Some Early Sound-on-Disc Systems for Moving Pictures
Edison Kinetophone recording apparatus, 1913
The silent film was not silent. Before 1928,
motion pictures were customarily
accompanied by one or more of the
following: sound effects by many contraptions
such as the Allfex Sound System of 1910, or the
Wurlitzer machines; music played by live
performers, either in the form of a solo pianist or
organist, or a small orchestra or ensemble; and of
course, there was the "talking machine."
Only the last of these three is the subject
of this account. Many sound-on-disc devices were
experimented upon before 1928. Therefore, only a
few have been selected.
The first begins with Thomas Alva Edison. He
ventured into moving pictures only as a means of
extending and promoting sales of his cylinder
phonograph. The exterior of Edison's "peep-show"
Kinetoscope resembled a closed-in cabinet.
It stood about 48 inches (about 122cm) high.
On top of the cabinet was an eyepiece—not unlike the framework
of a pair of opera glasses. By inserting a coin into
a slot, the patron could peer into the eyepiece and
observe a motion-picture presentation of about 30
seconds in daration.
Inside the machine, a maximum of 50 feet of
35mm film circulated at the rate of 40 frames per
second in an endless loop under a viewing lens.
Each frame was illuminated by a flash
of light through a narrow slit in the rapidly rotating shutter-
disc. The terrific rate of speed was necessary to
create the illusion of motion by a film band, which
ran without an intermittent (stop-start) mechanism
that is commonly found in most motion-picture
Its pictures could only be viewed by one person
at a time. It is possible — though there is no
conclusive evidence — that a Kinetoscope harnessed
to a phonograph was shown at an exhibition in New
York City in May of 1891.
When the Kinetoscope debuted in Toronto at the
1894 Toronto Industrial Fair (Toronto Exhibition or
CNE) and after the Fair at Webster's ticket office
(north-east corner of Yonge and King streets), there
is no evidence that a sound mechanism
accompanied the films. The New York Kinetoscope
parlor showed only silent films at its premiere on
April 14, 1894, and probably for several weeks
Since 1888, press reports, echoing
announcements by Edison himself, had repeatedly
forecast the imminent completion of a marketable
machine that would combine the phonograph and
motion picture. Agents, who leased Kinetoscopes
from Edison, were led to expect that the combined
machine would soon replace the more restricted
As rumours persisted, Edison became aware that
Kinetoscope orders were declining. Prospective
agents decided to sit tight and wait for the new
machine rather than invest in non-sound machines
that might quickly become obsolete.
In response, an Edison employee of some
seventeen years, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson
(and perhaps Edison) set to work during April
through maybe December 1894, to synchronize the
Kinetoscope with the phonograph.
There still exists a film made about this time in
which Dickson in the background plays a violin
next to a large phonograph horn presumably
attached to a recording machine. Two lab assistants
are seen in the foreground dancing to music —
whatever it was. Apparently, this film was one of
Dickson's attempts to achieve synchronization
through simultaneously recording sound and
picture. Dickson's experiments proved
unsuccessful and no later than 1894, efforts to
achieve synchronization were given up.
An Early Edison Kinetoscope
Dickson and Edison decided to settle for a
conjunction of phonograph and Kinetoscope that
would provide non-synchronous accompaniment to
the moving pictures. The 'new' machine — called
the Kinetophone — had a phonograph located in the
base of the same cabinet that housed the
Kinetoscope. A belt drive connected the two
machines and insured that they would begin and
stop simultaneously. The patron listened to the
music through a set of rubber "ear-tubes" while
watching the Kinetoscope pictures. Over 1000
Kinetoscopes were made, but only 45
Kinetophones. This is hardly surprising for the
only novelty that the 'new' machine provided was
music — seldom appropriate to the scenes it was
accompanying. Primitive as the Kinetophone
seems today, it was the most advanced step that the
19th century was to take toward the realization of
Léon Gaumont's interest in creating sound
movies was evident as early as 1900, when he
exhibited a movie projector mechanism linked to a
phonograph. It was basically nothing but a variant
of the coupling of the Kinetoscope apparatus with a
In 1901, however, Gaumont was granted a
French patent for his method of driving a projector
electrically from a gramophone. His method was
demonstrated for the first time on September 12,
1902 before the French Photographic Society. The
demonstration was held primarily to show how
perfect a synchronising mechanism had been
Gaumont never satisfactorily solved the
problems of amplification (the major problem
of all early sound-on-disc systems) than he was able to
refine the sensitivity of the phonograph. His most
advanced technique for increasing the volume of
sound was to use several loudspeakers or morning-
glory horns while also intensifying the sound waves
by means of compressed air. This method was
primarily one adopted from the Auxetophone of C.
The general name for the Gaumont system was
Chronophone, while the sound films it presented
were known as Phono-Scénes. Before 1910, the
films had to be made in two sessions — the disc
first, followed by the speaker or singer
photographed while mouthing to the recording.
But, in 1910, improvements to Chronophone made
it possible to place the horn out of camera range
and achieve adequate synchronization by filming
and recording simultaneously.
The showpiece of Gaumont's system was an
ambitious programme that he sent on tour in 1912-
13. It presented not only sound films, but also
movies in "natural colours." Gaumont had
developed a three-colour additive process that he
called Chronochrome. Sound was provided by
high-quality discs amplified with compressed air.
Synchronism was attempted through a system
of rotating brushes and collector rings.
By means of an electrically operated clutch, either one or
two turntables could be rotated.
However, a manually operated system was available
should the collector ring
system fail to operate.
Still, its sound quality was crude and
amplification was left much to
In addition, the
film subjects — rooster
crowing, a banjo player, and a
lion tamer cracking his whip in
a den of roaring lions —
compared to increased interest
in 'story' films or photoplays
seemed even 'rudimentary' to
European and American
audiences of 1913.
The Cameraphone system of E. E. Norton was
the first American disc system to gain a measure of
commercial success in the new century.
When in 1908, the system became available for lease, it was
in great demand. It premiered in Toronto on
November 27, 1909 for the opening of a new
theatre — the Colonial, located on the south side of
Queen Street West opposite Toronto's present-day
Old City Hall.
The moving picture and the graphophone (a
gramophone) were operated by one man. The
projector and graphophone (concealed behind the
screen) were both operated by a spring motor.
The operator,if he found the picture slightly ahead or
behind the record, could control the two so
absolutely as to bring them into union.
In producing a film involving several actors, the
disc was made first indoors. Then, also indoors,
the actors rehearsed actions in unison with the
sound disc. Finally, as required by the 'script,' the
combination camera and talking machine, each
mounted on its own tripod, photographed either
outside or in studio, while the actors acted and
spoke in unison to the graphophone, which was
connected by a shaft directly to the camera. A
common motor drove the shaft to maintain
In 1913, Edison made another attempt.
His Kinetophone system (in tribute to his 1895 system)
was introduced to Toronto on March 24, 1913 at
Shea's Victoria Theatre (located on the south-east
corner of Victoria and Richmond East).
In making a Kinetophone picture, the actor or singer moved
about just as if he or she were on a real stage.
Words and actions were recorded concurrently at 16
frames per second. The sound was recorded on soft
wax cylinders, nearly a foot in length (30cm) and
four or five inches (about 12cm) in diameter.
From this soft 'master' record the 'indestructible'
cylinders were made.
The Kinetophone system installed in a theatre
had the phonograph placed behind the screen. A
strong belt passed from it up over idler pulleys and
overhead to the projection booth and then back to
the phonograph. In the booth, the belt was
connected to a synchronous device. The
projectionist had a slight degree of control through
the hand crank. Yet, the system had so many
problems with synchronization in New York City
that Kinetophones were ordered by all Keith-
Orpheum theatres to be pulled and the contract with
Edison cancelled. Edison was so affected by this
that he made no further attempts at sound movies.
The Cinephone system, a British system
developed by William Jeapes and William Barker in
1908, was exploited by the Warwick Trading
Company, London, England. It may have made an
appearance at Toronto's Shea's Victoria beginning
June 9, 1913. Cinephone had the advantage in that
it required a minimum of special apparatus in the
theatre auditorium. Therefore, it required the least
specialization of skill by the projectionist.
The Cinephone talking machine, which
resembled a floor-model gramophone of the day,
stood to the left of the screen facing the audience
and projectionist. Upon its face, an illuminated dial
with a revolving illuminated hand that during its
circular course passed over four green bullseye
lamps was discernible by the projectionist in a
darkened auditorium, even at a distance of two
hundred feet (about 70m).
A similar dial and hand were photographed into
the motion-picture film in the lower-left hand
corner of each frame, nearest the gramophone.
The hand in the film passed over a circle, marked by
four white bullseye spots upon the picture screen.
As the picture was projected, the dial hand on
the screen and the dial hand upon the front of the
gramophone both moved in the same direction and
at the same speed. The projector was operated at a
speed calculated to keep both dial hands at the
same point upon the dial circumferences at all
Cinephone productions were offered upon 10-
inch (25.5cm) disc recordings running three or four
minutes each and accompanied by 150 to 250 feet
(about 50 to 80 metres) of 35mm film.
Cecil Hepworth, a British film pioneer,
indicated a major drawback with Cinephone: "The
trouble was that the whole of the 'kitchen
arrangements,' so to speak, was right before the
audience. If synchronism went wrong, they could
see why. They probably got more fun watching the
race between the two little clocks than they did out
of the picture, but at least they were amused either
Hepworth noted, also (other than the usual
amplification difficulty), a weakness of all disc
systems, including his own Vivaphone system: "All
were at the mercy of the man in charge of the
gramophone, for if he did not start the needle on the
sound record at the right point all hope of
synchronism was lost; in some cinemas a
programme boy was given the job — and a lot of
things went wrong!"
By 1929, Western Electric had developed a
sound-on-disc system that became known as
Vitaphone, through the Warner Brothers.
However, it, too, was soon replaced by the more efficient and
reliable sound-on-film process, which had itself
gone through years of development.
For further reading, I recommend the book by
Harry M. Geduld The Birth of the Talkies: From
Edison to Jolson (Indiana University Press, Bloomington,
Sound-on-disc systems exhibited in Toronto are
discussed in detail in Gutteridge's book Magic
Moments: First 20 Years of Moving Pictures in