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Electric Affinities - Electricity and Thermionics, PHOTOEMISSIVE CELLS, PHOTOCONDUCTIVE CELLS, The Telephone, Radio, Television, Phonography, OPTICAL SOUND RECORDING


Often the best way to understand a new technology is to compare it to an older one already understood. Frequently when writers in the late 1920s introduced the talkies, the simile of choice was the automobile. George Klee used the car to illustrate his point that the talkies were still in an embryonic stage: “The talking film may by no means be compared to the present film in the same way as the electric engine to the steam locomotive or the airplane to the automobile.” 1 On the subject of the part-dialogue film, “it was as if Henry Ford had tried to ease into production on his new car by sending out his old model with a new gearshift, promising a complete model in a few months.” 2 Jesse Lasky of Paramount also used the car as a paradigm: “It would be foolish to pretend that the talking picture has attained its ultimate excellence. Nothing has. But it is here to stay—as substantial a product of our progress as the motor car or the airplane.” 3

Perhaps the most striking object lesson about technology is contained in the film that Warner Bros. produced in 1927 to showcase its Vitaphone sound system, THE FIRST AUTO. It was written and supervised by Darryl Zanuck, the production manager responsible for guiding the studio’s features into the uncharted realm of sound. The plot, as though symbolizing his concerns, is a parable that addresses the cultural stress introduced during a critical moment when a new technology—the automobile—makes its forerunner obsolete. There is one sequence of pure spectacle: a parade of antique vehicles shows the modern auto of 1927 “morphing” out of its earlier form as the horseless carriage. The unmistakable metaphor is that the Vitaphone, like the auto, will transform our old way of life, silent film.

Once installation of sound systems began in 1928, most of the writers in the popular press of the day—but not all—presumed that the talkies were destined to become universally accepted. This was based on technological determinism, the conviction that the essence of something new originates from the sequence of technological innovations that produced it. Many popular film commentators in the 1920s saw the perfected talkies as an inevitable outgrowth of modern science—a predestined consequence of other communication technologies. The film historian Terry Ramsaye was the boldest in tracing the origins of the talkies back to the roots of cinema. The coming of sound had been preordained when Edison invented the phonograph: “Critics are still dubious, and some of the old masters of the movies are secretly skeptical, but the buying millions have made the decision. Mr. Edison’s primary and original project of the motion picture as an accessory to the phonograph has arrived, like the newsboy who became president, in triumph.” 4 Another typical statement was, “It won’t be long now until everybody throughout the country will be seeing and hearing great artists that hitherto have been merely phantoms or phonographic records to them; and every audience, even the remotest, will hear pictures accompanied by the greatest symphonic and band music in the world.” 5 Myron M. Stearns agreed: “Already the handwriting is on the wall. Five minutes of any ‘all talker,’ no matter how poor the story may be, will show you how quickly the audience accepts the new convention of sound. … One year, two years, three years, and, it seems safe to predict, the silent movie of yesterday and today, except in out-of-the-way corners and Little Theaters, will be no more.” By 1929, people interested in film could read, “you may like them or lump them, but [sound pictures] are here to stay”; and, “‘See, hear and touch’ will probably be our next miracle.” 6 Articles like these suggest that the commentators regarded the transition to sound as an unstoppable technological force.

Wireless radio broadcasting provided another model for understanding the inevitability of sound cinema. Some authors suggested that sound in pictures could be achieved by “marrying” radio and film. Silent cinema, John Butler argued in 1922, had been handicapped by its lack of sound:

This industry, while already a giant in size and accomplishment, has been permitted only half expression, only half development. But with the radio to act as its tongue, its handicapping lack of speech will be removed.

That industry is, of course, the movies. Speechless, it has perfected the art of visual expression to a degree that has won it the unqualified respect and affection of the entire human race.…

Through all its progress its sponsors have mourned its handicaps; have irked under the inevitable burden of its muteness. Now they are eagerly awaiting the hour when the stifling hand of silence is lifted. They are certain that hour is coming, borne on the wings of the radio. (John H. Butler, “Radio to Make Movies Talk,” Illustrated World , July 1922, p. 673)

Alert readers already knew of considerable research in this field being conducted at General Electric. This was the well-publicized Pallophotophone, developed by Charles A. Hoxie. This device recorded sound on motion picture film stock, but not as movie entertainment. It was for radio broadcasting. “The transmission of ‘canned music’ and voices over the radio is by no means new,” wrote a journalist in 1922. “In fact, it is little short of being a bore, but the record of the pallophotophone can not be compared to the phonograph.” 7 Potential applications included the making of talking movies, but that was only one use among many—for example, the scientific study of the voice. Scientific American added that the device could also be used to broadcast playbacks of a speech simultaneously on multiple stations. 8

When Western Electric became publicly involved in exploiting sound pictures, AT&T’s advertising encouraged the public to view the telephone as the ancestor of the talkies. The phone for decades had been promoted as a device embodying progressive technology. Writers readily agreed; for instance: “The instruments that have made the dumb drama articulate are really not so difficult of comprehension as most people think; that is, if you understand the simple principle of the telephone—which you probably don’t.… All speakies, of whatsoever name or design, begin with a telephone.” 9 World’s Work made the telephonic link specific in its thumbnail film history:

The man who invented the telephone is primarily responsible. When he sent spoken words over metal strand the last folks he could have been thinking of were the careless herds who mill around the playhouse lobbies. Yet the moment he created the telephone diaphragm he made possible the talkie. … Exploitation of one scientific process never contents keen minds cloistered in laboratories. Each discovery must pay by-product dividends. (Robert E. MacAlarney, “The Noise Movie Revolution,” World’s Work , April 1929, p. 48)

For many, the talkies were envisioned only as a way station to a device that would broadcast image and sound together. One of the most influential critics, Robert E. Sherwood, assumed that the talkies would usher in television and noted cynically that Hollywood had become an electrical " ‘subsidiary,’ like the electric toaster industry, or the vacuum tube industry. It will be part of that vast and superbly organized scheme by which entertainment is to be delivered, free of charge, to the multitude." 10 The prolific and widely admired arts critic Gilbert Seldes was one who saw a link between the technology of the past and that of the future. Movies and TV would vie for complete audio-visual illusionism:

[W]ithin another year we shall probably have the simple and comparatively inexpensive mechanisms, now being perfected, which will throw on a small screen set up beside the home radio set a moving picture projected from a central broadcasting station; it is only a matter of time before this televisual entertainment is extended so that it, too, will have speech and sound in perfect synchronization. … In its competition with television, the talkie will presently have the aid of three-dimensional films and of color. (Gilbert Seldes, “Talkies’ Progress,” Harper’s , September 1929, pp. 454, 460)

Two decades later, Seldes would write a respected history of television. 11

The movie czar Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), reflected Hollywood’s interest in television when he painted a picture of a new Hollywood dominated by scientists, not scenarists:

The motion-picture industry today has become a veritable laboratory of the research scientist, the engineer, the chemist and the inventor. Heretofore it has been popularly regarded as the workshop of the author and the scenario writer, of directors, artists and producers. Today dramatics, mechanics, music, chemistry and electricity have joined forces to advance cinematic progress. Even television is within the scope of such progress. (Will Hays, “The Cinema of Tomorrow,” Ladies’ Home Journal , July 1930, p. 51)

But others objected to the idea of a transformed cinema. A significant dissenter from the euphoric view that the talkies were the next stage of radio and a stepping-stone to TV was D. W. Griffith. The pioneer of narrative cinema still, in 1924, claimed a cachet as a spokesperson for film art. In his vision of the future, he saw radio and the motion picture going separate ways, pronouncing emphatically that, “when a century has passed, all thought of our so-called speaking pictures will have been abandoned. It will never be possible to synchronize the voice with the pictures. This is true because the very nature of the films forgoes not only the necessity for but the propriety of the spoken voice.” 12   Instead, he foresaw “symphonic orchestras of greater proportions than we now dream.” This view expressed that of the minority who felt that the technology bringing the voice betrayed cinema’s essence as a visual or “pantomimic” (silent theatrical) art. As late as 1929, when many theaters had already converted to sound, there were still diametrically opposed opinions about the technological inevitability of the talkies. Welford Beaton, outspoken editor of the Film Spectator , wrote:

It is the fact that the present age is becoming overcanned. We stood for the phonograph and the radio, but talking pictures carry the thing just a little too far. Now we are promised television and a third screen dimension, depth added to height and width. As a toy, television will amuse for a time, and it may be put to some practical uses, but we never are going to be entertained by hearing Jack Barrymore read Hamlet to us from one of our living-room walls. (Welford Beaton, “A Real Tail on a Bronze Bull,” Saturday Evening Post , 21 September 1929, p. 140) 13

There were, however, few such complaints that the talkies had overmechanized society. Most popular writers, trying to understand the new mode of film, recast it as an industrial revolution—something new, yet determined by what had come before. The success of the old technological advances—the auto, phonographs, telephones, radio, electrical science—forecast the inevitability of the newest ones, the talkies and 3-D color television.

Electricity and Thermionics

The zesty fast-paced era of the 1920s known as the Jazz Age could just as readily be called the Thermionic Age. Admittedly, it is easy to see why this label never caught on. It does not exactly lilt off the tongue, and few know what the term means anymore. Thermionics is the branch of physics concerned with the electrical effects produced by heated metals in a vacuum. In the twenties, everyone was aware that the jazz in the air and on phonograph discs was heard thanks to newly developed vacuum tubes (or valves, in British usage). (Thermionics was a predecessor to the word electronics , which was coined in the 1920s but not used widely until after the invention of the transistor in 1947.) The advances in telephone transmission, public address amplification, medical imaging, electric lighting, and other electrified devices contributing to the swirl of modern life could be traced to the commercialization of vacuum tubes. Sound cinema, too, was one further application of thermionics. The equipment that movie moguls installed in their studios and exhibitors in their theaters relied on the fundamental underlying technology of vacuum tube devices.

The idea of using electricity to work communication magic and improve life became an organizing motif of everyday life early in the twentieth century. Consumers enjoyed electrical appliances made possible by war spin-off technology, mass-production, increasing middle-class affluence, and government subsidy of electric service. During the first stages of sound transition, movie critics and consumers emphasized the talkies’ Utopian and scientific potential. 14 Film sound was part of the brave new world of electronic gadgets. To some extent, Vitaphone, which could be construed to mean “living telephone,” was just another kind of appliance, but one to be enjoyed by a consuming community rather than privately in the home.

That movie sound evolved from electricity and vacuum tubes was uncontested as far as the public was concerned. What was at stake for the corporations that controlled the technology was to convince consumers that sound belonged to a particular manufacturing group and that the group enjoyed a “natural” claim to exploit sound. (Note that the manufacturers derived their money only indirectly from the ticket-buying public; their direct consumers were the studio- and theater-owning clients.) As a selling point, the equipment manufacturers promoted their own time-tested expertise in the technologies from which sound cinema allegedly descended, telephone, radio, and the phonograph. Public demonstrations of equipment, planted articles in trade journals, and unacknowledged collaborations with authors in mass-circulation magazines aimed to cement in the minds of the public and exhibitors a perceived affinity with this or that electrical ancestor. Modern-day marketers call this capturing “mindshare.”

The name Electrical Research Products, Inc. (ERPI), which AT&T created in 1927 for its sound system marketing unit, was well chosen. From the beginning, movies had been perceived and promoted as having an electrical mystique. Theaters a couple of decades earlier had appellations like “Electric Kinema.” Film exhibition in the 1920s retained its association with light and electrical energy. Movie stars still had their names “in lights,” that is, in a thousand bulbs on marquees. Powerful searchlights illuminated premieres and theater grand openings. Inside the picture palace, one filed past radiant displays of lobby cards and posters, past the bright concession stands, and into the auditorium where the walls and ceiling were washed in auroras. Spotlights highlighted the color and texture of the curtain. The gaudy Wurlitzer organ glowed. Though we do not think about the cinema’s roots in electricity these days, in 1926 the connection was not taken for granted. Certainly the near-religious awe of the electric lightbulb had long since dissipated, but the science that developed from it, thermionics, still hummed with those connotations. AT&T and its subsidiary Western Electric, as well as General Electric and RCA, had similar interests in advertising the talkies as the product of electrical science. These corporations had research departments which required constant product innovations. That movie sound was being supplied by major corporations with familiar corporate names sanctioned the talkies as a serious and respectable enterprise. If electrical engineers, a new and esteemed profession, were devoting their labors to making the movies talk, then this spectacle must be legitimate science. It was readily conceivable that talking pictures someday might be as ubiquitous as lightbulbs, radios, and telephones.

For a good specific illustration of the awe of electricity, the priestly mantle of the electrician, and electricity’s association with sound, we can look at the technical manual Handbook of Projection , written in 1929. F. H. Richardson exhorted his readers, who were practicing and aspiring projectionists, to learn about electricity because film sound was really nothing more than electric current. He prided himself on his up-to-date knowledge of the present state of electrical science:

In this work I shall adopt the latest theory of electric action, which holds that what we term electric current consists of minute particles of negatively charged electricity called “Electrons.” … I am not proposing to take part in any argument as to whether this theory is right or wrong. I merely am telling you it is now the theory accepted by scientists, hence we shall use it in this work. … The acceptance of the new theory is very recent.

Richardson did not mince words. He promoted the talkies as a scientific wonder which should inspire reverence in any projectionist.

The marvelous results attained in perfection of sound in synchronization with motion as applied to motion pictures is literally an outstanding monument to the genius of mankind, and particularly it is a monument to those scientists and engineers who have, by years of hard work devoted to tremendusly difficult research, with perseverance almost unbelievable, made it all possible. (F. H. Richardson, Handbook of Projection: The Blue Book of Projection , vol. 3, rev. [New York: Chalmers, 1930], pp. iv, v)

Science was constant progress and an amelioration of the human condition. It was through electricity that the talkies were linked to the industrialized universe: “This simple principle, or method of obtaining force and motion by electrical means, is utilized in some form in all the electric motors in the world, from those that drive fans and dentists’ drills to those that propel battleships and haul the transcontinental trains over the Rocky Mountains.” Richardson also told his projectionists that their knowledge would give them an intellectual advantage over the ordinary populace, which was not as well informed about the electrical foundation of the talkies. “Remember,” he advised, “that we are dealing with the action of light and electricity, both of which are enormously rapid—more rapid than can be understood or conceived by the untrained mind.” 15

One of the most portentous applications of electricity resulted from harnessing the electrons streaming from a filament heated in a vacuum. The theory of electrons that Richardson mentioned had been first published in 1902 and was the basis for continuing research into thermionics in the major electrical research labs. In 1906 the independent inventor Lee de Forest 16 patented a three-electrode thermionic vacuum tube, the triode, which he called the Audion. Diode and triode vacuum tubes could be used to send and detect radio signals, amplify telephone current, turn alternating into direct current and vice versa. Because the movie sound system utilized many vacuum tubes, the talkies were readily perceived to be a branch of thermionics, along with telegraphy, the telephone, wireless radio (called radio telephony in the early twenties), and X-ray imaging. Movie sound was not differentiated as a freestanding technology.

The special knowledge that Richardson claimed to be imparting was certainly intended to empower the projectionists, to dignify their social status, and to impress the boss. In the age of “scientific masculinity,” it might also have enhanced their self-image as men. 17 Projectionists were represented as skilled technicians, not just simple machine attendants. We can probably assume that Richardson’s belief in electricity as a powerful branch of knowledge was shared not only by his readers but by many ordinary people. The promoters of sound cinema wished to align themselves with this preexisting faith in electricity. So when the first Radio Pictures film, STREET GIRL (1929), premiered, newspaper ads announced a “New Era in Electrical Entertainment.” 18 As Richardson had advised the projectionists to associate themselves with electricity, so RKO was suggesting that audiences, by patronizing this film, were actively participating in reshaping the coming age.

Among the thermionic devices for the talkies were rectifiers, diodes which convert alternating current to the direct current needed to power electronic circuits. Rectifiers were also crucial for controlling the motors kept synchronous by the tuned circuits in the cameras, sound recorders, and projectors. Amplifiers based on triodes were used to   step up the weak electrical currents from microphones and from the sound-reproducing sources in the projection booths.

Researchers at the AT&T laboratories in New York were fashioning multi-filament tubes for amplifying extremely weak electrical signals. These tubes enabled stepped-up current to travel along telephone lines or to drive loudspeakers. AT&T recognized the potential of de Forests Audion and paid nearly $400,000 for his patents. 19 Western Electric encouraged internal competition to find ways to exploit the device. The significant ones included using it as a “repeater” to relay phone messages, establishing a “radiophone” service, and making it the heart of a public address system.

Engineers elsewhere rushed to find new uses for the triode. Tests at the General Electric labs in Schenectady, New York, aimed to produce a high-frequency alternating current generator for radio transmission, X-ray devices, and the high-efficiency gas-filled incandescent lamp, an unanticipated by-product. At Westinghouse, the vacuum tube was used as a signal detector, amplifier, and oscillator for radio. De Forest worked on developing an airplane-to-ground transmitter. Of these numerous applications, the fastest-growing use for thermionics was decidedly in radio communication.

As a wartime measure, the government banned civilian radio from 1917 to 1919. It was nonetheless a period of intense corporate development, completely subsidized by the government. The wireless receivers and transmitters of the U.S. Signal Corps and the navy utilized more than half a million tubes made by Western Electric. After the war, de Forest and the Marconi Company joined forces to market Golden VT receiving tubes, which for a brief time were the only ones legally available to the public. Still, in general, on the eve of the introduction of commercial sound film, AT&T, GE, and RCA completely controlled the thermionic industry. 20

The development of thermionics coincided with several relevant changes in American business practice. Major corporations established engineering centers (later called departments of research and development) where “pure” research took place. Bell Laboratories, for example, grew out of the Western Electric Engineering Department. The second change was diversification. General Electric went from producing mainly lightbulbs and electrical transmission apparatus to making consumer products such as ranges, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners. 21 Not only did research lead to production, it became a commodity in its own right as the major corporations competed with each other to fund inventing, hire promising scientists, promote diversified electric products, and corner the market on seminal patents to further develop, sell, or pool. “Rational” competition and the sharing of information through trade organizations helped lessen the effect of competing claims to similar research. Cross-licensing, negotiating manufacturing domains and sales territories, and establishing noninterference zones in research were intended to replace the cutthroat competition and wasteful litigation which had marked earlier corporate science. Heavy industry was fueled by government investment and contracts well after the wartime exigencies had passed.

Bell Laboratories charged ahead, exploring every conceivable use for vacuum tubes. Telephone researchers claimed as their fiefdom the entire domain of sound. AT&T executive William Peck Banning recalled that “scientific progress had brought visions of new fields in which the tube function was basic. Tube development in the telephone laboratories was inseparable from the development of communications facilities. Whatever pertained to sound—its creation, amplification, transmission, and reproduction—was of course constantly explored by telephone scientists.” 22 Gerald Tyne has also described the single-minded approach of the Western Electric Engineering Department after the war: “The … step-by-step innovations illustrate the teamwork of engineers. Each step was the culmination of attention to multitudinous details of construction and materials, meticulous measurements, and exhaustive performance testing.” 23 To achieve diversification, Bell Laboratories initiated a policy of distinguishing between research designed for telephone use and research destined for so-called non-associate use, that is, for commercial products not directly related to the telephone industry. One of these was electrical sound recording.

The form of thermionics which most consumers knew was the radio tube. These were available from numerous distributors—legitimate and bootleg—but most bore the RCA trademark. In 1922, five hundred private-sector stations were licensed and demand for home receiving sets was so brisk that RCA, Westinghouse, Western Electric, and the many unlicensed independents had trouble maintaining the supply of tubes. 24 Despite fierce disputes between the radio and telephone groups, there were also truces which divvied up research territories—wireless and phonography for RCA, and “wire” communication for AT&T. In the realm of thermionics, the radio and telephone groups had partially resolved their competitive differences by exchanging basic patents to various tube designs and applications. This cross-licensing was crucial for the talkies because studios and theaters depended on a steady supply of powerful amplification tubes.


Whether disc-based or photographically based, all successful motion-picture recording and reproduction systems used electrical amplification. But photographic systems—that is, sound-on-film—additionally required thermionic photoelectric cells. Recording sound on film depends on a highly controllable light source. Photoemissive cells, among many experimental uses, were gradually adapted for recording this kind of sound track. These gas-filled vacuum tubes transform the electric current produced by microphones into a pulsating light source which exposes photographic film stock in proportion to the intensity of the original sound. General Electric scientists working between 1911 and 1913 discovered that filling these tubes with heavy gases such as argon caused them to give off light when charged. 25 Lee de Forest, probably influenced by this research, made a light cell he called Photion, using a gas-filled tube. 26 De Forest tried to adapt the instrument for recording sound on a photographic negative. The glowing light exposed the moving film, but the results were not very good. He then learned of an improved light emitter developed by Theodore Case and his collaborator Earl I. Sponable in which a quartz tube containing an oxide-coated wire, a metal plate, and helium gas glowed proportionately to the voltage supplied. Case had named his invention Aeo, the acronym for alkaline earth oxide. Unlike the filament of an ordinary lightbulb or the Photion, the Aeo lights short glow decay made possible more accurate recordings of higher sound frequencies. These tubes could be installed inside a camera to record picture and sound simultaneously (single-system) or inside a separate “sound camera,” which could be synchronized with the picture camera (double-system). When the moving film stock was exposed by the pulsating intensity of the light, the result was a “variable density” photographic sound track. 27 On 23 July 1926, after Case had broken with de Forest, he teamed up with the movie magnate William Fox to exploit the Aeo light in what would be called the Fox-Case Movietone system. The tube was replaced in 1929 by the Western Electric light valve (a nonthermionie device discussed later).

Working at the same time as de Forest and Case, but with the goal of transmitting images by radio, Vladimir Kosma Zworykin at Westinghouse produced a cell with a cesium-magnesium cathode which converted light into electrical current. 28 These vacuum photoemissive cells produced a much faster response than even the Aeo. Their extremely rapid fluctuations made possible high-quality reproduction of music and speech.


Photoconductive cells are also known as photoresistors and are used for playing back photographic sound tracks during projection. The tubes are coated with a light-sensitive rare earth, originally selenium. The electrical resistance varies according to the intensity of light striking the coating. Sound is reproduced by passing the film’s optical sound track past a constant-intensity beam of light from a small lamp as the filmstrip moves through the projector. The degree of light-and-dark exposure on the film’s track blocks the beam to a greater or lesser extent, causing the light to strike the photoelectric cell with varying intensity. The cell’s resistance pulsates according to the amount of light hitting it. The resulting modulated current is relayed to the amplifier.

Case had developed a working sound-on-film system in 1917, based on a photoemissive cell he called Thalofide. It was used during the war for sending wireless signals. 29 De Forest was also interested in these cells in the teens, but as components in filmphonographs, a new application for his Audion amplifier, not to reproduce motion picture sound. 30 Beginning in 1918, he began developing an alternative to the disc phonograph, the basic principle of which he found to be “fundamentally & hopelessly imperfect.” He wrote in his 1919 journal: “Light , photography, selenium or photo-cell, the Audion (always the Audion!) and sounding board, or the reproducing bulb or flame—these are the elements which can capture and release music in all its beauty.” Page 34  His device was to be called Photophone, but he did not envision motion picture uses until he began collaborating with Case in July 1921. The De Forest Phonofilm Corporation was formed in November 1922, with Theodore Case’s Aeo in the camera and Lee de Forest’s Thalofide cell in the projector. 31

The public knew and understood this research only to a limited extent. It was technically complex, but the manufacturers and researchers also wished to control the release of information. Rather than learning specifics, readers were told in general terms about how the many possible applications of thermionies improved life. The electric companies were rushing to develop more than just talking motion pictures. AT&T, for example, was at least as interested in improving transatlantic cable service as it was in cinema. The major corporations did not target any one sector; they were intent upon spinning off as many combinations of devices as possible in order to increase usage and maximize licensing profits.

The talkies had to use various thermionic devices, so the public took for granted their electrical nature. It was up to the manufacturers to convince people that the sound motion picture was a specific appliance. This issue boiled down to whether talking cinema was more like telephone or radio (with some influence from the phonograph).

The Telephone

A Senate committee in 1921 declared the phone company a “natural monopoly” and relaxed antitrust laws. Between 1921 and 1934, the Bell System bought 223 independent phone companies. By the mid-1920s, the government-supported AT&T telephone monopoly, with its Bell research juggernaut and its Western Electric manufacturing plants, was the vertically integrated kingpin of electrically assisted verbal communication. The fast pace of improvements in phone service, including spectacular milestones such as transcontinental and intercontinental hookups, made it easy to believe that a communications utopia was just over the horizon. The U.S. census showed a rapid increase in the number of phone-equipped households after World War I; by 1929 subscriptions peaked at about 40 percent of the population. 32

On many pragmatic levels, the telephone had become fundamental to the American household. It was a domesticated scientific instrument. John Brooks has concluded, “People assimilated national telephony into their minds as if into their bodies—as if it were the result of a new step in human evolution that increased the range of their voices to the limits of the national map.” 33 Chatting on the ’phone (or eavesdropping on a party line) became a leisure-time activity. Despite their success at wiring residences, telephone executives were alarmed that the sale of radio sets was increasing much faster than new telephone subscriptions. Almost as many households owned radios as had telephones. AT&T worried—with reason—that this competing device would soon outpace phone receivers. Administrators instituted a mandate for Bell researchers and salesmen to devise “new and additional uses” for the telephone. 34 The film sound experiments were part of this drive. From 1927 through 1930, when Western Electric was promoting the talkies, its advertising pushed the idea that sound cinema was inseparable from the telephone. The popular press obligingly relayed the news that the talkies were telephonic communication.

Because the telephone made it possible to converse “close up” at great distances, it was also one-half of the nineteenth-century fantasy of the “far-sight far-sound” machine.

The talking cinema could be readily imagined as the other half, supplying the distant vision to go along with the voice. The audience at the first Vitaphone program, for example, could regard the film of Will Hays addressing them as a long-distance communication—with moving visual accompaniment. The title cards and programs—even billboard advertising—reminded moviegoers that Vitaphone was “presented” by Western Electric. Warners distributed an eight-page brochure at screenings that claimed, “In the Vitaphone, Science has provided a means for the synchronization of motion pictures with reproduced sound, with a degree of perfection never before attained.” The three “major scientific research developments” which made it possible were: an electrical system of registration, a remarkable electrical device which reproduced the sound waves, and an adaptation of the public address system. The last amplified sound “by means of properly located loud speaking telephones.” And a specially constructed telephone supposedly ensured correct volume and naturalness for music. 35

Early talkies exploited the phone’s prominence in everyday modern life by incorporating it as a prop residing in the background or foregrounded, for example, when we eavesdrop on the conversations in CCOHEN ON THE TELEPHONE and THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (1928). In George Jessel’s 1926 Vitaphone short, his routine is interrupted by a call from “Mama.” Vitaphone and Fox Movietone Newsreel speeches were not “live”; nevertheless, they were somehow “telephonic” in the way the performers’ and celebrities’ natural voices created the impression of intimate physical presence while speaking from a great distance.

The technology of sound pictures, as the phone company aggressively demonstrated, was built upon underlying telephonic devices. The two designs which related directly to sound cinematography were the mike and the loudspeaker.

Western Electric had constantly sponsored research to enhance the clarity and volume of its sound transmitters. The greatest improvement was a flat frequency-response microphone invented by Edward C. Wente. 36 It was originally produced for wireless military communication. The so-called condenser transmitter (later referred to as a capacitor microphone) became the standard in public address, in broadcasting, and in

Hollywood. The current from these mikes was so weak that it had to be preamplified by tubes on the unit which were housed in a salami-shaped case. The name for this device evolved gradually from “transmitter” to "microphone"—little telephone. 37 Western Electric’s microphone revolutionized the phonograph industry and was fundamental to the film sound system that eventually became Vitaphone. Mechanical microphones favored loud noises; now soft sounds and high frequencies could be reproduced on records. These improvements benefited movie acoustics as well. There was a physical advantage. The microphone’s wire connection, unlike the morning-glory horn of mechanical recording, was flexible and could be located at some distance from the recording apparatus. For instance, microphones were hidden around movie sets, concealed in bushes, and suspended from booms.

AT&T was also publicizing improvements in the sound reproducing part of the telephone. What we now call public address systems were developed in the early 1920s as “loud-speaking telephones.” The company envisioned a technology which would transmit speeches and announcements to assemblies. It conducted a prototype demonstration in 1921 at which President Harding spoke at Arlington National Cemetery and was heard by outdoor crowds in New York and San Francisco through Western Electric horns via AT&T long lines. 38 Final adjustments were still being made at the time of the Vitaphone premiere of DON JUAN in 1926. Meanwhile, RCA was designing speakers intended to fit inside compact radio cases. These transmitted vibrations by a vibrating cone of stiff cardboard, were cheaper to manufacture, and produced less harsh sounds than Western Electrics horns. Giant versions were made for theatrical installations.

Hollywood was an avid consumer of public address systems. Jack Warner described their use during the filming of NOAH’S ARK (1929):

A telephonic network, connected with loud speakers, was strung from the director’s platform to various points, so that assistants and players were always within hearing of any command. In order that every camera and every player should start together in the mass scenes, a siren whose shriek could be heard for a half mile around was used to signal the start and termination of the scene. (J. L. Warner, “Facts from the Studio about Noah’s Ark,” souvenir program, 1927, Yranski Collection)

Technicians in the 1920s distinguished between the electrical and acoustic components of sound reproducers. The Western Electric sound receiver was functionally similar to (and named after) its telephone receiver. It consisted of an aluminum diaphragm in a metal chamber, and a wire-wound driving coil which required its own twelve-volt power source, usually a wet-cell battery. The current from the amplifier caused the diaphragm to vibrate. The acoustic component was the horn, looped or “folded” to fit into more compact spaces. The horns were quite large and, to provide needed amplification with minimal distortion, were deployed in a bank of five—three above and two flanking the screen. 39

The whole Western Electric system was often referred to generically as “telephonic.” 40 Scientific American summed up the situation in a description of Movietone:

In the new process, aside from [Fox’s] own patents, such as for example, the Aeo tube, certain telephonic apparatus is necessary. This embraces the use of such devices as amplifiers, microphones, and loud-speakers, both in recording and reproducing. Wherever telephonic apparatus is employed the devices of the Western Electric Company are used. These are the instruments which were acquired by Vitaphone under an exclusive license from Western Electric, and the use of which by Movietone is covered by an agreement between the Fox-Case Corporation and the Vitaphone Corporation. (A. P. Peck, “Sounds Recorded on ‘Movie’ Film,” Scientific American , September 1927, p. 236)

Vitaphone, “presented by Western Electric,” was supposed to reinforce the idea that both the talkies and the telephone were intimately connected industries.


David Sarnoff, in a June 1927 speech, pointed out that radio “has quickened every industry with which it has come into contact.” The general manager of RCA dismissed the primacy of the telephone in the new communications. Instead, he claimed that thermionies was the foundation technology:

The greatest achievements of the phonograph industry, in recording as well as in reproduction, have come from the electrical arts associated in the development of radio. Transcontinental telephonic service was made possible largely by the vacuum tube. The new transatlantic telephone service rests upon radio communications. And now the latest of the electrical arts has come to solve the problem of synchronizing the spoken word with the moving picture. (David Sarnoff, “A Look at Televisions Future,” address before the Chicago Association of Commerce, 8 June 1927, reprinted in Sarnoff, Looking Ahead: The Papers of David Sarnoff [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968], p. 90)

Sarnoff’s vision of a utopia centered on radio—we shall call it "Radiopolis"—must have seemed feasible at the time. As the 1900 generation became thirty-somethings, the “wireless” had changed from a scientific curiosity to a wartime communications boon, to a hugely popular news and entertainment medium. Although AT&T and RCA envisioned radio as a commercial medium from the beginning (selling advertising, promoting consumer tie-ins, encouraging audience patronage and consumption), it was a fragmented business throughout much of the twenties, reflecting, in Julie D’Acci’s words, “heterogeneity, localness, and struggle over financing and control.” 41 While we often think of radio as preceding the talkies as a cultural force, in fact, it did not consolidate as an industry until competing broadcast networks began to be organized around 1926—in other words, concurrent with, not before, the dissemination of the talkies. Much of the programming before the 1930s consisted of “anonymous musicians playing nostalgic or semiclassical songs.” 42 The same might describe a program of early Vitaphone shorts. It was not radio’s improvement in the laboratory, but its availability as easy-to-operate sets in homes (and even automobiles), via broadcast “chains” (networks) supported by advertising revenue, that enabled radio to enter American life at such a phenomenal rate between 1927 and 1933. And of course, there was the illusion that it was “free.” Manufacturers like RCA would want to encourage a belief that the talkies would be as powerful an entertainment force as radio.

General Electric, Westinghouse, and AT&T had organized the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) as a government-encouraged monopoly sanctioned to regularize radio and to avoid the “monotonous litigation” of patent wars. 43 A secondary intention was to thwart a “foreign” competitor, the British-owned American Marconi Corporation, and an economic competitor, de Forest. James Hijiya explains the arrangement succinctly:

In October 1919 the General Electric Co. bought control of American Marconi Co. and turned Marconi’s assets over to a new firm, the Radio Corporation of America, with which GE exchanged all patent rights. In July 1920 RCA negotiated a cross-licensing agreement with AT&T, which previously had purchased rights to de Forest’s triodes; and in June 1921 the Westinghouse Electric Co. also signed the agreement. Under this arrangement AT&T gave RCA the right to manufacture triodes; RCA gave the right to GE and Westinghouse; GE and Westinghouse made the triodes, put them into radios, and sold the radios to RCA; RCA sold the radios to the public; and nobody had to buy anything from the Radio Telephone & Telegraph Co. of Lee de Forest. (James A. Hijiya, Lee de Forest and the Fatherhood of Radio [Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press, 1992], p. 95)

As radio consumption took off, AT&T announced its plans to enter the broadcasting business. Though unsure in which direction the venture might take it, the president of the company, Harry Bates Thayer, was “preparing to furnish this broadcasting service to such an extent as may meet the commercial demands of the public.” 44 AT&T, leaving no potentially profitable diversification untried, interpreted the 1919 RCA agreement as giving it the exclusive right to charge for airtime. The next year, station WEAF atop Western Electrics Long Lines Building in Manhattan was selling time by the fifteen-minute segment. The company gradually realized that its radio fortune did not lie in broadcasting but rather in its monopoly of high-quality telephone lines. It effectively controlled the transmission of signals linking broadcasters who wished to go beyond their local range. As it had previously done in the thermionics industry, and as it would later do in the film industry, AT&T took a stance which was both competitive and cooperative. Independent radio broadcasters had to choose between sending signals to their affiliates by way of obsolete Western Union telegraph lines or leasing AT&T’s long-distance network at exorbitant prices. In 1924, when an arbiter appeared ready to rescind AT&T’s monopolistic line-leasing services, the company stated that it would reopen negotiations with the Radio Group and would license any station on reasonable terms. Brooks has observed that this strategy was analogous to the company’s position in earlier cases in which its monopoly was challenged. 45 Later, when the company’s film sound monopoly was challenged, AT&T followed a similar pattern of slow capitulation.

In 1925 AT&T’s new president, Walter Gifford, set about streamlining the company. Among the subsidiaries he divested was the radio business. On 1 November 1926, for $1 million, AT&T sold to RCA its broadcasting licenses, a promise to supply wire services to the newly created National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and an option to purchase WEAF. Gifford announced sanguinely, “The objective of a broadcasting station was quite different from that of a telephone system.” 46 It was not that simple; it was understood that Western Electric would continue to supply radio equipment and to monopolize line services in exchange for refraining from broadcasting. NBC would lease only AT&T long lines. In an arrangement that would characterize 1920s big business,   both sides won by dividing power along negotiated channels of control, rather than perpetuating competitive infrastructures. Furthermore, AT&T’s decision to divest one entertainment subsidiary coincided with its embarking on another venture: the movies.

There was great public confusion about the technical relationship between film and radio, even among professionals. Richardson rather huffily told the readers of his projection manual, “This is not a radio book. It is a sound-in-synchronization-with-motion book, and while there is of course a considerable similarity, in a general way, between film and radio, still the fields are wholly separate and their problems for the most part entirely different.” 47 While today it is difficult to see any similarity between radio and movies, evidently in the late 1920s the dividing line was not so sharp. This impression comes from the writers of explanatory articles who doubted the ability of lay consumers to fathom the technical complexity of talking pictures. In addition to pointing out how sound films derived from the telephone, they would also typically use radio terms. Movietone, for example, works because “vacuum tubes somewhat like those you have in your radio receiver do the amplifying.” A trade editor explained: “The radio tube, such as is found in the ordinary home receiving set, figures prominently in the development [of talking machines]: It is through this medium that most of these devices secure their amplification which, of course, controls the volume necessary to make them suitable for theater use.” 48 Michele Hilmes has written about the mystique of radio:

It is hard for those of us living in the latter half of the twentieth century to comprehend the fantastic, almost magical qualities attributed to the idea of radio waves in its first decades. Earliest responses to the coming era of “wireless” communication combined head-shaking mysticism with ecstatic predictions of a new utopia. The presentation of radio as a mysterious technology, a wonder machine calling up voices from the void, allowed technological bedazzlement to overshadow potential social and economic implications, even among those assigned to the task of harnessing and regulating this new phenomenon. (Michele Hilmes, Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990], p. 9)

Playing up the talkies as radio capitalized on its aura of mystification, scientific complexity, and cutting-edge technology. A good example is the “advanced” radio depicted in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (MGM, 1929). Constructed of what appear to be neon spokes, Tinkertoys, and quite a few boiling beakers, it can maintain communication with distant submarines. It is a creation of a scientist’s lab, chock-full of electrical devices anticipating Dr. Frankenstein’s a few years later.

Actual experiments in movie-radio hybridization had begun in earnest during 1922. Butler’s musings were typical. He foresaw the addition of sound to film “borne on the wings of radio”:

The large city theater or ball ground, the moving-picture film, the phonograph record—all are limited in distribution. The distribution by film and record is great: almost limitless, but not quite. Distribution by radio is limitless. … The radio people, the movie people and the artists themselves have confidence in the future of this work. (Butler, “Radio to Make Movies Talk,” p. 677)


He described experiments by Frank Bacon, who was attempting to broadcast the sounds of the plays Molly Darling and Lilies of the Field in synchronization with film images. Harry J. Powers, Jr., also presented “radio talking pictures” in which actors spoke their lines while watching a film. Their voices were broadcast to remote theaters where the film was projected. 49

Radiophone further linked wireless and movies. This 1922 device relayed broadcasts to movie houses where patrons could listen to concert music before the film began. Then there was Radio Film, “making it possible to show a picture in a hundred theaters with an explanatory lecture coming through from a single transmitting station.” 50 It played in 1923 at Hugo Riesenfeld’s New York theaters.

Two experiments in 1925 tested this idea on a larger scale. On 25 August, Fritz Lang’s film SIEGFRIED (1923) was screened at the Century Theater in New York City with a score by Riesenfeld. By arrangement with UFA (the German studio) and RCA’s station WJY, the score was broadcast to an audience of five hundred at the Briarcliff Lodge, thirty-five miles away. Technically the results were poor; reception was interrupted several times by static. But the audience and industry representatives were impressed. Joe Fliesler of UFA said that other experiments would follow and that screenings at distant Paramount theaters might be synchronized with music performed at the Paramount in New York. A Film Daily editor prophesied this was an important milestone for small houses: “There is but one way that this development can come—through radio. Such marvelous strides have been made that even this seemingly impossible innovation may occur. At all events do not be surprised if—and when—it happens.” 51

Simultaneously, MGM and station KFI were trying a similar experiment in Los Angeles with the cooperation of fourteen theaters in the West Coast chain. This was the brainchild of the younger brother of the movie star Norma Shearer, Douglas Shearer, who was visiting her in Hollywood. The “master film,” a promotional short for A SLAVE OF FASHION (1925), with Norma and Lew Cody, was projected at the station while the stars spoke along with their screen images. Picture and sound never quite came together, and Douglas found a job in the Warner Bros. prop department. 52

These experiments combining moving images and broadcast sound were technological dead ends, combining a previously recorded medium with a live one. But the fact that they were attempted suggests that some, perhaps many, people thought that movies’ and radio’s combination was a certainty.

Movie theaters themselves were the sites of much broadcast entertainment. Most of the larger ones had already installed public address systems, frequently obtained from Western Electric, and hooking up radio to the output was a logical step. Samuel “Roxy” Rothapfel’s programs had been heard live from Broadway’s Capitol Theater since November 1922. By 1924 many major theaters sponsored programs, had musical programs broadcast from their stages, and/or housed local radio stations in their buildings. 53

There was mixed opinion among exhibitors about whether radio hurt or helped business. Many felt that their shows benefited from radio’s indirect advertising. Harold B. Franklin, at the time with the Famous Players chain, instructed managers of Paramount theaters to exploit tie-ins with local radio programs. He emphasized the social advantage of theatrical radio: “It is also important to remember that the theater serves as a sort of community house where the neighbors meet and exchange greetings. Mrs. Smith still wants to get out to see Mrs. Jones and the radio does not serve to bring about those meetings.” Others, like William Brandt, chair of the New York Motion Picture Theater Owners association, saw radio as “a serious competitor of the motion picture theater and [it] will prove more menacing each day as the radio itself improves.” Hugo Riesenfeld felt that radio was competition for bad films, but not for good ones. The U.S. Treasury Department, which tallied admissions based on the excise tax on tickets, reported that attendance in 1923 had increased over the same period in 1922, showing no negative radio influence at all. 54

Harry Warner, one of the founding Warner brothers, was an early advocate of commercial radio. He proposed that the film industry build its own stations under the auspices of the MPPDA. He reasoned:

Programs could be devised to be broadcast before and after show hours, tending to create interest in all meritorious pictures being released or playing at that time. Nights could be assigned to various companies calling attention to their releases and advising where they were playing in that particular locality. Artists could talk into the microphone and reach directly millions of people who have seen them on the screen, but never came in contact with them personally or heard their voices. ( Film Daily , 3 April 1925, p. 8)

The prototype was Warner Bros.’ own station KFWB in Hollywood, which had just begun broadcasting in March 1925. The following year its WBPI began providing similar programming from its studios in the Warners’ Theatre on Broadway.

Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky attempted to set up its own national network to advertise current releases. Adolph Zukor’s idea, announced in May 1927, was to produce dramatizations of first-run Paramount films and sell advertising airtime to compete with RCA-owned NBC. Despite several attempts by Zukor, including buying a half-interest in the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the scheme never became fully operational.

Loew’s and its subsidiary MGM also announced a sixty-station $1–3 million network that would depend upon negotiating a contract for a national land hookup via AT&T lines. The proposal called for broadcasting theater acts from New York and was to begin in February 1928. 55 As an experiment, MGM arranged to air LOVE (1927), starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, from the Embassy Theater. In a seemingly strange choice, the radio sports announcer Ted Husing gave listeners a “ringside” description of the events on-screen, while the regular orchestra played in the background. This so-called Telemovie was broadcast on a national hookup on 20 December 1927. 56 Meanwhile, Universal, First National, and Fox contracted with various stations to broadcast programs plugging their films and their stars. But direct ownership of a national radio network by a studio failed to materialize.

Many factors dampened the studios’ desire to become involved with radio. One venture in particular was perceived as a warning sign. On 29 March 1928, United Artists arranged a special broadcast on The Dodge Brothers Hour. Fifty-five stations signed up for home transmissions, but UA’s real interest was in exploring theatrical possibilities. The most prestigious theater to broadcast the show was the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York. For the program, Norma Talmadge, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, John Barrymore, and Dolores Del Rio gave recitations before the mike. 57 Gloria Swanson refused to appear, ostensibly “in fairness to exhibitors whose investments deserve protection.” In addition to the huge anticipated audience (50 million, or 5.4 persons per radio set), what was new about this “big broadcast” was that it took place during prime movie hours—9:00–10:00 P.M. EST. Theater owners protested loudly long before the broadcast date. The pressure was so great that UA’s president, Joseph Schenck, promised, even before the show, that the event would not be repeated. 58

Characteristically, Film Daily sided with exhibitors. In an editorial entitled “What to Do About Radio,” Red Kann, the outspoken editor, observed: “The use of film personalities over the air is a practice which creates sharp differences of opinion. The preponderance of argument is against it. Yet nobody knows whether subsequent business increases proportionately or not and there is no need to play with a dangerous experiment. … The answer is to stay off the air during show time.” 59 Another obstacle was the musicians’ union. Several exhibitors who had planned to tie up said they were prevented because of contracts which restricted remote broadcasts in their theaters. 6 "

The actual program was a disaster. As with the SIEGFRIED transmission, bad weather caused severe static in New York State. But theater audiences objected to the “commercials” for Dodge cars. At the Fifth Avenue Playhouse, patrons booed, hissed, and yelled, “Take it off!” for twenty minutes until the management was forced to comply. When the furor subsided, there was no clear determination as to whether the competing program actually affected box-office receipts. Also unclear was the effect on movie fans. Some were said to be disillusioned "because of the transition from silent to speaking performances on the part of the stars, " while others saw the hookup as an opportunity to thrill to their screen idols’ seldom-heard voices. 61

While the “big broadcast” probably made film executives question whether radio was worth the effort, it did not hinder expansion. Warners relocated its station KFWB to the   new Warner Theatre in Los Angeles. Paramount built KNX, which, operating with five thousand watts, became the fourth most powerful station in the country. 62

One more fling for theatrical radio occurred on election night, 6 November 1928. Realizing that most of their patrons would stay home to listen to election results, many theaters arranged special programs mixing entertainment and live news coverage of Herbert Hoovers victory in an effort to cash in on what otherwise would have been a slow night. 63

Despite the attraction of radio for the film industry, there was never any question of domination; many more stations were owned by newspaper companies than by studios. The relation between film and broadcasting extended the reciprocity which had grown between movies and journalism. Motion picture advertising could be counted on as steady revenue for the stations, while radio programming could provide vast publicity for the film companies. The producers found it sufficient to sponsor programs—for instance, Warners’ Vitaphone Jubilee on CBS—without having to buy the whole network.

Radio and movies were mingling in other ways less visible to the public. Hilmes observes that “just as the factors that would later dominate commercial broadcasting entered the scene through the back door, so to speak, unnoticed at first and unremarked, so the involvement of the film industry in radio grew slowly but steadily through the early years, reaching a peak in 1927.” 64 Throughout the decade, government regulators attempted to rein in the runaway entertainment media, with little success. In February 1927, Congress passed the Radio Act and established the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) to allocate frequencies and to formulate policy. Paramount’s monopolistic practices already were being attacked by the Federal Trade Commission, and the FRC cooperated to quash the film industry’s efforts to enter radio by way of the boardroom.

Learning about its competitors’ work, AT&T, which was embarking on its WEAF broadcasting experiment, sought to capitalize on its own sound-film recording expertise. A revealing internal document shows precisely how the AT&T complex created spin-off technologies to enhance product diversity. On 12 December 1923, W E. Harkness of AT&T wrote a letter to the Western Electric vice president Frank Jewett, referring to some demonstrations of motion picture sound recordings that had been given for record companies. Harkness pointed out that “it seems to us there may be a marked advantage in our having some privileges or rights in the commercial aspect of the sound-recording and reproducing devices. It would be of benefit to us in connection with our radio and wired programs to be able to record certain speeches or musical numbers for future use.” 65 So within AT&T, early on, there was cross-fertilization between divisions to codevelop the same technology so that it could be utilized for both film and radio.

There was another potential “marked advantage.” At the time of the memo, AT&T still controlled the transmission of radio over its phone lines, forcing the Radio Group to seek alternatives. One experiment involved shortwave relays of broadcasts; another idea was for super-power transmitters to blanket the nation. High-quality recordings on long-playing discs could sidestep AT&T’s costly lines. Programs could be recorded, then distributed cheaply (though not “live”) by sending out discs—a “chainless chain.” The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show , produced at WGN in Chicago and distributed nationally on disc in 1928, is an example. AT&T obviously had a strong interest in staking a preemptive claim to this process and eventually did develop a radio transcription product that ERPI marketed to broadcasters at the same time it was selling theatrical sound systems to the movies. 66

Rick Altman has argued that the 1926 Vitaphone program shown with D ON J UAN was conceived as a simulated radio broadcast. Specifically, Warners imitated a program sponsored Page 46  Page 47  by the Victor record company on WEAF starring the tenor John McCormack. “It is thus no surprise,” Altman claims,

that Warners should model their first variety film program on Victor’s successful radio program, right down to their signing of John McCormack. Although McCormack eventually did not appear in the opening Vitaphone program, Warners’ advance announcement of the new process leaves no doubt about their intention of recreating Victor’s radio show: "At phenomenally small cost, " explained Albert Warner, “the unquestionably planned and perfected radio music program will begin a new era for moving picture patrons throughout the country.” (Rick Altman, “Introduction: Sound/History,” in Sound Theory/Sound Practice [New York: Routledge, 1992], pp. 119–20)

The intention was probably not to trick people into thinking that they were watching radio-plus-pictures, but to tap into the audience’s awareness of radio’s program format. Indeed, the New York Times credited radio with building a “sound-receptive audience,” thus preparing people for the talkies. “The spread of radio broadcasting had,” the author reported, “familiarized the general public with dramatic dialogue and high-grade music to a far greater extent than ever before.” 67 RCA’s studio subsidiary, RKO, in 1929, emphasized its electronic pedigree by naming its production unit Radio Pictures. RKO’s strategy, quite simply, was to present the transition to sound as the next phase of civilization. The advertisement painted by Ralph Iligan depicted a classical “Titan.” The giant reaches across an allegorical landscape, embracing a motion picture camera in his right hand (curiously, a hand-cranked one) and pointing, Michelangelo-esque, toward the “Radio” in the film company’s new logo. The landscape on the right side is Mediterranean and classically bucolic; on the left it displays highlights of technological modernity: the steel bridge, an electrical transmission tower, airplanes, a dirigible, and a white skyscraper complex that looks remarkably like the future Rockefeller Center, home of the “Titan,” David Sarnoff. The text specifically invokes the electrical ambience of broadcasting:

RADIO … fulfillment of daring dreams … colossus of modern art and science … now enters the motion picture industry! RADIO PICTURES … dedicated to the advancement of electrical entertainment and service of exhibitors … linking in one mammoth unit of showmanship the unrivaled resources of great industrial and scientific organizations … takes its place in the world of motion pictures. ( Film Daily , 5 February 1929, pp. 10–11)

Of course, in this public relations world of the future (anachronistically pictured as linked to the ancient past), communication and entertainment take place over the ether. The Titans of Radiopolis will not use telephones in their wireless utopia.


Television in the 1920s was a subcategory of radio because it was considered to be a direct and inevitable improvement upon wireless transmission of sound. The president   of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (SMPE) predicted as early as 1922 that television would soon be perfected. 68 That TV was “in the air,” both in laboratories and in the popular imagination, was confirmed by F. H. Robinson in 1924:

There is a close association between the kinema and radio, obvious when one realizes that light waves and wireless waves travel through the same medium—ether. A definite link has now been established between these two types of waves. It is called television, and far from being the “dream of the future” is an established fact. (F. H. Robinson, “The Radio Kinema,” Kinematograph Weekly , quoted in “Radio Pictures,” Film Daily , 14 April 1924, p. 1)

Unlike motion picture sound, for which competing working models were in place, television was still more a fantasy than a laboratory reality. There were many widely publicized experiments. C. Francis Jenkins, who had been a motion picture pioneer in the Edison laboratory, was, in the 1920s, the most prominent American independent investigator of “radio pictures,” as he called his version of TV. In April 1925, he succeeded in sending an image from one building to another on a radio frequency. According to the Film Daily reporter, “In this small room the witnesses observed on a small screen a fairly good reproduction of the picture. They report that there was considerable flickering, just as there was in the early moving pictures.” Thus, TV was described as a parallel to the movies at a primitive stage in their development. 69

Though John Logie Baird in England and Jenkins claimed to be already transmitting moving images, AT&T expressed skepticism in public. In private, its engineers were also working hard to develop television. Though they had succeeding in sending still photographs Page 49  over AT&T’s long lines, the engineers proclaimed that moving images could never be relayed by phone or wireless: “The prospect of shooting prizefight pictures from the ringside to radio audiences, or of transmitting synchronized pictures with opera or other entertainment, was said [by AT&T] to be simply nil.” 70

By 1927, however, AT&T was ready to go public with a demonstration of long-distance television. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, in Washington, talked with Gifford of AT&T, in New York, via television. The images were not broadcast but sent over phone lines at the rate of eighteen frames per second. Film Daily reported that the image on the two-by-three-foot screen was unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, the transmission was successful because, “in this experiment time and space were eliminated.” Another part of the show was a blackface skit by the performer A. Dolan called the “first vaudeville act to go on the air as a talking picture.” This demonstration, and the phone company’s press release, reveal that AT&T’s initial conception of television was to “illustrate” two-way long-distance telephone conversation (still an AT&T preoccupation). A secondary function was to present current events and entertainment in formats indistinguishable from the Movietone Newsreel and the Vitaphone short. The difference was that television would be “live”:

Officials of [AT&T] state that the commercial future of the invention lies in public entertainment by way of super-news reels flashed before audiences at the moment of occurrence, as well as dramatic and musical acts carried over the ether waves in sound and picture at the instant they take place at the studio. Telephone company officials say that years of further experimentation are ahead in order to develop its possibilities. ( Film Daily , 10 April 1927, pp. 1, 12)

Bell Telephone Lab’s successful experiments influenced the Federal Radio Commission to set aside broadcast channels for experimental television transmission. 71 Meanwhile, General Electric had its own sound-picture transmitter, called the Kenographone. Thomas Edison was said to have seen his face and heard his voice on the system. 72

The dominant technology being innovated was mechanical television, using spinning disks or some variant to scan the image. Only a few inventors explored electronic scanning, the fundamental method of modern television imaging. Philo T. Farnsworth, a precocious inventor from Utah, developed the thermionic applications from cathode ray tube research. His many inventions included an "image dissector " for capturing the picture, and—seminal for broadcast video—the “electron multiplier” for amplifying it. His company, Television, Inc., was formed on 27 March 1929. Using film clips of Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willie,” the Dempsey-Tunney knockout, and the Pickford-Fairbanks film THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1929), Farnsworth demonstrated his system to representatives of RKO, Fox theaters, and others. David Sarnoff, who had already hired Vladimir Zworykin from Westinghouse to head RCA’s research laboratory, offered to buy out the inventor for $ 100,000. 73 Farnsworth refused, later sued RCA for infringing his patents, and won. 74

While all of the Big Five movie producers, Paramount in particular, were intrigued by the possibility of theatrical television, the trade press usually downplayed the potential of TV. Lee de Forest said cautiously, “Television, I believe, must continue to be extremely intricate, and must be built and operated at great cost until new discoveries are made in the field of physics.” Film Daily was skeptical, editorializing, “Radio pictures still are in the embryonic stage, with little possibility seen that they will become practical for a considerable period of time, if ever,” and even more candidly, “All this talk about motion pictures by radio in the home and color by television is the veriest bunk.” Government regulators were the biggest obstacle to active ownership of television by the film industry. Nevertheless, NBC (which was related to RKO) and CBS (which was still half-owned by Paramount) obtained Federal Radio Commission licenses to experiment with TV in 1931. 75

To the general public, of course, imaginary constructions of television had been common for a long time. Television was a futuristic fantasy, like movies in sound, color, and maybe 3-D. The realization of radio and talking movies suddenly gave the idea of TV Page 51  fresh currency. It was easy for someone like Sarnoff to conceptualize television as a hybrid product. After RCA had given a public demonstration of large-screen television at the RKO-Proctor Fifty-eighth Street Theater in New York in 1930, he commented:

With great motion-picture theaters forming huge centers of entertainment, with neighborhood picture houses in every city, with radio and the “movies” at every crossroad, it might seem at first thought an extraordinary effort of the imagination to envisage virtually millions of “little theaters” added to the constellation of entertainment made possible by radio, talking pictures, and the modern phonograph. And yet the progress of the electrical arts inevitably points in this direction. A separate theater for every home, although the stage may be only a cabinet and the curtain a ]screen—that, I believe, is the distinct promise of this era of electrical entertainment. (Quoted in New York Times , 13 July 1930, reprinted in Sarnoff, Looking Ahead , pp. 91–92) 76

While Sarnoff was looking ahead to TV, he was also looking around at the phonograph business and trying to convince the RCA board of directors to buy the biggest company, Victor Talking Machines.


In terms of sheer numbers of customers exposed to new sound technology, the talking cinema was less significant than the introduction of cheap, but high-quality, home sound reproducers—the phonograph. Though “wax” (shellac, later vinyl) disc recording did not lose its market dominance until the 1980s, it was challenged by alternative systems throughout the twenties, including recording on film and magnetic recording.


Recording sound on moving photographic film stock has been traced to the turn of the twentieth century. 77 One of the earliest inventors to link photographed sound with moving pictures was Eugene Lauste. He had worked with W. K. L. Dickson in Edison’s lab, then with the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company before pursuing his research in his native England. In 1911 he came back to the United States and demonstrated a working prototype for a system that recorded sound on film. The coincidence of the timing of his visit with the renewal of interest in sound film at the Edison lab and by Case and de Forest is noteworthy. Lauste made another foray in 1918 and succeeded in interesting Charlie Chaplin. He wrote, “The idea which has already accomplished, is to photograph pictures and sounds simultaneously on the same film, and in one operation, and reproduce same without any contact on the film, or the use of a gramophone or phonograph. The sounds is absolutely clear, no scratching whatever or distortion in the voice or music, I am certain that you will be very surprise to hear it.” Chaplin replied with a request for more details, but strangely, Lauste seems not to have replied. 78

Another sound-recording pioneer was Joseph Tykocinski-Tykociner, the first professor of electrical engineering at the University of Illinois. The Polish-born radio technician had been a friend of Zworyldn back in Russia before emigrating to the United States after   the 1917 Revolution. Tykociner projected a successful composite picture and sound print at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers conference in Urbana on 9 June 1922. Several reels of this film restored by Joseph Aiken in 1957 were found to be “feeble,” with uneven speed, but otherwise functional. Tykociner had the advantage of access to an improved photoelectric cell which used a mercury vapor bulb for the light emitter and a telephone transmitter for the sound input. 79 The result was a variable-density sound track.

The prototype of Lee de Forest’s sound system was the film-phonograph he called Photophone. The invention, intended to be a superior music reproducer, was demonstrated successfully in January 1920. But old paradigms die hard; rather than using a motion picture strip, de Forest recorded on a spinning photographic plate. The Photophone was a sort of photographic gramophone. 80

The developments with the farthest-reaching results, however, were taking place in the fiercely competitive environment of the major research laboratories. Hoxie, at the General Electric research labs in Schenectady, began working on ways to record radio transmissions on photographic film during World War I. Between 1917 and 1920, GE manufactured his visual photographic recorder under contract to the U.S. Navy. This device exposed high-speed incoming wireless code onto film for later analysis. It evolved into Hoxie’s sound-on-film recorder and playback system, which he called the Pallophotophone (meaning “shaking light sound”). It was derived from the oscilloscope, a device for measuring electrical waves that had been in use since 1893. The Pallophotophone used a tiny mirror cemented onto a movable diaphragm which vibrated when connected to a microphone. Light beamed on it reflected onto the moving filmstrip, exposing a wavy line that tracked the acoustic frequencies of the source. It was demonstrated on 6 October 1921. GE foresaw two applications: for playing back delayed radio broadcasts, and for mastering phonograph records. In 1922 a test broadcast was made over company-owned station WGY. Listeners were invited to mail in comments if they heard anything different about the announcer’s voice. Many respondents felt that his voice (pre-recorded on film, unbeknownst to them) was more distinct than usual. 81 Scientific American drafted a list of potential uses:

It appears very likely that such [transcribing] applications of the photographic recording of sounds will become quite common in the future, and that lectures and important speeches may be simultaneously broadcasted from several radio stations. This system has a definite application in recording speeches, songs and other sounds for future generations. Its application to the theater is, of course, obvious. (“Pictures That Talk,” Scientific American , January 1923, p. 71)

Presumably the last sentence referred to broadcasting plays; making motion pictures with recorded sounds was not obvious. But GE was definitely interested in talking pictures. On 2 April 1923, Hoxie connected his equipment to a Simplex projector for a demonstration to company executives. But by this time, De Forest Phonofilm’s lack of success was becoming evident. Instead of pursuing the film option, GE promoted the device as a way to record musical performances on film which could be re-recorded onto phonograph discs. In 1925, to compete with the Western Electric Orthophonic (electric) recording process in use by Victor and Columbia, the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company took out a license to use the Hoxie optical sound system for making its Light Ray recording masters. 82

Meanwhile, Western Electric was proceeding in its typically organized fashion. Two research teams were assembled by Assistant Chief Engineer Edward B. Craft. One was under the direction of Wente (who had developed the condenser microphone), and the other was led by Joseph Maxfield. Wente’s group studied sound-on-film. His team adapted a device formerly called a string galvanometer, which Lauste had invented at GE. (Cross-licensing gave Western Electric the rights to it.) This device was a light modulator, or light valve, as they called it. Two ribbons of metal foil repelled each other when electrically charged, forming a thin slit through which the light beam could pass. The opening varied according to the strength of the signal, so when light struck the moving film, an exposure was made that produced a “variable-area” (rather than a variable-den-sity) sound track. 83 Western Electric began making sound-on-film tests in 1923. It was double-system recording; that is, picture and sound were recorded in separate cameras synchronized via two selsyn motors. Eventually this light valve became the standard in the Western Electric recording system. By 1923, however, many factors, primarily the company’s expertise in disc recording, contributed to Western Electric’s decision to pursue sound-on-disc, rather than optical sound, for its film sound system.

Though proponents of each of these optical reproduction systems claimed superiority, to the average auditor in the theater it probably made little difference how the sounds were made. Kellogg, an engineer, recalled, “During the earlier years of commercial sound, the advantage seemed to be on the side of [variable-] area for music but [variable-] density for speech intelligibility. With both at their best there was little to choose in clarity of speech reproduction, but the density system seemed able to take more abuse without too serious loss of articulation.” 84 All systems had difficulty reproducing the highest frequencies of speech, resulting in the infamous “s” problem. Actors speaking sibilants were perceived to be making “f” or “th” sounds, owing to recording distortion.

Essential for the recording and reproduction of sound on film is a transport for moving the emulsion past the exposing beam at a constant rate. This was accomplished by stretching the film across a heavy flywheel that evened out the jerks caused by the starting and stopping of the film during each frame’s recording/projection. Simple as it seems, the mechanical flywheel concept was claimed as proprietary by many international inventors and litigated well into the 1930s.

Regardless of how the film was exposed, all these methods were played back the same way, by an exciter lamp and photoconductive cell combination. Light from a small lamp passing through either a variable-density or variable-area track produced electrical currents which reproduced the original sound. The amplification circuits and vacuum tubes were controlled by RCA’s patents and licenses.

Electromagnetic Recording

Visitors to the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris might have heard a scientific marvel, the Telegraphone. The invention of the Danish telephone engineer Valdemar Poulsen, it recorded and played back fluctuating magnetic fields on a fast-moving wire. His application was a dictation machine, which was marketed in the United States by the American Telegraphone Company. Lee de Forest worked briefly with some entrepreneurs around 1913 on an abortive attempt to apply a similar wire-recording system to   film. When it failed to materialize, little effort was made to incorporate magnetic sound into the movies for about forty years. 85 (Poulsen also obtained patents which, in the 1930s, gave him and his assignees valid claims on optical sound projection.)

Disc Recording

These optical and electromagnetic recording techniques aspired to improve upon the acoustical-mechanical phonograph, which had changed little since Edison’s and Emile Berliner’s nineteenth-century models. There were countless efforts to synchronize phonographic cylinders and discs with movies right from the beginning.

Those same 1900 visitors to the Paris Exposition, if not already sated by science-as-entertainment, could savor the demonstration which took place at the Phono-Cinéma Théâtre. Paul Decauville opened the attraction in April. Films and cylinder recordings of the stars Sarah Bernhardt, Coquelin Cadet, and Victor Maurel (an important baritone interpreter of Verdi) were roughly synchronized. Because of competition from other cinemas, lack of a varied program, and audiovisual problems, the theater closed after only two months without having made back the cost of its construction. 86 Probably the most technically successful early system, based on viewing restored prints, was the Chronophone. This had been a passion of Léon Gaumont, founder of France’s second-largest film studio. Gaumont dreamed that sound films would help him command a larger share of the American market, and in 1907 he opened a production branch in Flushing, New York, with Herbert Blaché and his wife Alice Guy Blaché in charge of operations. The Chronophone went through several developmental stages, ending in a version which was exhibited regularly at the huge Gaumont Palace theater in Paris and, in June 1913, at the Thirty-ninth Street Theater in New York. Gaumont used a compressed-air amplifier called the Elgéphone and a turntable which was connected to the projector by cables. Synchronization was maintained by wiring the projector and phono-graph motors in series on the same direct-current circuit. Typical subjects included vaudeville sketches and songs by popular music hall artists—for example, Mayol. 87

The most notorious film-phonograph combination, at least in terms of its effect on developments in the 1920s, was the Kinetophone, designed by the Edison laboratory. This was a system that recorded onto and played back from an oversize cylinder. It used a mechanical amplifier based on the type that had been used aboard ships for communicating between decks. Unlike the Chronophone, the projector for the Kinetophone was driven by the phonograph, not the other way around. The connection was made via belt pulleys. Though well received at its New York vaudeville premiere, subsequent runs were unsuccessfully synchronized and the sound was shrill; some audiences booed the presentation. Peck, in 1927, recalled one show, perhaps involving the Kinetophone:

It was about 14 years ago that the writer sat in a small motion-picture auditorium, eagerly awaiting the presentation of a “talking movie.” Finally the picture flashed on the screen, and a few seconds after one of the characters had started to move his lips in the introductory phrases, his first words issued from a phonograph situated on the stage near the screen! Someone had blundered and as a result, all through the production, the voices were always a few paces behind the actions of the characters. Nor was that the only trouble. The speed of the phonograph had not been carefully regulated, and as Page 56  Page 57  the action continued, the voices fell more and more in arrears. Next, the motor spring became weak and it was necessary to wind it up, with the usual accompanying noise. To cap the climax, the voices continued to be reproduced for several seconds after the picture was finished. (A. P. Peck, “Giving a Voice to Motion Pictures,” Scientific American , June 1927, p. 378) 88

The Kinetophone limped on until 1915, a failure frequently cited by studio heads in the next decade when approached by others promoting movie sound systems. On 9 December 1914, the Kinetophone lab was destroyed by fire and Edison abandoned the project. 89 The elderly Thomas Edison said that he had sold the rights to a foreign entrepreneur:

We took the voice on a phonograph record, and arranged the talking machine so that it could be operated from the projection room of the theater. The phonograph was placed down in front of the screen, and it worked fine.

I had hardly set the machine to working, when a Japanese man nearly went crazy over it. He asked what I would take for the invention. I really did not think much of it, and thought that $2,000 or $3,000 would have been a pretty fair price. Before I could make a price, however, he up and offers me $50,000 for the rights. Did I give them to him? Certainly I did. As soon as I caught my breath after the jolt. ( Film Daily , 4 March 1927, pp. 1, 2)

Of the attempts made in the early twenties, the most attention-getting was Orlando Kellum’s Talking Pictures, not because of any particular technical distinction, but because it was used in conjunction with a big premiere of a famous director’s film: D. W. Griffith’s DREAM STREET (1921). By profession a tailor, Kellum had seen Edison’s Kinetophone, and he borrowed $1,500 from a relative of his maid to finance an improved version. He founded the Kellum Talking Picture Company in 1916. The May 1921 program was to be his big break. It consisted of a short song, a monologue in “Negro dialect” by Irving S. Cobb, and a prologue spoken by Griffith in which he praised Kellum’s “marvelous and accurate” machine. A selection of standard phonograph records and one specially composed song sung by Richard Grace accompanied the film. Those present complained of the loud needle noise. Talking movies, one reviewer reacted, “will do more to drive audiences out of motion picture theaters than bring them in.” The gimmick was discarded after a few performances, but Kellum continued promoting his process in Canada and England. He enthused in 1925: “There is still one great equation to be added: color! I am working on that now. If I can perfect it—and I think I can—the theater, concert hall, and lecture rostrum will be revolutionized indeed.” 90

At the time when Wente’s team was working on sound-on-film, the AT&T team led by Joseph Maxfield was improving sound-on-disc, in both recording and reproduction. The earliest public demonstration was in Woolsey Hall on the Yale campus on 2 October 1922. E. B. Craft projected a silent instructional film, AUDION , accompanied by a some-what synchronized lecture on how amplifiers work, to 2,475 members of the American Association of Electrical Engineers. According to Gleason Archer, “Western Electric thus scored a triumph over its rival [GE], but a triumph somewhat marred by the fact that the movie and talkie failed to synchronize. It was not a case of two hearts that beat as one but two hearts that pulsated separately.” 91 Using capacitors and linked drive shafts, stroboscopic lights, and wow-and-flutter meters on the recording and projection equipment, Maxwell’s team would greatly improve the synchronization but never totally overcome the problem. Maxfield and his collaborator H. C. Harrison utilized the latest developments in microphones and amplification to produce electromagnetic recordings with increased sensitivity, frequency response, and signal-to-noise ratio. Their paper “Methods of High-Quality Recording” also addressed room tone, wax cutting, and horn design. These experiments led, in 1925, to the mass production of electrically recorded discs which were playable on the new Orthophonic machines made by the Victor Talking Machine Company and the Vivatonal brand made by the Columbia Phonograph Company, both under license from Western Electric. 92 These phonographs brought high-quality music to millions of new listeners. The first generation of home Orthophonic players had electric turntables, but they reproduced sound through acoustic horns, not electrical amplification. 93 Though in demand by broadcasters, electric machines did not dominate the home market until the mid-1930s, when they were frequently combined with a radio receiver in the same cabinet. Electronic amplification was essential for filling a huge space like a 1920s movie palace with the full, rich sounds of the singing human voice or a symphony orchestra. Western Electric’s Vitaphone sound-on-disc combination did the job very well. Richard Koszarski has astutely observed, “Few of the Vitaphone first-nighters [in 1926] had ever heard an electrically recorded and reproduced phonograph record, and none had ever experienced theater-quality sound. What impressed them was not just the synchronization (which would always prove a problem) but also the clarity, range, and sheer volume produced by electrical amplification.” 94

Just as talking cinema might be thought of as long-distance telephone or radio with pictures, it was not difficult to imagine it as phonograph records with pictures. Performers, whether recorded by de Forest’s Phonofilm, Fox’s Movietone, or Warners’ Vitaphone, often were supplementing their musical or vocal renditions with their synchronized image. Frequently the recording company to which the performer was under contract was identified in the title, which facilitated the consumer’s purchase of his or her records. No doubt it was the hope of publicity and extra sales of their recordings that prompted many performers to visit the studios and face the mike.

The Western Electric sound-on-disc system, which would become Vitaphone, may have achieved perfect synchrony in the laboratory, but in the field—that is, in the nation’s theaters—the picture-sound match was frequently off a bit, owing to the inevitable slippage in the mechanical link between turntable and projector head. This small lapse between the “flapping” of the lips and the hearing of the voice militated against the illusion of naturalism. Additionally, the telltale needle-scratching in the back-ground was always audible and must have reminded viewers that Vitaphonic recording was a product of the phonograph industry. (Both these defects are greatly exaggerated in SINGIN ’ IN THE RAIN .) It may also be that the early propensity to record a wide range of musical material (from opera to ukulele performances) was, among other things, a proud demonstration by the Western Electric technicians of the hitherto impossible Page 60  recording range of Vitaphone, their enhanced phonograph. Warner Bros. ads extolled the quality that made it worthwhile: “The high character of Warner Bros. Singing, Talking Technicolor Productions demand the utmost in Sound Recording and Reproduction. Vitaphone Discs supply just that.” 95

Other Technologies

Enabling the efficient production and exhibition of the talkies required the coordination of many more industries and technologies. For example, specialized photographic processes were required. Eastman Kodak, in 1927, set up a dedicated lab under the direction of Otto Sandvik for research and development of sound film emulsions. The lab introduced fine-grain panchromatic emulsions, tinted release-print stock for sound prints, and new processes for developing negatives. Incandescent lighting, already becoming the industry standard, was adopted after 1928. Many of the other technologies deployed are not normally considered part of “film history.” For example, cantilever engineering, a wartime product of bridge architecture and aviation, was used for manufacturing lightweight mobile cranes and booms to swiftly and silently maneuver cameras, lights, and microphones about the film set. The necessity to suppress ambient noise in enclosed soundproof sets and in movie theaters spurred improvements in quietrunning fans and air conditioning. The rapid development of industrial magnets during the early 1920s had important ancillary applications in the transformers and cones in horns and dynamic speakers, as well as the galvanometers in light valves.

These factors may have been necessary for sound to be innovated, but none alone was a sufficient determinant to explain where motion pictures with sound “came from.” These multipurpose technologies were developed for other uses and would have been applied with or without the coming of sound. What happened was that the electrical companies and the studios, with the support of the popular press, created a climate of acceptance for sound cinema. This was done primarily by creating a discourse which aligned the talkies with the already powerful myths of scientific progress and technological determinism. For a while, it was enough to know that sound films were electrical, or that they ran on vacuum tubes. The editor of an important fan magazine said it pithily in 1928: “This is an electrical age, the radio and the wireless prove it. And before five years have elapsed the movies will all be talkies, the sound effects and dialogue being transmitted through electricity. All of the big picture houses in the cities are now being wired to carry the juice which spells sound and dialogue.” 96 Lee de Forest also wrapped the talkies in the mantle of electricity: “Today 1929 the talking motion picture has shunted aside the silent screen. Tomorrow—who knows to what uses it will be put for entertainment and education? Its development and the development of so many things that make for comfort and progress in living depend upon how well scientists become acquainted with that master force so commonly called electricity.” 97

It was also in the manufacturers’ interest to cultivate the idea that the talkies were inevitable. Sarnoff, the most outspoken, explicitly attributed the development of sound to modernism. He worked hard to capitalize on the public’s millenarian anticipation, a feeling that the twentieth century would be a turning point in civilization. But the technology of film sound was not foisted upon a passive public. Since the industrial boom that followed World War I, the notion that American society was entering a new technological   epoch was pervasive. The valorization of technology was embodied in the phrase “New Era,” which one heard everywhere in the twenties. It was applied to everything from politics to stock-picking theories, to product brand names. The rhetoric surrounding the early sound film attempted to link the technical medley that comprised Photophone, Vitaphone, Movietone, and the others with new-millennium optimism and faith in industrial progress.

Significantly, few commentators, if any, saw sound as a natural outgrowth of silent cinema production practice. On the contrary, the talkies were something new, part of the electrifying spirit of the twenties. Sound film’s alleged origins in thermionics made it essentially different from the classical Hollywood cinema. As a result, no one knew which form the new medium would take. It might resemble Broadway theater or vaude-ville, a phonograph or radio with pictures, or it could substitute for a live orchestra. The one thing that hardly anyone anticipated was a quick, smooth continuity between silent and sound movie production.

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