The technology needed to provide films with a ‘‘tailored’’ sound accompaniment had existed for almost 20 years, and in September 1896 Oskar Messter showed ‘‘sound films’’ in Berlin using synchronized Berliner disks. Many others followed, including talking films, included in a program at the Paris Exposition by Clement
Maurice on 8 June 1900.
These were able demonstrations that pushed existing film and sound technology boundaries, but producing a reliable sound film system required three major advances:
_ Providing a foolproof method of picture/sound synchronization
_ Recording a wider sound frequency range at greater levels than existing acoustic methods
_ Reproducing these loud and clear enough to fill a cinema auditorium
Ingenious methods of synchronizing sound recordings with films were devised, but all suffered from the fragility of records over repeated reproduction and during transport, and the risk of picture and sound going ‘‘out of sync.’’ The solution lay in combining the two together on film—a process known as ‘‘sound-on-film.’’ Frenchman Eugene Lauste patented the first such system in London on 11 August 1906, but it took seven years to realize this, when war intervened. Lauste’s ‘‘sound gate’’ used two slotted iron grids through which light passed to the film. One grid was fixed, while the other slid up and down over it in response to a signal from a microphone relayed through an electromagnet, resulting in a variable density soundtrack. With this impetus lost it fell to independent researchers to develop sound-on-film systems. Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Josef Engl devised Germany’s ‘‘Tri-Ergon’’ process. Another variable density process, it used a photoelectric cell to turn sound into electric waves and then into light recorded photographically on to the film’s edge. In the projector a photoelectric cell reconverted these into an electrical signal. Tri-Ergon was first demonstrated in Berlin on 17 September 1922. The American ‘‘Phonofilm’’ process was developed by electronics and radio pioneer Lee de Forest in 1920. A valve produced a fluctuating light pattern in response to an electrical sound signal, exposing a series of light and dark areas on the side of a film. On projection this was read by a photocell and converted back to a sound signal.
Phonofilm debuted in New York on 15 April 1923. De Forest’s system enjoyed greater commercial success, and over 30 cinemas had been equipped to show its mainly musical short films within a year, but it failed, lacking major studio and distributor support.
With sound films possible technically, ways of improving sound recording and reproduction were needed. Stimulus to develop and improve sound recording came from U.S. telephone companies, notably American Bell, who formed American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) on 3 March 1885. A Bell subsidiary—Western Electric— became AT&T’s research arm. In 1907 this was centered in New York, under director Theodore Vail, and between 1913 and 1926, breakthroughs were made there in electrical recording, playback, and amplification. E.C. Wente patented the condenser microphone on 20 December 1916. It translated sound waves into electrical ones that could be transmitted by the vacuum tube amplifier. Improved over the years, in 1926 it became the Western Electric 394-W microphone, used to produce the first true sound films. By 1920 electrical recording had been developed by Henry C. Harrison. It used Wente’s microphone, a tube amplifier, a balanced-armature speaker, and a rubber-line recorder, recording sound in the range 50 to 6,000 Hz, an improvement over the 250 to 2,500 Hz range of acoustic recordings.
Harold Arnold developed the tube amplifier in April 1913. Based on Lee de Forest’s Audion tube, Arnold found that electron flow across its electrodes improved if they were in a vacuum. Arnold built his first vacuum tube on 18 October 1913. C.W. Rice and E.W. Kellogg, and others developed the moving coil loudspeaker. Henry Egerton patented the first balanced-armature loudspeaker driver on 8 January 1918, and E.C. Wente developed the moving coil speaker (patent filed 4 August 1926). He used a moving coil or diaphragm mechanism in a strong magnetic field. Designed to drive a theater speaker, it was installed at the Warner Theater, New York for the premiere of Warner’s ‘‘Don Juan’’ in August 1926. Despite sound film technology being ready by 1925, there was little interest from major studios, and it fell to an aspiring one—Warner Bros.—to seize the initiative. Sam Warner learned about Western Electric’s achievements when Warner Bros. built a radio station. He saw its potential for providing a full orchestral accompaniment to Warner films wherever they were screened. On 20 April 1926 they formed the Vitaphone Corporation with Western Electric to develop this, but opted for a synchronous sound-on-disk system. A 406-mm (16-inch) disk, revolving at 33 1/3 rpm, played simultaneously with the film, synchronized by two motors held at the same speed by an electric gear. Interconnected by slip rings, the interchange of power between the armatures ensured correct synchronization when the film started, with the power source’s frequency then maintaining this. Many Vitaphone short films were made, but Warner gave its greatest showcase with the production and premiere of ‘‘Don Juan’’ starring John Barrymore, featuring a full-length orchestral soundtrack with sound effects. Its premiere, on 6 August 1926, left a bemused audience but an enthusiastic press.
By the end of 1926, Warner had produced 100 Vitaphone shorts, but the cost, and those of equipping cinemas for them, almost crippled the company. They had one last attempt, adapting Samson Raphaelson’s play ‘‘The Jazz Singer,’’ with Al Jolson reprising his stage role in the lead. Intended only to have synchronized music and singing, audience reaction at the 6 October 1927 premiere was greatest to Jolson apparently talking to them from the screen. Ironically, his first words—‘‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet! Wait a minute, I tell you. You ain’t heard nothing. You wanna hear toottoot- tootsie? All right. Hold on’’—were largely adlibbed. Ignorant of this, the audience stood and cheered. Despite only containing 354 spoken words, The Jazz Singer’s triumph firmly established talking pictures.
By cruel fate, Sam Warner died of a brain hemorrhage the night before the premiere. His surviving brothers—Harry, Albert, and Jack— were at his bedside, also missing their moment of glory. In the longer term, use of the Warners’ synchronous Vitaphone system faded in favor of a sound-on-film system called Movietone, developed by the rival Fox Film Corporation.