TPO-12 Transition to Sound in Film
A Very Short History of the Transition from Silent to Sound Movies
by Emily Thompson
Emily Thompson 2011
In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and for the first time ever, people could record sound, save it, then listen to it later at another time and place. To make a recording, a person spoke or sang into a big horn. This horn collected the sound energy and sent it to a needle, which wiggled up and down as if it were being tickled by the sound. As the needle wiggled, it cut a long wavy groove into a record made of soft wax, which was spun in a circle underneath the needle. After the recording was made, you could play the record back by placing the needle back at the start of the groove and spinning the record in circles again. This time, the needle rode the wavy groove like a roller coaster. As it moved up and down, it recreated the sounds that had been recorded earlier, and it sent them out of the horn for people to hear again. It seemed almost magical to hear a person's voice coming, not from their own mouth, but from the horn of a machine that remembered exactly what they said and that sounded just like they did.
In the 1890s, Edison invented moving pictures, or movies. A long strip of tiny photographs was captured on film by a special camera, so that each picture was just a little bit different from the ones before and after it. The strip of film was later run through another machine, a projector, that would blend the different pictures together to create the illusion of motion and project the movie onto a large screen in a theater. Edison thought that, if he could unite the sound of his phonograph with his moving pictures, he could create the illusion of life itself—a picture of a person that could move and speak, as if it were alive.
Unfortunately, these two inventions didn't want to work with each other in the way that Edison desired. It was very difficult to synchronize, or "sync," the different machines—to make them work precisely together—so that the recorded sounds of a person's voice would match the movements of their lips seen in the moving pictures. Also, the sound recordings were not very loud, so it was difficult for more than just a few people at a time to hear them.