more than a Kinetoscope with a cylinder phonograph occupying the spot where the battery had been. Viewers watched the films as before — through the binocular-like goggle atop the Kinetoscope box — while inserting a tube in each ear. These tubes then merged into a single tube that in turn was inserted in the phonograph’s receptacle normally used for the amplifying horn. In other words, quite possibly the very first ear-buds.

A man enjoying the Edison Kinetophone experience. Note the sound tubes stuck in his ears.As one might imagine, synchronization with these early Kinetophones was a haphazard affair at best. Nevertheless, it appears that Edison put some weight behind this early innovation. The surviving records are spotty, but about one third of the Edison films released that year are of the type known to be most commonly installed in Kinetophones, namely march and dance films plus one film each of a juggler and a contortionist (suggesting they merely had background music versus what would be considered sync sound). But the combination of high cost and poor synchronization proved to be commercially untenable — only 45 of the original Kinetophones were ever sold, and by the end of 1896 they were discontinued. (Edison would later revive the Kinetophone brand many years later, circa 1913 — a tale for a later post.)

Mind you, as far as anyone knows it was not until the autumn of 1895 that anyone actually projected motion pictures. While the history of this volatile period is notoriously imprecise, in all likelihood the very first public exhibitions of projected motion pictures onto a screen were in Berlin beginning on November 1, 1895 — a full month prior to the Lumiere screenings in Paris. The films were produced by Max Skladanowsky using his unique two-strip Bioskop process and included novelties such as a boxing kangaroo. Sadly for Herr Skladaowsky, history deemed that he would be forgotten and the December 1895 screening in Paris by the Lumiere brothers would be remembered as the birth of modern (projected) cinema.

Despite Edison’s early efforts, sound cinema would be temporarily superceded by the then-mind-boggling spectacle of projected film — an accomplishment he poured his considerable resources into replicating. But novelty — even the earth-shattering kind — is a fleeting thing and within just five years, the turn of the century would bring a whole new (attempted) revolution in marrying sound and motion pictures. And more than a decade after that Edison would seek to re-introduce the Kinetophone, redeveloped and repackaged for the era of projected film and movie houses.

(The Dickson Experimental Sound Film was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2003.)

Sources:

Patrick Loughney, “Domitor Witnesses the First Complete Public Presentation of the [Dickson Experimental Sound Film] in the Twentieth Century” in Richard Abel & Rick Altman, eds., The Sounds of Early Cinema (Indiana Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 215-219. At the time, author Loughney was curator of Film and Television at the Library of Congress. At this writing, he is currently curator of the Motion Picture Department at the George Eastman House.

“History of Edison Motion Pictures: Origins of Motion Pictures — the Kinetoscope”, Edison Motion Pictures, American Memory web site (Library of Congress, n.d.)

“The Marriage of Sight and Sound: Early Edison Experiments with Film and Sound,” Edison Motion Pictures, American Memory web site (Library of Congress, n.d.)

Walter Murch, “Dickson Experimental Sound Film 1895″ (FilmSound.org, n.d.) Edited excerpt from: discussion thread “Dickson Experimental Sound Film 1895″, The Cinema Audio Society Discussion Board, June 3, 2000. (Original URL deprecated.)

Stephen Herbert & Luke McKernan, “William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson,” Who’s Who in Victorian Cinema web site (n.d.). Companion site to the book of the same name.

“Dickson Experimental Sound Film,” Archive.org (n.d.)

Scott Simmon, Program Notes (pp. 1-3) for More Treasures from American Film Archives, 1894 – 1931 (National Film Preservation Foundation / Image Entertainment, 2004).

Edison: The Invention of the Movies, DVD box set (Kino Video / MoMA, 2005)

Rick Altman, Silent Film Sound (Columbia Univ. Press, 2004), pp. 78-85, 175-178. [Google Books preview]

Additional Reading

Rosalind Rogoff, “Edison’s Dream: A Brief History of the Kinetophone,” Cinema Journal, vol. 15 no. 2 (Spring 1976).

Art Shifrin [Arthur Shifrin], “Researching and Restoring Pioneer Talking Pictures: The 70th Anniversary of the Theatrical Release of Kinetophone,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers [aka "SMPTE Journal"] (July 1983), pp. 739-751.

Arthur Shifrin, “Restoration of Kinetophone Sound Motion Pictures,” Journal of the Audio Engineering Society [aka JAES], vol. 31 no. 11 (November 1983), pp. 874-890.

Hearing the Movies [blog] — this companion site for the textbook includes a number of Kinetophone-related posts that reproduce contemporaneous materials.

Copyright © 2006 Spencer Sundell. All rights reserved.