Invention of Sound for Movies

We take a deep look back to before film sound was a contributor to entertainment but instead looked upon as a laboratory oddity

Having seen “Making Waves,” I am thrilled to see the attention being paid to film sound. Certainly sound effects, music and even the human voice have never played so large a role as they do in today’s film productions. In the early days, this artistry wasn’t even a remote possibility. It was a long time before the inventors and the engineers were able to build a platform that allowed today’s sound artisans to exercise their talents.

Midge Costin’s directorial debut is wonderful in touching on how the human element has evolved. If you haven’t read Woody Woodhall’s interview with Midge Costin you should take the time to learn about what she and her team worked to create. For my part, I wanted find out how the technical parts were finally brought together.

Audience’s and critics alike are in love with the film. It pulls back the curtain to reveal to many audience members how film sound has “grown up” over the years to become an art form in its own right. Costin refers to the seventies as the quantum leap. “I love the fact that sound is getting attention… we’re so not used to it… it’s so unusual.”

Through interviews with people that were there and using films that will be familiar to the audience, it breaks down the process of how today’s film sound tracks are created. Costin said, “We intentionally made it for a general audience but also so it would be entertaining and educational for a fairly savvy film audience… I think people are pleasantly surprised… that it is quite entertaining but has educational value.”

She swiftly takes us through the invention process that leads up to the point where film sound moves from an unwanted stepchild and brings it to modern day when sound got “bigger.” But a lot of the early developments had to be covered quickly to keep it in a film that is limited in its acceptable length. Costin told me, “I knew I wanted to make a ninety minute film because I am of the belief ninety minutes is the human attention span particularly for a documentary.” With 90 interviews generating almost 200 hundred hours of material, needless to say, much had to be relegated to the cutting room floor.

There wasn’t very much in libraries or archives about sound. Costin said, “When we started to research we realized there was hardly anything about the first generation of sound people.” In the early days, there were many technical developments but again, the time available in the film was working against them. Costin added, “We spent the last half hour on what people do today, how we break things down – ambience, foley, sound effects and dialog. I thought that was more important than going through the history.”

A lot of designing and inventing happened during the early days. People involved were inventors trying to solve problems. The nuances of quality would have to wait while they figured out just how they were going to merge the media. Walter Murch describes in his first words about film sound – “they start as two different technologies.”

While not meant to be an in depth treatise of the subject, hopefully this article will augment the background information mentioned in the film.

In 1877, Thomas Edison began work on developing the phonograph. With his recording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” the sound revolution began. But the public became bored because the quality didn’t advance beyond its early stages.

The initial phonograph easily recorded music or a human voice via a horn connected to a diaphragm. The diaphragm was connected to a needle that scratched on a piece of tinfoil wrapped around a spinning disc. Lifting the needle, moving it back to the beginning and restarting it allowed the listener to hear what had just been recorded. After his initial success Edison lost interest in the project and did not improve it. “The tinfoil tears easily and reproduction is distorted and squeaky.” Edison moved on to another project – developing the New York City electric light and power system.

In 1879, Alexander Graham Bell got involved. His father in law, Gardiner Hubbard, was president of the company that had purchased the Edison phonograph patent and was having problems with finances due to the inattention of Edison. Bell was looking for “new worlds to conquer” and Hubbard got him interested in making improvements to the phonograph. In 1885, when they were sure they had a number of practical inventions they filed applications for patents. The Graphophone patent was one of them. The Graphophone was now on a flat disc rather than tinfoil rolled on a tube.

Edison always wanted to team the sound and picture together. Costin said, “He [Edison] did the moving pictures to go along with the phonograph.” He had one of his laboratory assistants, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, go to work on building a motion picture film camera. In 1894, Dickson, building on the work of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Marey (two other early motion picture camera inventors), unveiled the Kinetograph. Several other European inventors applied for patents before Edison did for similar designs. Because Edison had the camera built to work as an adjunct to his phonograph, there was no projector. Instead it was a “peep-show” device. Try as they might, no one was ever able to find a way to sync up the phonograph to the kinetoscope until Walter Murch finally did it digitally in 2000.

According to the Library of Congress, Edison continued marketing the Kinetoscope to run continuous film loops in amusement centers. When sales slowed in 1895 due to the popularity of the growing projection technology showing silent films, Edison introduced the Kinetophone. It did bring Edison’s dream of uniting the motion picture with the phonograph (with audio connected to the first “ear-buds”). Yes, sound pictures were a reality. However, only one person was able to use a machine at a time, the device only offered recorded music when the picture started to play. Synchronization didn’t get beyond starting the two machines together. Costin adds, “They didn’t think about things running at different speeds so they could never sync it.” Ultimately it failed to find a market.

Man using Edison’s Kinetophone. First machine to attempt to put sound & picture together. (Public Domain)

In 1895, C. Francis Jenkins and his partner, Thomas Armat, agreed to work together on a way to project the “peep shows” and by September, 1895, they demonstrated film projection at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, using their Phantoscope.

There are conflicting accounts of who invented motion picture projectors. It ends up in the courts and you find different names attached to it including Edison’s. But it is Jenkins who gets the recognition as well as the patent rights. Eventually, Associate Justice Alexander Hagner of the District of Columbia Supreme Court wrote, “The evidence filed by both parties, proves, as far as it proves anything, that Jenkins is the sole inventor…and it is so ordered.”

Jenkins agreed to sell his patent on the projector for $2500 to Edison/Armat. He was quoted as saying “…a person more experienced in legal matters would have seen the inevitable result of so unequal financial resources. It’s the old story over again – the inventor gets the experience and the capitalist the invention. I’ll know better next time.”

Even citing that as a given it must be pointed out that John Rudge, a magic lantern and instrument maker from Bath, England, was working on his Phantascope in 1875.

In a side note, Jenkins is also responsible for the founding of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (SMPE). Later, they would add Television to their name the acronym became SMPTE.

Either Armat or Edison changed the name to the Vitascope and marketed it aggressively. Before long, however, investors lost money due to the lack of availability of films. At the time there were only about twenty films and the resources quickly went dry.

Others demonstrated competing systems in 1896. William Dickson had consulted on the Eidoloscope projector and he left Edison’s employment on April 2, 1895. He was a participant in American Mutoscope and Biograph Company that opened in December of 1895. They soon became a major competitor to Edison. Dickson’s company, Biograph, was active until 1916 and released over 3000 shorts and 12 feature films.

Meanwhile, the Lumière Brothers had debuted their combined camera/projection system in Europe on December 28th, 1895, but it had not yet been demonstrated in the United States. Vaudeville managers reacted to the positive response coming out of London to the Lumière Cinématographe and were about to invest in it. “Edison films initially featured material such as circus or vaudeville acts that could be taken into a small studio to perform before an inert camera, while early Lumière films were mainly documentary views, or “actualities,” shot outdoors” by their cameramen all over the world.

Thanks to projection movies were able to take off. With audiences now able to see the silent films in a room that would hold as many people as would fit, it became a theatrical experience. Audiences were enamored of it. They started watching for films with their favorite performers. Names like Chaplin, Lloyd or Gish were sure to fill up the house.

Just a note about silent movies. They weren’t really silent. From a piano player in a small town to full orchestras complete with a sound effects crew in the larger cities, movies have always had aural accompaniment. The bigger the venue, the more elaborate the sound experience up to and including full orchestras or huge pipe organs. Even smaller venues could have a show with appropriate sound effects. All played live.

“Around the turn of the century, films began developing a structure by stringing scenes together” into a narrative. “By 1916 there were more than 21,000 movie theaters in the United States.” “By 1929, more than 100 million Americans were going to the movies each week.” Most of the audiences were content with the intertitles and the music. But entrepreneurial inventors continued to research how to get the movies to talk.

But, as Walter Murch reminded us earlier, for sound to be joined to film, the technology would have to change. As it turns out, radio would be a driving force in solving film’s audio beginnings.

In 1904, John Fleming invented the world’s first vacuum tube. Known as the “Fleming Valve,” it was meant to help distinguish telegraph messages. Dr. Lee DeForest began looking new uses for the Fleming’s vacuum tube.

There is much discussion pro and con about DeForest. He was a graduate of Yale University and had become interested in the work of Heinrich Hertz and Guglielmo Marconi. To some he is the “father of radio” and the “the grandfather of television.” To others, he was a person who claimed those titles for him self. In any case he is the one who holds the patents even if said patents are disputed by people around him.

Working from Fleming’s design, DeForest developed the “Audion” tube 1906. In later years when DeForest and Edwin Armstrong were involved in legal disputes over a patent, Armstrong was able to demonstrate DeForest “had no idea how the Audion tube actually worked.” But the Audion would ultimately play a role into sound-on-film research. It should be pointed out here that the amplifier DeForest had developed left a lot to be desired. It was only after AT&T through their Western Electric Laboratories’ engineering department greatly improved the amplifiers until they were deemed acceptable. Western Electric was able to rework the tube so it allowed for extending telephone circuits to run longer distances as well as other inventions like radar and early computers.


But its contribution to movies was it allowed an amplifier to be put in place between the miniscule current being generated by a phonograph needle and, via an electromagnet, an amplified speaker system. At last the output could be amplified and film showings were not restricted to four or five people huddled around a horn attached to a vibrating diaphragm!

Western Electric wisely built their amplification system so it would adapt to any kind of input. No matter that the signal emanated from a phonograph disc, rotating cylinder or some other method coming directly off the film. While it was a leap forward, amplifiers only raised the volume so that people could hear it. It did nothing to clean up a noisy signal or bring the sound into synchronization with the film.

Later Western Electric married turntables to the film projector and synchronized them through a direct mechanical coupling. The exact start point had to be identified on the disc recording and “sync’d” to the corresponding frame of the film in the projector’s gate.



In 1925 Western Electric tried to interest Hollywood in their system. “The studios that owned their own theaters were doing a good business with silent films” and were not interested. Only Warner Brothers was struggling and decided to take a chance. They released several experiments, usually short films. But on August 5, 1926, with the premiere of their silent feature “Don Juan” they introduced Vitaphone (a name derived from the Latin word “living” and Greek word for “sound”). The movie had a synchronized music and sound effects track. “There was no spoken dialog. The feature was preceded by a program of short subjects with live-recorded sound…”

It worked! The public’s interest in sound was piqued. The next year, 1927, Warner’s released “The Jazz Singer” and it broke box office records! Even though there were only 291 words spoken, it would go down as the moment the actors could emote with their voices in addition to their actions. “It established Warner Bros. as a major player in Hollywood and is traditionally credited with single-handedly launching the talkie revolution.”

Meanwhile, Dr. DeForest continued exploring ways to eliminate the synchronization issue altogether by putting the sound on the film itself. In 1918, drawings of his sound on film invention began to take shape. But again and again, DeForest’s attempts at converting sound to light and back again proved to be unsuccessful. His system, named Phonofilm, suffered from poor quality audio. He needed help.

In 1921 he approached Theodore Case (an engineer who had a track record with the Navy in converting sound into light and back again) suggesting they collaborate on Case’s Thallofide cell for the sound experiments. Case had his own company Case Research Lab (CRL), and worked out of his own home in Auburn, New York. By late 1922, CRL had invented the AEO (Alkaline, Earth, Oxide) tube, a light that could react to variations in sound waves. Case used it to record the sound directly to the film and used the Thallofide cell for playback.

But in 1925 Case severed his ties with De Forest over non-payment. He also complained De Forest withheld credit correctly identifying him as the inventor. Case went on to patent his own versions of the systems. He sold these patents to Fox Film Corporation. Fox established the Movietone system and used it to produce newsreels and eventually features.

By the end of the decade, RCA would release its sound on film system called RCA Photophone. (The Case and Deforest systems were “variable density” and RCA’s was “variable area”) Both systems were in use for “almost 50 years until optical based sound film exhibition was superseded by other technologies.”


Sound in motion pictures increased their popularity but they took awhile to get up and running. “Revamping a single theater could cost $15,000 with more than 20,000 movie theaters in the United States” the cost becomes staggering. A lot of infrastructure needed to be built both at the studios and in the theaters. Studios continued releasing silent pictures or pictures with synchronous music. A few would have dialog but not through the whole film.

The next step would be stereo. While preparing an elaborate edition of one of his “Silly Symphony” cartoon series, Walt Disney met with conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, in late 1937. As the project came together it mushroomed into a full-length feature. Stokowski had participated in experimental stereophonic recording in 1931 and 1932. Disney directed that his studio engineering team lead by William E. Garity should research stereo sound. Garity looked to the RCA Manufacturing Co. to get involved and Watson Jones joined the team. The original orchestral recordings were mixed down to three main tracks along with one control track. These tracks were used in the final road show exhibitions. Time magazine reported, “The music comes not simply from the screen, but from everywhere.”

Unfortunately, due to the setup time required, only legitimate live theaters in all but one location in the USA qualified to run the film. The installation and testing of the “Fantasound” equipment required too much time for film theaters. At the next Academy Awards ceremonies “Fantasia” was awarded a special Oscar in recognition of the film’s sound. But it never caught on because the system was so unwieldy and ended its run in 1941. RKO acquired the distribution rights to “Fantasia” and re-released the picture with a monaural soundtrack.

After World War II, television drove many of the format changes of theatrical films. The producers were under the gun to counter television with anything they could come up with to lure audiences away from their living room TV’s and back into the theater. Wide screen, 3-D, 70mm and big sound were the most popular.

In 1952, the release of Cinerama had similar sound disadvantages to “Fantasia.” Cinerama was shot with three cameras and gave audiences sweeping views and the feeling they were in the picture. In addition to the majesty of the huge images, Cinerama also used multitrack magnetic sound with seven tracks – five speakers behind the screen, one for both sides and one in the back of the auditorium. “Cinerama was a popular novelty, but its costs were prohibitive and the process was abandoned in the 1960’s. Later references to Cinerama were essentially a one-projector 70-mm variant on the anamorphic Cinemascope process.”

Fox complemented its wide screen film “The Robe” (1953) with a stereo sound track. “The Robe” went with four channel sound. The print had three channels of magnetic for left, right and center behind the screen and one optical channel for the effects in the house. Fox’s first problem was there was no monaural or back-up channel. Because of this, it was limited to a small number of properly equipped “road-show” theaters. Also, the format required the sprocket holes on the prints be reduced in size making the “film more prone to wear and damage.” These two factors made it an expensive proposition for the studio.

Likewise, Warner’s experimented with 3-D and multi-channel sound with its second 3-D feature “House of Wax” that premiered on April 10, 1953. It was married to a stereo magnetic track that provided the left, right and center channels originating from a separate machine running in sync with the projectors. The fourth channel was an optical monaural channel running from the right projector for off screen effects located on speakers around the house (the left projector carried a mono optical track for back up or venues with no multitrack capabilities).

Michael Todd working with the American Optical Company [to] give the audience the same effect as Cinerama with far less complexity” offered Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” to debut his Todd-A-O format in 1955. The film was shot on 65mm camera negative but released in 70mm. The extra 5mm was reserved for the six track magnetic sound down each edge of the film. Like Cinerama, five channels were behind the screen to accomdate the larger picture. The sixth track was for the surround. In some cases, Perspecta (a system developed for Paramount’s VistaVision format), provided a left, center, right surround channel by encoding tones in the channel.

With the release of “Kismet” in 1955 most film features settled into a stereo magnetic and a mono optical track configuration. “The cinema industry did not see any new innovation until the seventies.” And that brings us back to “Making Waves,” the documentary.

Costin takes us back to the seventies with the sound background of films like “Apocolypse Now” to “Ordinary People” and connects them with the engineering developments they represented and the people responsible for those developments. For example, people ask her about the “Star is Born” segment with Barbara Streisand. Stereo had already been used as far back as “Fantasia.” But the film’s tracks were noisy (a low hiss was in each one).

Dolby had been working with the music industry for quite some time. An engineer for Ray Dolby, Ioen Allen, thought they should get involved with sound for movies. Dolby agreed but when Allen approached the studios, it was history repeating itself. The studios said, “We don’t need it. Things are fine they way they are.” Just like when Western Electric approached the studio heads with the offer to bring them the capability of sound! One by one films like “A Clockwork Orange” and “Tommy” made changes in the way soundtracks were created.

Then Barbara Streisand came in with a “Star is Born” and, thinking she was asking for an ‘option’, she wanted the audience to believe they were experiencing a concert. Costin adds “Barbara wanted not just the music to sound big but wanted the crowd to sound big in those big halls and have the audience feel what it would be like to really be there.” Dolby noise reduction was the solution. It was the first time a film had two optical strips that contained a five channel surround sound encoded in it. Costin said, “She didn’t know she was asking for a change that would change the way films sound forever.”

“Making Waves” has been praised by Variety as being “lovingly directed by Midge Costin.” It’s as entertaining as it is educational. It will be available in February on BluRay or Apple streaming.

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