The Speed of Sound
Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930
By Scott Eyman
Simon & Schuster
(C) 1997 Scott Eyman
All rights reserved.
In New York, in the year of our Lord 1907, the horse-drawn cars
on West Street, Chambers Street, and Canal Street and even the cable
cars on Broadway were slowly being replaced by electric streetcars.
After the trolley passed, pedestrians would walk over, kneel down,
and feel the heat coursing silently through the tracks. For those
theaters and stores that wanted to be in style, electricity, in the form
of the arc light, was de rigueur.
It had been only a few years since nickelodeons started showing
movies, and some audiences still believed that the actors on the
screen were real people behind gauze. On Clinton Street, a theater
was actually advertising talking pictures, which turned out to be
nothing more or less than two actors in back of the screen improvising
dialogue to accompany the action on the translucent screen in
front of them. One night a western was on the bill, and an actor
moonlighting from the Yiddish theater got excited and began speaking
Yiddish. "There was," remembered a reporter who was there,
"nearly a riot in the ... audience."
In 1907, movies were new, but not that new. Likewise, sound
movies. Talking pictures existed for years before The Jazz Singer.
The desire for synchronized sound arose simultaneously with the
possibility of projecting images. From the beginning, the cinema
abhorred silence; the cinema needed some sort of sound, if only to
cover up the distracting noises of the projector and the shuffling of
the audience. That sound was music; by the mid-1920s, movie theaters
were the foremost employers of musicians in the country.
The most obvious method for achieving sound movies was to
harness the projector with Edison's phonograph, but this was not as
easy as it appeared. Uniform speed was difficult to maintain, and
achieving decent amplification was deeply problematic. Not only
that, but a reel of film lasted about ten minutes whereas a phonograph
record couldn't last more than three or four, so the discs or
cylinders had to be specially machined. In addition, as one technician
wrote in 1914, "The sound must proceed from the stage ... at the
front of the house while the projector must of necessity be located
at the rear. This great distance between the mechanisms ... makes a
positive mechanical connection impossible ..."
Thomas Edison's obsession with sound had produced the phonograph
in 1877, and he was even more determined to take the next
logical step: extend his invention into movies. As early as 1891, he
had announced that "I hope to be able ... to throw upon a canvas a
perfect picture of anybody, and reproduce his words ... Should Patti
be singing somewhere, this invention will put her full-length picture
upon the canvas so perfectly as to enable one to distinguish every
feature and expression on her face, see all her actions, and listen to
the entrancing melody of her peerless voice. I have already perfected
the invention so far as to be able to picture a prize fightthe two
men, the ring, the intensely interested faces of those surrounding it
--and you can hear the sounds of the blows."
Despite his self-confidence, Edison got nowhere with synchronization
at this point. By 1895, he seems to have abandoned work on
authentic synchronization and settled for dabbling with what he
called the Kinetophone: a Kinetoscope with a built-in phonograph
and an earphone. A belt drive connected the two machines, and
provided a nonsynchronous musical background to Edison's brief
visual vignettes. The Kinetophone never took off, selling only 45
units compared with over a thousand units for the Kinetoscope.
Across the Atlantic, other corporate and creative minds were toying
with the problem. Among the most interesting experiments was
Léon Gaumont's Chronophone, little one-reel performance films
made during 1905-06, most of them directed by Alice Guy Blaché.
The Chronophone usually featured headliners from the French
music hall. The performers would emerge from behind a curtain and
advance toward the camera until they were in a medium shot, cut off
at the waist or knees, startlingly close for the period.
They would then launch into their routine, while a sound horn
behind the camera recorded the routine at the same time it was being
photographed. Because of the essential insensitivity of the apparatus,
the actors had to SPEAK THEIR LINES VERY LOUDLY! The projectionist
had a motor to control the differential; move the lever in one direction,
the projector would speed up and the phonograph slow down;
moving the lever in the other direction would slow the picture and
speed up the record.
The Chronophone was successfully exhibited in theaters, some
holding as many as three thousand people. The necessary amplification
was achieved via pneumatic sound boxes powered by a one-horsepower
compressor that blew air through the speakers and the
sound out into the auditorium. Synchronization would always be an
inherent problem for any film/disc system, so the Chronophone's
jerry-built system for producing a sufficient volume of sound for a
large auditorium would seem to have been another obstacle. Yet, "the
sound amplification was terrific," inventor and cameraman Arthur
Kingston told film historian Kevin Brownlow. "It was marvelous."
With the marginal differences of electrical recording replacing
acoustic recording, and the presence of that crude but workable
rheostat, the Chronophone was virtually identical to the Vitaphone
that would sweep the world in twenty years: a large disc in supposed
sync with a movie projector. Some of the Chronophones survive,
notably a reel of a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac starring the great
French actor Coquelin, who is passionate and quite intelligible.
Concurrently with the Chronophone, but back in America, an
invention called the Cameraphone was marketed, with a studio and
laboratory on the top of Daly's Theater, on Broadway near Thirtieth
Street. The records were made first, at the plant of Columbia Records.
At the movie studio, the actors would memorize the prerecorded
lines until they could play in perfect synchronization with
John Arnold, who later became head cameraman at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,
was one of those who made films using the Cameraphone.
"We made them by selecting a good phonograph record,"
he remembered in 1929, "rehearsing the artist ... in unison with the
record until his synchronization was passable, then photographing
him." According to William Haddock, a director for the Edison
company, the first Cameraphone pictures were exhibited at Sevin
Rock, Rhode Island, in 1907.
The Cameraphone used two Edison phonographs with very large
horns that alternated for the length of the film. It achieved a fair
amount of success in markets as large as Baltimore and Washington,
and as small as Johnston and Elkins, West Virginia. "All the operator
had to do," wrote projectionist Gustav Petersen, "was to match the
two things by listening to the record, reading the lips and watching
the motions of the players and keeping the speed of the projector
adjusted to the sounds. But that was easier said than done, and if he
got a second or so behind or ahead he was in trouble, sometimes till
the end of that reel."
Using already existing records such as "Silver Threads Among the
Gold" and "Harrigan, That's Me" soon gave way to Cameraphone
producing their own records, "record[ing] the sound on records in
the old mechanical way," said John Arnold, "then photographing the
cast on a set as a moving picture, they singing and playing their roles
in time to the phonograph offstage." These films were up to two
and three reels long. Cameraphone made films of The Mikado, The
Corsican Brothers, H.M.S. Pinafore, and personality shorts with people
like Eva Tanguay, Blanche Ring, and George M. Cohan.
The system needed two men, one to man the twin phonographs
behind the stage, another in the booth, with a buzzer system enabling
them to communicate. Gustav Petersen was working the phonograph
one night when they started off with an Eva Tanguay short.
It began in perfect synchronization but soon the record began moving
ahead of the projector. "Speed up!" buzzed Petersen, to no avail.
"The record finished," he remembered, "but Miss Tanguay was still
on the screen, hopping back and forth, waving her hands, opening
and shutting her mouth without a sound coming forth."
The longer the film, the more opportunities for disaster; if the
actors were in long shot for a while, chaos was imminent, because
they were too far away to allow for lipreading. "By the time we got
familiar with all of the cues ... we had another show come in,"
groused Petersen. Cameraphone cost exhibitors about $200 a week,
not counting the operator's salary. It went out of business in 1910,
the victim of what Haddock in 1938 called "friction among the
backers of the company."
As early as 1908, Carl Laemmle, then headquartered in Chicago,
had imported a machine called the Synchroscope, invented by a
German named Jules Greenbaum, that he had seen on one of his
frequent trips to Europe. As might be inferred from its name, the
Synchroscope attempted to synchronize records with specially made
films ("... It is still the only device which makes the moving picture
machine and the phonograph work in perfect unison," read
Laemmle's advertising). Initially showing only German-language
shorts, Laemmle hired Greenbaum's son to personally install every
Synchroscope that he sold.
Although the invention was pretty much limited to towns with
either a large German-speaking audience or a taste for classical music
--the programs were strictly musical in natureLaemmle managed
to place one in Omaha. Greenbaum's son spoke no English, which,
recalled the theater manager, "permitted me to say to him with impunity
and delightful safety many very caustic things when the first
Synchroscope tests in Omaha did not work out as smoothly as was
The initial Synchroscope price was a hefty $750, but Laemmle
managed to get it down to $395 on the low end and $550 on the high
end. The business reacted with alarm. "Is the moving picture business
about to be revolutionized?" asked Billboard. "Has the time
arrived when vaudeville houses can put on a whole bill by machinery? ... I
was fairly stunned the other day, when I witnessed a performance
that was so startlingly realistic that I don't hesitate to say
the questions already are answered in the affirmative."
Yet, cooler heads understood that inventions like the Synchroscope
were for novelty only. Silent films were still groping toward a
syntax, let alone a comprehensive vocabulary, so sound must have
seemed a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. The
Synchroscope petered out because, Will Hays claimed, "there were
not enough sound films to meet the market's demand. The supply
was exhausted. Another reason for failure was that the phonograph
records which were used were capable of holding material for only
two reels, while the theaters were demanding four and five reels."
What was the caliber of sound that audiences were hearing? William
Hornbeck, later to become the editor of Shane and Giant,
recalled a talking picture he saw as a boy in Los Angeles in 1913.
"The picture was always out of sync," he remembered. "The sound
did not match the photography at all. The screechy sound was pretty
bad; you could hardly understand what was being said. [The audience
wasn't] pleased with it; they kind of laughed at it because it was
so crude that the voices didn't match what the lips were saying."
While the Cameraphone, the Chronophone, the Synchroscope,
and various and sundry imitations approached their predestined
doom, an unheralded, amazing man named Eugene Augustine Lauste
was busily forging the matrix for a revolution that wouldn't happen
for another twenty years. The semifamous Lee De Forest would be
the nominal Edison of film sound, appropriating, borrowing, doing
little real inventing of his own; Lauste would be sound movies'
Augustin Le Prince, the man who, in 1890, may very well have been
the first to invent the movie projector.
Born in Montmartre in 1856, Lauste had filed fifty-three patents
in France before he was twenty-three. By trade he was an electrical
engineer who worked for Edison for six years beginning in 1886,
and, in 1896, Biograph. The impetus for Lauste's inventions was an
article about Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. It occurred to
Lauste that sound waves could be photographed and reproduced
using a variation on Bell's technology.
In 1904, Lauste built his first complete sound-on-film apparatus.
It was primitive but clearly the product of a man who was on the
right path. Because there was no amplification system, Lauste's invention
utilized earphones rather than speakers, and a selenium cell
rather than one of the photoelectric variety. In addition, it was a
double system, that is, the sound was on a different piece of film
from the picture, and occupied almost the entire strip of 35mm film.
In 1907, Lauste was issued an English patent (number 18,057) for
what he called the Photocinematophone.
It was, in every way, a master patent, but under English law a
patent lasted only sixteen years; by the time sound pictures became
commercially viable, Lauste's ideas were in the public domain. In
essence, the sound was captured by a microphone and translated into
light waves via a light valve, a thin ribbon of sensitive metal over a
tiny slit. The sound reaching this ribbon would be converted into
light by the shivering of the diaphragm, focusing the resulting light
waves through the slit, where it would be photographed on the side
of the film, on a strip about a tenth of an inch wide.
"I visited Mr. Lauste every week," remembered George Jones,
whose company, London Cinematograph, was financing the inventor,
"and saw and heard of his progress, and he got as far so that we
could hear the sound through a telephone receiver but could not get
the loudspeaker. We went to Paris and tried to get something in that
line but failed ... We paid Mr. Lauste a weekly wage, also all of his
expenses and the rent of his shop and house."
Despite the failure of London Cinematograph in 1910, Lauste
continued working at his studio at Brixton, outside of London. That
year, he was visited by an engineer named Egrot, who recalled
in 1930 that "the results [Lauste] obtained were very promising.
Listening to the music ... was as good as listening through [the]
telephone ... He had already records on both principles, variable
density and variable area ... Mr. Lauste was doing everything
himselfdesigns, patterns for casting, all the delicate engineering
and precision work, all electrical fitments, coils, transformers,
Lauste's work was interrupted by the war and his own poverty,
difficulties that were heightened by the traditional indifference of
English capital to the economic possibilities of inventions. Lauste
did partially demonstrate his invention in 1913 in London: "The
machine was set at work, like an ordinary cinematograph," said one
contemporary account. "No pictures, however, appeared, but from
a great megaphone there came voice sounds, and later the strains of
a band. The rays of light pouring from the cinema projector were
cut off suddenly. The sounds as suddenly ceased. A moment later
the light began to play again, and the speech was resumed at the
exact syllable where it was cut off."
According to the Daily Chronicle of August 27, 1913, the selections
Lauste demonstrated included the sound of a match being
struck, a duet on flute and piano, a military band playing "El Capitan,"
and a little speech by the inventor's son: "Gentlemen, I have
great pleasure in giving you a demonstration of this wonderful invention
called the Photocinematophone, invented by my father, Mr.
Eugene Lauste, by means of which sound waves are photographed
and reproduced on a film by a new process."
In 1914, it seemed that Lauste's run of bad luck was about to end;
two wealthy Englishmen agreed to spend $100,000 to equip a modern
laboratory, hire some assistants, and give Lauste a full year to
perfect his sound-on-film process. The contracts were drawn, but
the outbreak of World War I put an end to that particular deal. In
truth, Lauste's run of bad luck was just beginning.
"My capital was too limited to make great progress on my invention,"
he wrote in 1930. "Also, it was very difficult for me to interest
anybody in it as at the time nobody would believe such a revolutionary
invention was possible. Therefore I had to do the best I could
with the means at my command. I knew that it would take considerable
money to experiment on the vacuum tube [for amplification]
and as I could not then afford to spend any great sum, I decided to
turn my attention to work on a loud-speaking telephone ..." Although
he never really got out of the lab with his invention, except
for the problem of amplification Lauste had devised the essentials of
the talking picture.
Lauste ended up in Bloomfield, New Jersey, philosophically resigned
to his fate but insistent about his theoretical accomplishments
(his stationery was headed SOUND-FILM ENGINEERING). Almost penniless
by the late 1920s, Lauste was given a sinecure by the Bell
Laboratories that enabled him to live comfortably in a small cottage.
"I think the wine will be good this year," he wrote in 1932 to a friend
and supporter, "... so when you come out, which we hope will be
soon, we will make a very good test of them." This remarkable,
unsung man died in 1935.
* * *
Thomas Edison had his old interest in sound movies reawakened by
the Cameraphone experiments. In 1909, Edison staff director William
Haddock was told to make no more standard silent pictures but
to put himself and his staff at the disposal of Daniel Higham, from
the Edison Laboratory at Orange. Their task, wrote Haddock in
1938, was "to do the experimental work on what was to revolutionize
the industry, an Edison machine to combine the motion picture
and the phonograph."
Actually, it appears that Edison had begun his research a year
earlier, in 1908, at his studio on Decatur Avenue in the Bronx. The
partial basis for Edison's efforts was an invention by the Frenchman
Auguste Baron, who received a French patent in April 1896 for a
machine very similar to what Edison would call the Kinetophone,
and an American patent in August 1900. How did Edison utilize
somebody else's technology and get away with it? "He was Edison,"
says Robert Gitt, film archivist at UCLA. "He had an awful lot of
As with the Cameraphone, the initial records and pictures for
Edison's first system were made separately. Haddock spent weeks
convincing his boss that the "only way to get perfect synchronization
was to make the picture and the record at the same time."
According to Haddock, after successful tests with an actor named
Thomas Fortune singing "My Wife's Gone to the Country" on February
1, 1910, the Edison Talking Picture Company opened for business
on West Forty-third Street. "The Forty-third Street studio was
used for several months and then production was moved to the
Bronx studio," wrote Haddock. "But they did not make many pictures
there, as Mr. Edison found something more interesting to work
on and dropped the `talkies.'"
A few years later, the mercurial Edison reactivated the project and
called it the Kinetophone. After four years and what Edison said
was nearly a million dollars in research-and-development costs, he
was ready to bring his invention to market. In essence, the Kinetophone
was Edison's phonograph hooked up to a projector by means
of a silk cord or belt. The spring-driven recording unit with a large
recording horn was placed alongside the set and was connected by a
belt to the camera. To mark the start of synchronization, two halves
of a coconut shell were knocked together in a primitive form of a
The Kinetophone was hampered by Edison's odd but chronic
habit of misjudging some of his best ideas. When a record was made
in those days, the artist usually stood within a foot of the recording
horn. When orchestras made records, horns were directly attached
to certain instruments in order to direct the sound waves into the
recorder. It was nearly impossible to make a record of anybody
standing any distance from the horn, yet Edison was trying to reproduce
opera and stage drama with a technology that made movement
The films were shot at about sixteen frames per second on 35mm
film, with the sound being captured on soft wax cylinders rather
than discs. The films for this second incarnation of the Kinetophone
ran about five minutes and fifty-five seconds because that was the
length of time it took to photograph 400 feet of film.
Edison worked hard to make the phonograph horn sensitive
enough to pick up actors' voices from a distance, but that meant it
also picked up noise from the street. Another complication was that
the heat from the lights softened the wax used for the phonograph
In order to show the films, a large phonograph was placed by the
screen, connected by a looping cord that ran over a system of pulleys
to the projector in the back of the theater. The projectionist's assistant
would line up the filmed striking of the coconut shells with the
sound of the knock on the disc. The projectionist would start to
crank, and the resulting synchronization was totally controlled by
how smoothly the projectionist cranked his machine. Many of the
first Kinetophone shorts were dramas and musical numbers deriving
from the stage, including scenes from Faust, Julius Caesar, and Il
On Monday, February 17, 1913, four theaters in New York and
seven others from Chicago to St. Louis simultaneously premiered
the Kinetophone. The evening began with a man on-screen explaining
Edison's latest invention. He ended his introduction by
breaking a plate and blowing a whistle. "The distinctive sound
of each was heard," reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the next
day. Other performers appeared in the same stage setting, playing
"The Last Rose of Summer" and "Way Down Upon the Swanee
"The voice reproduction was astonishingly good," reported the
Post-Dispatch, "and, most convincing of all, the notes of the song
seemed to come actually from the singer's own throat ... The big ...
audience sat literally spellbound before this exhibition ... when the
screen became black for a moment, the Columbia [theater] rang
again and again with applause." The New York Times reported that
the musicians were listened to "with fascinated attention." At one
theater, "at the close of the pictures the audience applauded for
fifteen minutes ... New York applauds the talking picture."
Introduced to vaudeville by the powerful United Booking Company,
the Kinetophone quickly became quite popular, or at least
Edison labored mightily to give that impression. It even inspired
knockoff inventions, such as the "Real Life Talking Motion Picture"
based on West Thirty-first Street in New York. Kinetophone studios
were established in Vienna and St. Petersburg, and among those who
appeared in the films were Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Watson, and
New York's Mayor Gaynor. In spite of the initial success, Edison
realized the system was too primitive. "The talking pictures are very
crude as yet," he told the New York Tribune in September 1913. "It
will take a year to perfect them and my new invention." But Edison
didn't have that long.
Variety reported of a Kinetophone show at the Palace Music Hall
on May 7 in Chicago that "from the very beginning the house was
in an uproar. Persons in the audience mocked the voices, shouted,
catcalled and applauded so it was impossible to hear the voices.
During the speech some shouted `Louder' and `Sit down.' Others
clamored for the show to go on." By March, Variety was calling the
Kinetophone THE SENSATION THAT FAILED. By that time, Edison's
only hope was the foreign market, but the outbreak of World War I
put an end to that possibility.
The tide had turned, and quickly; Variety wrote that "The talking,
instead of enhancing the picture, simply annoys ... The general verdict
was that the Edison Pictures are an out-and-out flop." The
Kinetophone studio was dismantled and sold. Years later, after Vitaphone
had taken the world of show business by storm, surviving
technicians who had worked on the Kinetophone would claim that
"the Kinetophone was the equal of any sound picture system existing
What had happened becomes clear when the Kinetophone recordings
preserved at the Library of Congress are examined. The
sound is that of a static-filled radio broadcastthe performers are
intelligible, but you have to concentrate. What finally makes the
invention insupportable is the fact that they're all virtually screaming
their lines. Initially funny, it's wearing after five minutes; an entire
program of it would be maddening.
The mere fact that Edison had to resort to vaudeville as a means
of getting some of his money back, rather than far more lucrative
bookings in either nickelodeons or legitimate theaters, is indicative
of trouble behind the scenes. Certainly, the sound volume would
have been inadequatethe amplifier that had been devised by Daniel
Higham increased surface noise as well as volumeand synchronization
would have been very difficult to maintain. Just because
something works moderately well under the controlled conditions
of the lab is no guarantee it will work in the field.
The great Edison had slammed into the same barrier that would
stymie all inventors seeking to perfect a film/disc system: the phonograph
and the motion picture worked on two separate principles.
The phonograph involved a continuous record of vibrations etched
onto a wax-coated cylinder; the motion picture involved a discrete
series of individual frames that created the illusion of continuous
motion by the phenomenon of persistence of vision. Trying to synchronize
one unit moving continuously with another unit engaged
in stopping and starting some sixteen times a second was a virtual
impossibility. Fewer than fifty of the Kinetophone units were sold.
It seems clear that the Patents Companya trust formed in 1908
that pooled competing motion-picture patent claims and assigned
them to Edisonwas none too thrilled about one of their own
introducing an invention that just might render the rest of the company's
product obsolete. There were also rumors of powerful enemies
bribing projectionists to throw off synchronization purposely,
not that the projectionists would have needed much encouragement
--they weren't paid anything extra for what they regarded as additional
In short, the Kinetophoneindeed, the entire confluence of
sound and cinemawas an idea without a constituency. The abrupt
failure of the Kinetophoneit was extinct by 1915, after having
been used for the production of about 260 filmsmeant that the
idea of adding sound to movies was regarded as a fool's errand. It
had been tried in the marketplace, found wanting, and that was that.
By the mid-1920s, the resistance of exhibitors to spending money
on anything technical or experimental was ubiquitous within the
industry. "We owned a lot of theaters," said J. J. (Joe) Cohn, production
manager at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, "and a lot of the theater
[managers] said if we made [pictures with] sound, they wouldn't run
Even Edison was chastened by the failure, and decided that if he
couldn't beat them, he would join them. "Americans require a restful
quiet in the moving picture theater," he said in May 1926, "and for
them talking from the lips of the figures on the screen destroys the
illusion ... the idea is not practical. The stage is the place for the
Clearly, if sound was going to reappear, it would have to come
from outside the industry for which it was intended. Only technicians
and theoreticians continued to believe in movies with words.
Among the undiscouraged partisans was a man named Austin Lescarboura,
who fearlessly ventured an outrageous opinion in 1921:
"The talking picture ... is gathering strength in the laboratory. When
the proper time comes, it will soon live down its unfortunate past."