Friday, 23 August 2013

The History of Sound Motion Pictures

Before looking more closely at Harold B Franklin's book I thought it might be a good time to learn a little more about the author himself.

Franklin's IMDb page carries the following biographical information:

New York native Harold B. Franklin entered show business as a booking agent for vaudeville acts in 1910, becoming a theater manager four years later. He joined Famous Players-Lasky as director of its theater operations, but left several years later to head Fox-West Coast Theaters. He worked for various companies in movie theater operations until 1933, when he and playwright Edgar Selwyn joined in a venture to produce stage plays. Two years later he went to work for Columbia Pictures as a production executive. Although he did produce two films, his main focus was in the exhibition end of the business. While on a business trip to Mexico to survey their theaters, he died suddenly in Mexico City.

From this it would seem that it was Franklin's background in movie theatre operations which best qualified him to write about the early sound systems employed in cinemas. Certainly his background as a booking agent would have been unlikely to furnish him with the sort of in-depth knowledge on sound evidenced in the book. 

Sound Motion Pictures Acoustics Sound Absorption Cinema History Talkies

This sort of information is more likely to have come from those he thanked at the end of his introduction: 'the enginners of The Bell Telephone Laboratories, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, and the technical departments of the Fox West Coast Theatres'. This stuff, although a bit over my head, is certainly an eye-opener and shows the level of detail cinema technicians had to consider when installing the new sound equipment. Absorption rates of seating materials in theatres is not something I'd ever considered with regards to the history of cinema, but it stands to reason that if the studios were investing heavily in the technology for production (which would of course have similar issues to contend with) that they'd want to reap the maximum benefit at the presentation stage.  

With regards to the processes which came prior to this, it has to be said that, at first glance, Franklin's narrative of sound in the movies seems a little too American-centric. In particular there's a definite bias towards the achievements of Thomas A Edison. Although maybe that shouldn't be a huge surprise. One thing that I've learned about researching anything communications related is just how ubiqutous Edison is in this field. He was, undoubtedly, a remarkable man but Franklin's assertion, in his opening chapter, that 'In 1894 Edison invented the cinematograph' did set some alarm bells ringing and left me wondering whether the writer had perhaps fallen under the spell of the 'Wizard of Menlo Park'.

The history of cinema's early days is complex and contentious with much debate about who invented what, and when. There isn't the space to cover much of that here but one thing of which we can be reasonably certain is that Edison did NOT invent the cinematagraph. That device (whose own genesis is subject to much debate) was essentially European in origin with the Lumiere brothers being among those credited with its invention. Edison, and his team, did however have the Kinetescope, Kinetograph and Vitascope to their...or rather his name. Perhaps this entry was an oversight or a generalisation, and perhaps it isn't worth dwelling on, but it did rankle a little that Franklin failed to acknowledge the contributions of so many others who played their part in the invention of cinema.

Franklin was of course correct to further expand upon Edison's contributions to the advancement of sound in cinema, which began in 1887 with the inventor's statement of intent to create 'an instrument which would do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, and that by the combination of the two all motion and sound could be recorded ad reproduced simultaneously'. All things considered, the author does later redeem himself by delving a bit more into the contributions of numerous inventors of various nationalities who developed early sound systems with such exotic sounding names as the Cameraphone (the first such use of the term?), Chronophone,  Chronophotophone and the Photocinematophone. At this point Franklin's chronology bounces about a bit but there were names (and inventions) listed here that I'd never heard of and probably worthy of some deeper digging. However, it isn't long before this is all brought back and neatly packaged as work which basically built on the foundations laid by a certain American inventor : 'it is apparent, from the foregoing, that the development of sound pictures is based on the earlier efforts of Mr. Edison'. Which of course may well be entirely true. 

Before leaving the history of sound in motion pictures to focus on the technological/theory side the book offers a fairly conscise run-down of some of the earliest sound films. Noting that:  'In December, 1926, the DeForest Phono-Film Company produced a one-act melodrama called Retribution... To my knowledge it was the first entirely talking picture ever made', Franklin's book reminds us that although the success of talkies depended much on the commercial triumph of The Jazz Singer, many others had blazed a trail before this and helped prepare cinema audiences for what was to come.

The link below is for an interesting and detailed documentary about this period of transition and well worth a look. The Dawn of Sound: How the Movies Learned to Talk (1hr 25 mins)

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Sound Motion Pictures

Having decided to highlight the MoC library in my blogs the next thing I had to do was start...somewhere. What you see here is just the tip of the iceberg- I'm going to have to measure the shelf space next time I'm down!

Museum of Communication Library Books

In the end though the choice was fairly easy as the first book I spotted on shelf 1/4 was this:
Harold B Franklin books
Inside cover of Sound Motion Pictures

Along with books my main passion is cinema (I studied English and Film) so this was a no-brainer. Published in 1929 Harold B Franklin's Sound Motion Pictures must have been one of, if not the first book on sound in cinema and it's a curious mix of film theory, cinema history, the science of acoustics and speculation on the future of 'talkies'.  In fact it's a little difficult to identify just who this book was aimed at, but here's the opening paragraph of the foreword:

"The aim of this book is to present a condensed record of the progress of "sound" in motion pictures. In attempting to write the history of the new device, the author of course realises fully that it is as yet too early to base judgement on a perspective that can come only with time and experience. Yet because an entire industry is adjusting itself overnight to a new condition, the very interest in the subject would appear to justify this text."

Obviously of interest to film scholars, and undoubtedly un-put-downable for budding sound engineers, but out-with these particular demographics it's hard to imagine this on anyone's coffee table.

Franklin though was well aware of that his "pioneer volume" had a broad scope yet a fairly specific readership as he acknowledged "these pages will serve almost every one interested in the subject at least to some degree. It is therefore only natural that some portion of the text, introduced with a special public in mind, will be of less interest to some other reader of a different need."

This then was clearly meant to be used more of a reference book and must surely have found a readership among film companies and cinemas alike: there are several detailed explanations and diagrams indicating the optimum positions for speakers in relation to audiences as well as some in-depth descriptions of the change in studio dynamics in order to accommodate sound recording.

museum of communication books motion pictures

museum of communication books sound


As well as the way in which this book flits between some very complex science then some very accessible film facts and figures it's the volume's own place in cinema history which makes it unique. Sound Motion Pictures was written as the biggest upheaval (both cultural and technological) in the history of motion pictures was unfolding. The adjustments actors, technical crew and audience alike had to make at this time have been well dramatised in films like Singin' in the Rain and The Artist but as they were made with the benefit of hindsight perhaps Sound Motion Pictures captures a more authentic sense of the excitement and uncertainty of the era.

The next blog will take a closer look at Franklin's take on the history of sound in the movies.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Shelf Life

"The Museum has a major collection — over 40 tonnes — of artefacts covering electrostatics, telegraphy, telephony, audio, radio, television and video and IT... as well as some early experimental radar, satellite, photographic and printing equipment plus a technical library of scientific literature and related documentation."

In a sense the above exert from our website's home page ( says so much, and yet so very little about our collection of printed material. That the bit about the library appears at the end of the paragraph infers that this aspect of the museum is perhaps not as prominent an attraction as the rest of the collection: which is true. However, the sheer range of the publications we have on our shelves goes well beyond that expected of a technical library.

Through this blog I aim to highlight a much under-used resource which contains books on advanced electronic engineering, beginner's guides to science, assorted 'how-to' guides, science fiction and GPO directories as well as back issues of QST, Practical Wireless, Electronics Today and many, many others stretching back over several decades.

Whether you have a professional, scholarly or personal interest in any of these topics, or the ones I hope to uncover here, you can arrange a visit to the museum by calling 01592 874836 or emailing

If you would like to donate any appropriate printed materials to the museum please contact