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

“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 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 (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.)

Related Links on Mugu Brainpan:


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″ (, 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,” (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.

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

  1. Hello,
    I don’t understand why the Edison sound films from the 1913 era are not available. I have one call Nursery Favorites. I have seen a bit of another syncronised sound film where the action takes place outdoors and there is a man shot. It looked like a Civil War film.
    Does anyone know if these 1913-14 film are available?

  2. Hi Jeff — please pardon my slow uptake on your comment. It’s been hectic lately.

    And hear hear (as ’twere)! The absence of any Kinetophone films (except the “Sound Experiment”) from the otherwise stellar Kino Edison box set was a glaring omission. I just re-checked, and I didn’t see even “Nursery Favorites” on there…which was startling. (Perhaps there was some negotiative issue with FPA??)

    I, too, have a print of “Nursery Favorites” (which, in its way and time, is really fairly impressive). For any who stumble along later, new 16mm prints (!) of “Nursery Favorites” can be purchased from Murray Glass at Glenn Photo (or rented from Murray’s enormous Emgee Film Library) — but carpe diem, for Murray is soon to retire and sell off the whole lot!

    But that’s the only Kinetophone film I’ve ever seen in circulation (even on grey/black-market video), tho I can’t but wonder if perhaps the LOC or George Eastman House or someone might have one or two others stashed away somewhere. Part of the problem, I’m sure, is locating usable sound elements — which were/are, of course, fragile wax cylinders with a limited original distribution run.

    I’m not familiar with the (possibly) Civil War-themed film you mention — I’d love to see even the fragment. Where did you see it?? I also wonder if it’s a 1913-14 vintage Kinetophone or possibly one of the earlier ones?

    Based on my research to date (admittedly less than exhaustive, though details are also quite patchy), my understanding is that even the later Kinetophones of 1913-14 included some non-sync films — that is, generically-appropriate music (say a march) overlaid atop relevant footage (say people marching). …Or maybe I’ve conflated the earlier with the later? In any case, this may (or may not) contribute to the difficulty in matching sound element to visual element.

    Frankly, I’m amazed how little detailed info there seems to be about such a significant (albeit short-lived and ill-fated) stage in the evolution of sound film.

    Best as I can tell, the sound version of “Nursery Favorites” was restored probably circa the 1970s (I’m gonna guess mid-decade). It may simply be that no one has had the patience — or funding — to delve deeper into the surviving Edison archives at the National Park Service and elsewhere and do the hard work of matching stuff up. Makes me wish I lived near enough to Washington, DC to spend a few focused months playing in some archives…

    Jeff, if you should learn of anything else along these lines, regardless of format or location or debatable accuracy, please consider posting further comments here. Me and many others would be delighted to learn anything new.

    Many thanks for stopping by…

  3. You may not have come across an Edison patent to record sound electrically to accompany film.[Pat. 1,285,259 6 March 1913]
    The studio walls and ceiling were plastered with carbon microphones. The output was added and the resultant signal applied to an electrical cutting head through a matching transformer.
    The electrical cutter was achieved by tight coupling between a high gain amplifier and the diaphragm of an acoustic cutting head.
    The high gain amplifier first appeared in a loud speaking telephone[Pat. 221,957 25 Nov. 1879]. It was then coupled to a carbon microphone to produce a repeater amplifier for long distance telephony[Pat 340,707 27 April 1886 ] It was first coupled to an acoustic recording head to produce a telephone message recording machine[Pat. 1,012,250 15 Sept 1905]
    The amplifier, of course, did not use vacuum tubes. It depended on the modulation of the coefficient of friction by hydrogen liberated by electrolysis. More detail if you are interested.
    I spent a couple of months going through all the Edison patents before writing a computer program to represent the dynamics of Edison vertical acoustic recording heads.I knew that he had a purely mechanical audio amplifier working on the capstan principle, but the chalk wheel/electrolytic amplifier came as a complete surprise.
    The usual technical jargon had not developed when the patents were written. Transformers are inductoriums: low frequencies – grave tones: non-linear distortion – aberration: recording horn resonance – funnel -tones etc
    The outstanding quality of Edison acoustic recording never ceases to amaze me. There seems to be a lot of interest in old recording artists, but I can’t find anyone interested in the engineering. Pity!

  4. Brian — Thanks very much indeed for the fascinating info. (Btw, it looks like the patent number you cited was off by one digit: after some digging I found it’s actually 1,286,259. :-) )

    But all of the information (including technical info) I’ve ever seen on the 1913-14 series Kinetophone indicates the system used acoustic sound gathering horns rather than carbon acoustic-to-electrical microphones. I’ve also seen a few photos of Kinetophone studios, and these clearly showed a single sound horn (presumably acoustic), not multiple ones ala the patent diagrams.

    I suspect the very interesting patent you found was more a proof-of-concept one rather than a practical one actually implemented for the Kinetophone films of the time. (Forgive me, but I don’t know the proper terms of art.) I know that at the time (the same as when the application was filed), Edison had high hopes for the system, so I’m sure he was planning for improvements like those in the patent. Unfortunately, poor sync during projection — and then the disastrous West Orange fire — put the end to all that.

  5. I too have an 8mm magnetic sound copy of Edison’s ‘Nursery Favorites’ which I purchased from Blackhawk. Don’t remember the year. But I do remember something related from an earlier time. Back in the late 1930′s
    or 40′s, MGM produced a theater short series called ‘A Pete Smith Specialty’.
    One of these items was the reproduction of one of the 1912-1913 sound films and I’m under the impression that the film was titled, ‘Jack’s Joke’. I
    remember the settings, costuming, a couple of characters and the unmistakable sound of the cylinder recording. I have watched for this in any
    film program listed on cable or other TV but I yet haven’t seen it listed.
    Perhaps some one might know of a way to check this out. I might add that in the presentation of the Edison film, the MGM engineers had everything in sync and the acting and dialogue delivery was quite amusing to watch and hear. Thanks for the space…..

  6. Hello,

    “Nursery Favorites” is available as one of the numerous bonus items on Flicker Alley’s two-DVD “Discovering Cinema,” which features a pair of English-overdubbed French documentaries on the early history of sound and color in film, a must-have for anyone interested in either topic.

    Each of the features manages to pack an unusually comprehensive survey of its subject into its under-one-hour running time. They should serve nicely as a corrective to some of the widespread misinformation about both developments. Although both are unusually free from major errors of fact, the accompanying pamphlet does contain one whopper: it states that Edison Kinetophone films were mimed to a pre-recorded soundtrack. In the case of “Nursery Favorites” the fallacy is fairly self-evident, as that would require ten actors and one black dog to make it through six minutes of playback in one take without a single lip-sync slip-up, along with frame-perfect timing in throwing down those bags of “gold.”

    Even though everyone speaks in a very loud hear-me-in-the-back-balcony pre-microphone stage voice, it is still a testament to the prowess of Edison’s recording technic that an even halfway intelligible recording could be made of actors so distant from the recording horn, in various locations, facing in various directions and sometimes moving around.

    The intriguing citation by one of your correspondents of a patent for recording with arrays of telephone-type microphones notwithstanding, it seems Edison’s secret was simply the use of a very large recording horn, so that the actors were proportionally near enough even when ten feet away from its mouth. In the final part of the 1980 Brownlow-Gill “Hollywood” series, Viola Dana, who played the Queen of the Fairies in “Nursery Favorites,” recalled that “we talked into a horn, and it was up high,” if memory serves me for exact words. Perhaps the microphone array was just a clever idea that looked good on paper but in practice proved inferior to old-fashioned non-electrical horn recording due to the low fidelity and sensitivity of circa 1913 telephone transmitters.

    The UCLA Film Archive apparently has a print of “Jack’s Joke,” because an extended excerpt from it was included in a Bob Gitt presentation on the history of film sound which I attended at the Pacific Film Archive around 1996. The joke of the title is that a young man and woman are introduced after each has been falsely informed that the other is very hard of hearing. As a result, they converse at maximum decibel levels (“I suppose you like to go to the [silent] MO-VIES?” he shouts at her. “No, I pre-fer CON-CERTS,” she patiently screams back at him), a great boon to the unquestionably hard-of-hearing recording apparatus.

    Several Kinetophone soundtrack cylinders — which, by the way, were recorded on wax but issued on sturdy celluloid, like Edison’s smaller contemporary Blue Amberol cylinders for home use — may be heard at:

    Elsewhere on the site there is, or was, an automatically-playing audio excerpt from a promotional film which extols the Kinetophone’s value to posterity in the most grandiose terms, e.g., quoting approximately, “Imagine how different the world might be now if we had such a record of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, or Our Savior!” but it eluded me when I last tried to find it. It may require a plug-in I now lack.

    The notes about the two lectures state that the film is believed lost, implying that the film for the other two releases DOES exist, so it is all the more frustrating and puzzling that “Nursery Favorites” is the only example available for study. The Edison archives and all rights were donated to the Government and are therefore in the public domain, apart from any underlying music rights still in force a century later thanks to the Sonny Bono Perpetual Copyright Act (I suppose those few bars of Irving Berlin’s “International Rag” in “The Old Violin” might have to be squelched), so the usual rights-clearance morass preventing the reissue of so much vintage material is not the problem here.

    Caution: Rant regarding an item of film sound history dogma follows.

    Along with the uncanny sensation to be had by watching a live-recorded “talkie” from 1913, and the sideways glimpse of a stage musical-comedy performance of that era which it affords, “Nursery Favorites” can also serve to demonstrate why sound films were only a curiosity until well into the 1920s. It was NOT because there was no way to satisfactorily synchronize the film with sound on a disc or cylinder, or to amplify the sound, as conventional wisdom would have us believe.

    Synchronous electric motors worked nicely for interlocking projectors with disc or cylinder players, and pneumatic valve amplification could play the recorded sound at ear-damaging levels more than sufficient to fill the largest theater. Gaumont was successfully using both devices before 1910. Edison’s belt-and-pulleys contraption and employment of the less powerful Higham reproducer for increasing playback volume may simply reflect his aversion to paying for licenses on other inventors’ patents, especially when he himself was arguably the inventor of their basic principles. The odd, questionable and inferior synchronization methods employed by other pre-Vitaphone separate sound systems, which seem to show that this was a very difficult problem still waiting for a satisfactory solution, may likewise have been cobbled together only because the best methods had already been patented and would have had to be either licensed or avoided.

    The fatal flaw was in the recordings being synchronized and amplified.

    Can you imagine sitting through a feature film which had a soundtrack demanding such close attention and effort for comprehension as the one for “Nursery Favorites,” featuring actors all relentlessly projecting their lines in stentorian voices in order to be adequately recorded, no matter how perfectly synchronized and splendidly amplified it was? Maybe such an ordeal would be worthwhile to see and hear a performance by Bernhardt or Duse, but certainly not for ordinary entertainment.

    The successful cure was a highly sensitive wide-range microphone which would allow clear recording of conversational speech and environmental sounds at a substantial distance — in other words, Western Electric’s improved condenser microphone of the early ’20s. Had he been recorded from several feet away by horn or with a telephone-quality microphone, Jolson’s intimate ramblings to his mother in “The Jazz Singer” would have been mostly unintelligible muffled mumbling. Those naturalistic noises which captivated the public and whetted the appetite for sound (Lindbergh’s plane sputtering off into the fog; Shaw’s feet crunching along his garden path to the accompaniment of English birdsong; the appealingly authentic incidental sounds which redeem “In Old Arizona”) would have been too feeble to record recognizably or at all.

    Russ Karas

    P.S. Although you are welcome to include this on your site if you see fit, I reserve the right to recycle it, in part or whole, in future correspondence with others. A few mini-crusades to demolish prevalent misconceptions in some arcane fields of interest to me are shaping up as a worthwhile use of time in my declining years. There are only so many ways to say a thing, and having to paraphrase myself is a bore!

  7. Hi Russ —

    Thanks so much for your contribution to the discussion. And yes, of course you can do whatever you wish with your comment (but I can, too).

    Flicker Alley’s “Discovering Cinema” DVD set is indeed very much worth the price just for the early sound material (in my estimation at least). For the benefit of other readers not familiar with it, it includes both the aforementioned documentary as well as 18 of original sound shorts (and a couple excepted works) from 1908-1929, including a number of exceptionally rare European titles from Gaumont and others, plus similarly rare Theodore Case experiments. The set also includes a likewise-worthwhile documentary-plus-samples disc on early color processes.

    Your point about the “lip synch” factual gaffe in the “Discovering Cinema” booklet is well made and noted, though in fairness my readings on the subject indicate that at least some Kinetophone titles used, if not a lip synch technique, then at least non-synchronous sound. I’ve read of some titles were simply scenes accompanied with music…though if memory serves me I do believe this was so for the first-generation Kinetophone (Kinetoscope “peep show” boxes augmented with cylinder players), and not the later projection version of the technology ca. the teens.

    Thanks also for the tidbit about the Viola Dana interview in the Brownlow-Gill “Hollywood” series — a local video rental shop has the series, so I’ll have to look into that. Her observation that the horn was “up high” is a most interesting one, suggesting an early “boom” concept — perhaps the first such use?

    Searches for “Jack’s Joke” in the online databases of the UCLA Film & Video Archive and BAM/PFA produced zero hits (tho the latter archive is currently in the process of moving and recataloging their collection). I did locate the BAM/PFA schedule blurb for the 1996 program you attended, and while that particular film is not mentioned, it does state the prints were courtesy of the UCLA archive, though perhaps this was not 100% accurate.

    Re: other surviving Kinetophone films, my best (albeit wild) guess at this point is whatever there may still be must be in the holdings of the Library of Congress, but in an unrestored state. I know the AV branch moved into an entirely new facility ca. 2007, and that once settled in they intended to step-up efforts to transfer their holdings to digital formats in the interest of providing greater public access. One can only hope that these precious and important titles are on the short list, but time and further scholarship will tell.

    Concerning your “rant” (which is welcome), I do take minor issue insofar as contemporary reviews of the second-generation, projected version of Edison’s Kinetophone productions mention poor synchronization and somewhat dim volume. It reminds me of ’50s-vintage reviews of dual-projector polarized 3D films of the time complaining of poor alignment and headaches — having seen quite a number of these films, I can attest that if properly projected (and attended throughout the film), there were no such problems in most cases. But a careless or inattentive projectionist could easily ruin the experience and induce blinding headaches. I’m quite sure the same principle was true for the Kinetophone.

    That caveat aside, you’re quite right that Gaumont in particular had perfected a very impressive non-electrical amplification system, which I understand could accommodate houses of up to 1,000 people. I also understand their sound films were quite popular and enjoyed a rather lengthy run of it over several years. It’s also worth mentioning that Gaumont had a Chronophone-equipped theater in Los Angeles from 1908 until (perhaps) 1914.

    Thanks again, and best regards.

  8. Hello again,

    No argument — as with Vitaphone, a less than fastidious projectionist
    could easily screw up the synchronization. In fact, in the same Viola
    Dana interview, she recalls seeing her film and being startled to hear
    herself transformed into a baritone. Even sound-on-film can be run at
    the wrong speed, or with a bad loop or impaired slit contact, but it
    is certainly more robust and idiot-proof.

    The excerpt from “Jack’s Joke” shown at PFA may have been lifted from
    the same circa 1940 Pete Smith short mentioned in another comment, so
    you might want to check the UCLA holdings for that series.

    As far as my occasional researches over the years told me, the 1890s
    edition of the Kinetophone played recordings which were simply in the
    nature of asynchronous added-value mood music, despite implications
    of synchronous sound made in some latter-day documentaries, and the
    1913 system featured live-recorded sync sound subjects exclusively.

    I recently came across a discussion group posting by an apparently
    well-informed participant who states that Edison originally planned
    to pre-record the soundtracks for the second-generation Kinetophone,
    but was persuaded of the impossibility of getting convincing results
    that way. The near-inevitability of illusion-destroying lip-sync
    lapses, amply demonstrated by the examples on “Discovering Cinema,”
    does suggest that reduced sound quality is the lesser evil.

    The Higham reproducer that Kinetophone used for amplification was a
    device employing a rubber “shoe” riding on an amber wheel to provide
    a friction assist to the to-and-fro motions of the diaphragm. If I
    remember my phonographic lore aright, it made its debut at the 1904
    Saint Louis fair, affixed to a Columbia Graphophone which was touted
    as “The World’s Loudest Talking Machine.” Apparently, it was still
    not really loud enough for theatrical use. Why Edison did not employ
    some variety of the pneumatic valve, a means of sound amplification
    included in his own 1877-81 British phonograph patent, is a mystery.

    My P.S. was just a bit of self-defense prompted by the intimidating
    your-soul-is-mine legalese at the bottom of your pages.

    Best regards, and appreciations for the excellent site,

    Russ Karas

  9. Hi again, Russ —

    Re: your P.S. — Point well taken. I’ve updated the footer “legalese” [cough] to better reflect my intent.

    Thanks for the reminder re: a Pete Smith Specialty being the likely provenance of the “Jack’s Joke” clip. A quick search of the UCLA database for “Pete Smith” does indeed produce quite a number of relevant hits, though none that jump out as likely candidates…though I (or someone) may excavate better particulars when time permits. Fwiw, the UCLA film archive can be searched at and BAM/PFA has their own starting point at

    I greatly appreciate the additional info about the second-generation Kinetophone’s amplification. Yes, it is surprising Edison didn’t leverage his own extant patents in this regard, tho perhaps its relevant that the British and US patents were entirely separate beasts (which famously led his loss of primacy with the Kinetoscope in Britain). I theorize only, of course.

    I wonder if another factor may not have been at play: Edison’s famously, shall we say, “economical” business model. No doubt better, more sophisticated amplification would have meant added cost of production — not to mention a higher cost of adoption for exhibitors, who I suspect would have already been chary about an experimental process. In any case, I can’t but wonder what further information about all of this may lay buried in the Edison archives.

    I remain surprised how precious little detail, scholarly or otherwise, about the Kinetophone is available, even in the best works I’ve seen on early sound processes (in English at least).


  10. This is a very interesting post, and the comments are maybe as useful as the post itself.

    For both of the kinetophone systems it is quite difficult to find good and reliable informations. It is quite easy to see some of Gaumont’s phonoscènes, whereas it is very difficult to see some of the few surviving kinetophone films (except for the Dickson experimental sound film, of course). The only one which I know is available on DVD is “Nursery Favorites”. What about the others? As far as I know, there are only 6 films surviving with both sound and image (all from 1912-14):
    -”Nursery Favorites”
    -”The Deaf Mute” (1 reel out of 5, the cylinder for the fifth part also exists) – this is probably the civil war drama Jeff Kinzie was talking about in the first comment. I would really like to see this film, but I don’t know if there is a way to buy it (On the Edison imdb page, there is a thread about this film (, which was apparently featured in a TV show titled “Entertainment Tonight”. Does this show exists on DVD?)
    -The five bachelors
    -Jack’s Joke
    -The old violin? (I’m not sure about this one, but as it is not precised on the Edison National Historic Site webpage that the motion picture element is lost, it is probably because it still exists)
    -? Do you know the title of the sixth one?

    The fact that it is that hard to come across the list of the surviving films shows that the interest for this process is not as high as for other sound film experiments of the same period. The small number of surviving films might be the cause. It is quite strange in my opinion, as the fact that these films were live recorded make them very interesting (and also the fact that there were some fiction films instead of only songs). Maybe one day these movies will be available for a bigger public. I don’t even know if all of them were restored – I’m only sure of that for 4 out of 6.

    I didn’t find the second part of this post on this blog – did you write it elsewhere, or is it still a project?

    Riton (And sorry for my english, I’m french)

    PS : Apparently the american channel PBS will show a sound-on-film experiment made by Eugène Augustin Lauste between 1910 and 1914 on the 5th of July ( I hope I’ll find a way to see it. For anybody who is interested in sound film history, this might be worth seeing. Lauste’s sound film are maybe even harder to see than the kinetophone films!

  11. A few seconds after I submitted this post, I found what was the last kinetophone film surviving on youtube!

    This is a presentation of the process. I knew that this film had existed, but not that it had survived! I’m really happy – the second live recorded sound film of this era including human voice I’m able to watch!

  12. Bonjour Riton — thanks for joining the discussion, and make no mistake: your English is better than that of many supposedly native speakers.

    Thank you very much for adding the YouTube link to the Kinetophone demonstration film. What a shame Mssr. “nitratefury” offers no further information about his source.

    I’m not personally aware of any Kinetophone films on DVD (or VHS or even Lasedisc, for that matter) except for the Dickson Experiment and “Nursery Favorites” — though I would love to be corrected on that point. The fact that the Kinetophone demo is on YouTube strongly suggests that one is available somewhere on some manner of home video format, no?

    Thanks also for the list of fully-surviving “second generation” Kinetophone titles. After a little Googling, I think the sixth title you asked about may be The Politician, which is described as “a playlet” (i.e. a short play or excerpt of a play) and reported to be preserved by the Library of Congress. (Citation: Noel Burch, Life to Those Shadows, Univ. of California Press, 1990), p. 237 — see this Google Books preview page.) The same source also mentions the Kinetophone demonstration film (which we can now see does have its sound element), so I deduce the LOC probably has both elements for “The Politician” as well.

    If that’s true, then we can presume there are seven second-generation Kinetophone titles with sound and film elements.

    As an aside, Rick Altman reports in his book Silent Film Sound (at pg. 175) that The Deaf Mute was four reels, rather than five. His footnote cites Art Shifrin’s 1983 article for the SMPTE Journal, and since Shifrin was actively restoring the films at the time, I’m inclined to take his word for it (though I admit I’ve not read the original article).

    Concerning the TV program “Entertainment Tonight,” that’s a long-running syndicated entertainment “news” program here in the US — basically, a televised version of a trashy fan tabloid, and just as disposable. Consequently, to the best of my knowledge there’s never been any “ET” home video releases.

    As for later parts in this “series” — I’m afraid I simply haven’t gotten around to writing them! This is partly due to distractions and lack of free time, but I also continue to dig for more info. Eventually, I hope to write posts about the Phono-Cinema-Theatre and a more detailed examination of the second-generation Kinetophone.

    BTW, I also agree: the comments are at least as useful as my original post, and I’m very grateful to all who have contributed!

    Thanks again for commenting.

  13. Hi Riton — thanks very much indeed for the link to the video. (I’ve updated your comment with the corrected URL.) Tantalizingly brief, but exciting to see.

    Coincidentally, I just (finally!) went to the library and dug up the articles by Art Shifrin (who’s interviewed in the video you’ve linked to) about restoring the Kinetophone films, which he wrote in 1983 for SMPTE Journal and the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society (citations at the end of the article above). I’ve not yet had time to read them through, but they are quite detailed and generously illustrated.