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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 projectors.

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 thereafter.

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 Kinetoscope.

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 'talking pictures.'

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 standard phonograph.

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 evolved.

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. A. Parsons.

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 be desired. 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 sychronization.

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 times.

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 way."

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, 1975).

Sound-on-disc systems exhibited in Toronto are discussed in detail in Gutteridge's book Magic Moments: First 20 Years of Moving Pictures in Toronto (1894-1914).