Thomas Edison’s kinetographic theater, ca.1892 (image from a cigarette card published 1915)


The future of the motion picture in the amusement line will be in the form of a combination between it and the phonograph, although of course to make the illusion perfect the phonograph will have to be improved with a view of securing a much louder reproduction. Stereoscopic photography will probably also be applied to motion pictures, so that they will stand out in bold, sharp relief. Finally, color photography will be employed, presenting scenes in natural colors and tints. Thus the motion picture of the future will show apparently solid objects projected in natural colors and accompanied in natural reproduction by all the concomitant sounds. 

What a boon it will be to the middle and poorer classes! ... The world’s greatest musicians, singers and actors can then be heard in the most insignificant hamlet at a nominal price, where they can now be heard only in the large cities and at prices which only the wealthy can afford.

Thomas Edison, 1910         

Early Film Sound Technologies

Edison’s experiments with the synchronization of sound and film began in earnest as early as 1891, and the Dickson Experimental Sound Film of 1895 is well documented- however the first true synchronization of sound an film did not take place until the mid 1920’s.  The intervening years, however, saw many attempts by inventors to marry sound to film, all of which eventually ended in failure. Edison’s second version of the “ Kinetophone ” proved promising, but relied on a complicated pulley system which proved too difficult for theater operators to manage effectively. The Kinetophone system lasted only a couple of years, and Edison’s research into sound and film synchronization ended in 1914 when his West Orange, NJ research research and production facility was destroyed by fire.

Thomas Edison - demonstration film for the Kinetophone (1912)

The Kinetophone (1912)

Though initially well received by newspaper film critics, problems with the system emerged almost immediately. As witnessed by a reporter for the New York Times in 1913:

“The real sensation of the day was scored quite unintentionally by the operator of the machine at the Union Square Theatre... He inadvertently set his pictures some ten or twelve seconds ahead of his sounds, and the result was amazing. The [minstrel show] interlocutor, who, by a coincidence, wore a peculiarly defiant and offended expression, would rise pompously, his lips would move, he would bow and sit down. Then his speech would float out over the Audience. It would be an announcement of the next song, and before it was all spoken the singer would be on his feet with his mouth expanded in fervent but soundless song. This diverted the audience vastly, but the outbursts of laughter would come when the singer would close his lips, smile in a contended manner, bow, and retire while his highest and best notes were still ringing clear.

“New York Applauds the Talking Picture,” New York Times , February 18, 1913, p3.

The Vitaphone (1924)

The Vitaphone was first marketed by AT&T’s Western Electric in 1924, and its first clients were in the record business, notably the Columbia and Victor labels. The first film company to show interest was the small, fledgling Warner Bros. group, which was in the course of rapid expansion, based on financing from the Wall Street firms Goldman and Sachs. Warner brothers had recently purchased fifty theaters from the near-bankrupt Vitagraph studio. 

Warner Brothers, as many film studios at the time, were primarily interested in audio technology for its potential to for music, and to replace Vaudeville acts which preceded feature films at large theaters. The thought of using synchronized dialog was a secondary consideration, as suggested by this quote from Harry Warner (after seeing a demonstration of the Vitaphone):

“I could not believe my own ears. I walked back of the screen to see if they did not have an orchestra there synchronizing with the picture. I myself would not go across the street to see or hear a talking picture. But music! That’s another story.”

— Harry Warner     

Warner Brothers’ premiere of the new Vitaphone system took place on August 6, 1926, at the Warners’ Theatre in New York. The program began with eight short sound-films of music performances, including performances by the New York Philharmonic and various soloists.

Vitaphone demonstration (1926)

Warner Brothers quickly realized the potential of their new technology, and immediately planned the integration of dialog into feature films. By mid 1927, more than 130 American theaters had installed the Western Electric projection and amplification system.

“...the Vitaphone will not only be used as a prologue and to synchronize the musical accompaniment ot the picture, but will also be employed to transmit the voice of the players synchronized with their actions through the story. This makes possible bringing to the screen musical stage successes without sacrificing any of the music. It also indicates that the artists will be engaged for their voice and singing ability as well as their pantomime.

On the legitimate stage at the present time there are numerous players who have gained fame by their versatility in singing and other musical accomplishments, added to their histrionic ability, which will to the screen be a greater asset than appearance or pantomime. A good example of both of these cases is “The Jazz Singer,” the New York stage success, which we will produce in the early spring, featuring George Jessel.....”

Harry Warner, as quoted by Herbert Moulton in “Silent Drama Is Audible- Vitaphone May Revolutionize Screen Technique Through Demand for Good Speaking Voice,”  Los Angeles Times,  September 12, 1926, C17

The Jazz Singer (1927)

The  Jazz Singer opened at the Warners’ Theatre in New York on October 6, 1927. Small portions of the film used recorded accompaniment synchronized to film, and in a few cases actual dialog.

Synchronized dialog and music in The Jazz Singer (1927)

Sound on Film

With Edison no longer leading the charge on sound/film synchronization research, new sound technologies emerged, and by the 1920’s, the promise of film with sound became a reality. A variety of “sound on film” experiments by Eugene Lauste, Lee DeForest, and a trio of Germans known as Tri-Ergon, led to new developments that corrected many of the problems that doomed Edison’s Kinetophone system. 

The Hollywood film industry, however, was booming, and there was little appetite for experimentation. According to film manufacturer George Eastman:

“I wouldn’t give a dime for that invention. The public will never accept it.”.

(as  quoted from  Eyman,  The Speed of Sound , p.43)

The experiments later prove fruitful, and by the late 1920’s, optical “sound on film” replaced synchronized disks as the standard for film sound.

Documentary on “Sound on Film” (1943)