In 1919, Lee De Forest, inventor of the audion tube, filed his first patent on a sound-on-film process, DeForest Phonofilm, which recorded sound directly onto film as parallel lines. These parallel lines photographically recorded electrical waveforms from a microphone, which were translated back into sound waves when the movie was projected. Some sources say that DeForest improved on the work of Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt -- who was granted German patent 309.536 on 28 July 1914 for his sound-on-film work -- and on the Tri-Ergon process, patented in 1919 by German inventors Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massole.

The Phonofilm system, which synchronized sound directly onto film, was used to record vaudeville acts, musical numbers, political speeches, and opera singers. The quality of Phonofilm was poor at first, improved somewhat in later years, but was never able to match the fidelity of sound-on-disc systems such as Vitaphone, or sound-on-film systems such as RCA Photophone or Fox Movietone.

The films DeForest made were short films made primarily as demonstration films to try to interest major studios in Phonofilm. These films are particularly valuable to entertainment historians, as they include recordings of a wide variety of both well-known and less famous American vaudeville and British music hall acts which would otherwise have been forgotten.

Some of the people filmed included vaudevillians Joe Weber and Lew Fields, Eva Puck and Sammy White, Eddie Cantor, Ben Bernie, Oscar Levant, Phil Baker, Roy Smeck, jazz musicians Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, "all-girl" bandleader Helen Lewis, harmonicist Borrah Minnevitch, Nikata Balieff's company Chauve-Souris, opera singers Eva Leoni, Abbie Mitchell, and Marie Rappold, folklorist Charles Ross Taggart, and politicians Calvin Coolidge, Robert La Follette, Al Smith, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Smith and Roosevelt were filmed during the 1924 Democratic National Convention, held June 24 to July 9 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

In November 1922, De Forest founded the De Forest Phonofilm Corporation with studios at 314 East 48th Street in New York City, but was unable to interest any of the major Hollywood movie studios in his invention.

Premiere of Phonofilm

On 15 April 1923, DeForest premiered 18 short films made in Phonofilm -- presenting vaudeville acts, musical performers, opera, and ballet -- at the Rivoli Theater in New York City. The printed program for this presentation gave credit to the "DeForest-Case Patents". However, according to a letter written to DeForest immediately after the event by Theodore Case, no credit was given to Case during DeForest's presentation. Case also states in the letter how displeased he is with DeForest crediting the "DeForest-Case Patents", as Phonofilm's success was fully due to the work of Case and his Case Research Lab.

DeForest was forced to show these films in independent theaters such as the Rivoli, since Hollywood movie studios controlled all major U.S. movie theater chains at the time. De Forest's decision to film primarily short films, not features, due to lack of Hollywood investment, limited the appeal of his process. All or part of the Paramount Pictures features Bella Donna (premiered 1 April 1923) and The Covered Wagon (premiered 16 March 1923) were reportedly filmed with Phonofilm as an experiment, but, if so, were only shown this way at the premiere engagements, also at the Rivoli Theater in New York City.

Development of Phonofilm

Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer used the Phonofilm process for their Song Car-Tunes series of cartoons -- all featuring the "Follow the Bouncing Ball" gimmick -- starting in May 1924. The Fleischers stopped releasing the Song Car-Tune films in Phonofilm in September 1926, and later re-released some of these titles 1928-1932 with new soundtracks using the RCA Photophone process, under the name Screen Songs.

DeForest also worked with Theodore Case, using Case's patents to make the Phonofilm system workable. However, the two men had a falling out, shortly after DeForest filed suit in June 1923 against Freeman Harrison Owens, another former collaborator of DeForest's. Case then went to movie mogul William Fox of Fox Film Corporation, who bought Case's patents, the American rights to the German Tri-Ergon patents, and the work of Owens to create Fox Movietone.

DeForest's Use of Case Patents

Case's falling out with DeForest was due to DeForest taking full credit for the work of Case and Earl I. Sponable (1895-1977) at the Case Research Lab in Auburn, New York. To record film, DeForest tried using a standard light bulb to expose amplified sound onto film. These bulbs quickly burned out, and, even while functioning, never produced a clear recording. To reproduce his nearly inaudible soundtracks, DeForest used a vacuum tube that could not react quickly enough to the varying light coming to it as the soundtrack passed through the sound gate, causing an incomplete reproduction of sound from an essentially inaudible recording -- a dual failure. DeForest's attempts to record and reproduce sound failed at every turn until he used inventions provided by Case.

Having failed to create a workable system of recording sound onto film by 1921, DeForest contacted Case to inquire about using the Case Research Lab's invention of the Thallofide (thallium oxysulfide) Cell, for use in reproducing his recorded sound. Case provided DeForest with that invention from his lab, and later provided DeForest with the AEO Light, another Case Research Lab invention, used for reading the soundtrack of a finished film. Due to DeForest's continuing misuse of these inventions, the Case Research Lab proceeded to build its own camera. That camera was used by Case and Sponable to record President Coolidge on 11 August 1924, which was one of the films shown by DeForest and claimed by him to be the product of "his" inventions.

Seeing that DeForest was more concerned with his own fame and recognition than he was with actually creating a workable system of sound film, and because of DeForest's continuing attempts to downplay the contributions of the Case Research Lab in the creation of Phonofilm, Case severed his ties with DeForest in the fall of 1925 and went his own way. On 23 July 1926, William Fox of Fox Film Corporation bought Case's patents.

Producer Pat Powers Attempts Takeover of Phonofilm

By 1926, DeForest gave up on trying to exploit the process -- at least in the U.S. (see U.K. section below) -- and his company declared bankruptcy in September 1926, because without access to Case's inventions, DeForest was left with an unworkable and incomplete system of sound film. Having no system of his own, DeForest had nothing to exploit, nothing to record and reproduce sound with, and nothing of value to sell to others looking for a system of sound film. Even so, producer Pat Powers invested in what remained of Phonofilm in the spring of 1927. DeForest was in financial difficulty due to his lawsuits against former associates Case and Owens. At this time, DeForest was selling cut-rate sound equipment to second-run movie theaters wanting to convert to sound on the cheap.

In June 1927, Powers made an unsuccessful takeover bid for DeForest's company. In the aftermath, Powers hired a former DeForest technician, William Garrity, to produce a cloned version of the Phonofilm system, which Powers dubbed Powers Cinephone. By now, DeForest was in too weak a financial position to mount a legal challenge against Powers for patent infringement. Powers convinced Walt Disney to use Cinephone for a few sound cartoons such as Steamboat Willie (1928) before Powers and Disney had a falling-out over money -- and over Powers hiring away Disney animator Ub Iwerks -- in 1930.

Hollywood Chooses Other Sound Systems

While shunning Phonofilm, Hollywood studios introduced different systems for talkies. First up was the sound-on-disc process introduced by Warner Brothers as Vitaphone -- which used a record disc synchronized with the film for sound. Warner Brothers released the feature film Don Juan starring John Barrymore on 6 August 1926 in Vitaphone, with music and sound effects only.

On 6 October 1927, Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson in Vitaphone and is often incorrectly credited as the first talking picture. The Jazz Singer was the first feature film to use synchronized sound for talking sequences rather than just for music and sound effects, and thus launched the talkie era, but DeForest's sound-on-film system was in fact the basis for modern sound movies.

In 1927, producer William Fox introduced sound-on-film Fox Movietone and in 1928, the sound-on-film process RCA Photophone was adopted by newly created studio RKO and by Paramount Pictures.

Phonofilm in the UK

A cinema owner in the UK, M. B. Scheslinger acquired the UK rights to Phonofilm and filmed short films of British music hall performers -- along with famous actors such as Sybil Thorndike reading excerpts of works by Shakespeare, Shaw, and Dickens -- from September 1926 to May 1929. (In July 1925, The Gentleman, a comedy short directed by William J. Elliott in Phonofilm, became the first sound-on-film production made in England.)

On 4 October 1926, Phonofilm made its UK premiere with a program of short films presented at the Empire Cinema in London. According to the British Film Institute website, the UK division of DeForest Phonofilm was taken over in August 1928 by British Talking Pictures and its subsidiary British Sound Film Productions which was formed in September 1928.

In March 1929, a feature film The Clue of the New Pin, a part-talkie based on an Edgar Wallace novel, was trade-shown with The Crimson Circle, a German-UK coproduction which was also based on a Wallace novel. Crimson was filmed in DeForest Phonofilm, and Pin was made in British Phototone, a sound-on-disc process using 12-inch phonograph records synchronized with the film. However, the UK divisions of both Phonofilm and British Phototone soon closed.

The last films made in the UK in Phonofilm were released in early 1929, due to competition from Vitaphone, and rival sound-on-film systems Fox Movietone and RCA Photophone. The release of Alfred Hitchcock's sound feature film Blackmail in June 1929, made in RCA Photophone, sealed the fate of Phonofilm in the UK.

Legacy of Phonofilm

Almost 200 short films were made in the Phonofilm process, and many are preserved in the collections of the Library of Congress (45 titles) and the British Film Institute (98 titles). In 1976, five Phonofilm titles were discovered in a trunk in Australia, and these films have been restored by Australia's National Film and Sound Archive. [1]

See also

External links

Lee De Forest, (August 26, 1873 – June 30, 1961) was an American inventor with over 300 patents to his credit. De Forest invented the Audion, a vacuum tube that takes relatively weak electrical signals and amplifies them.
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The Audion is an electronic amplifier device invented by Lee De Forest in 1906. It was the forerunner of what is generally known as a triode today, in which the flow of current from the filament to the plate was controlled by a third element, the grid.
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Sound-on-film refers to a class of sound film processes where the sound accompanying picture is physically recorded onto photographic film, usually, but not always, the same strip of film carrying the picture.
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Eric Magnus Campbell Tigerstedt (August 4, 1887 – April 20, 1925) was one of the most significant inventors in Finland at the beginning of the 20th century, and has been called the "Thomas Edison of Finland".
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July 28 is the 1st day of the year (2nd in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 0 days remaining.


  • 1540 - Thomas Cromwell is executed on order from Henry VIII of England on charges of treason.

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19th century - 20th century - 21st century
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The Tri-Ergon sound-on-film system was patented from 1919 on by German inventors Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massolle. The name Tri-Ergon was derived from Greek and means "the work of three.
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The term Sound-on-disc refers to a class of sound film processes utilizing a phonograph or other disc to record or playback sound in sync with a motion picture. Early sound-on-disc systems used a mechanical interlock with the film projector, while more recent systems use timecode.
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Vitaphone was a sound film process used on features and nearly 2,000 short subjects produced by Warner Brothers and its sister studio First National from 1926 to 1930. Vitaphone was the last, but most successful, of the sound-on-disc processes.
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Sound-on-film refers to a class of sound film processes where the sound accompanying picture is physically recorded onto photographic film, usually, but not always, the same strip of film carrying the picture.
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RCA Photophone was the trade name given to one of four major competing technologies that emerged in the American film industry in the late 1920s for synchronizing electronically recorded audio to a motion picture image. RCA Photophone was a variable-area film exposure system.
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The Movietone sound system is a sound-on-film method of recording sound for motion pictures which guarantees synchronisation between the sound and the picture. It achieves this by recording the sound as a variable-density optical track on the same strip of film used to record the
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For other uses, see Vaudeville (disambiguation).

Vaudeville was a genre of variety entertainment prevalent in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s.
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Music hall is a form of British theatrical entertainment which was popular between 1850 and 1960. The term can refer to
  1. A particular form of variety entertainment involving a mixture of popular song, comedy and speciality acts.

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Lew Fields (1867 - 1941) was an American actor, comedian, vaudeville star and theatre manager and producer.

Fields was half of the great comic duo "Weber and Fields", the other half being Joe Weber.
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Sammy White may refer to:
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  • Sammy White (American football) (born 1954), a NFL wide receiver
  • Sammy White (actor) (1894 - 1960), a Broadway and Hollywood actor and song-and-dance comedian

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Eddie Cantor

Eddie Cantor as photographed by the Bain News Service.
Birth name Israel Iskowitz
Born January 31, 1892
New York City, New York, U.S.A.
Died October 10, 1964 (age 72)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.A.
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Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906 – August 14, 1972) was an American pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor. He was more famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and in movies and television, than for his music.
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Phil Baker (August 26, 1896, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - November 30, 1963) is best known as a popular American comedian and emcee on radio. Baker was also a vaudeville actor, composer, songwriter, accordionist and author.
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Roy Smeck (born Ray Smeck, 6 February 1900 – 5 April 1994) was an American musician. His skill on the banjo, guitar, steel guitar, and especially the ukulele earned him the nickname "Wizard of the Strings.
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Noble Sissle (born July 10, 1889 in Indianapolis, Indiana, died December 17, 1975 in Tampa, Florida) was an American jazz composer, lyricist, bandleader, singer and playwright. He is noted for his collaboration with songwriter, Eubie Blake.
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James Hubert Blake (February 7, 1887 – February 12 1983), was a composer, lyricist, and pianist of ragtime, jazz, and popular music. With long time collaborator Noble Sissle, Blake wrote the Broadway musical Shuffle Along
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All-female bands (commonly known as all-women bands, all-girl bands or girl bands) are musical groups in which females sing and play all the instruments.
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Borrah Minnevitch (November 5, 1902, Kiev – 26 June, 1955, Paris) was a notable harmonica player, actor, and leader of his group The Harmonica Rascals.

He appeared in a short film made by Lee DeForest in the short-lived sound-on-film process Phonofilm, titled
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Nikita Balieff (b. 1876/1877 - d. September 3 1936) was an Armenian vaudevillian, stage performer, writer, impresario, and director best known as the master of ceremonies and creator of the Chauve-Souris theater group.
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Abbie Mitchell (25 September 1884 – 16 March 1960) was an American soprano opera singer who created the role of "Clara" in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in 1935.
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Charles Ross Taggart (19 March 1871, Topsham, Vermont - 1953, Kents Hill, Maine) was an American comedian and folklorist who appeared all over the Eastern U.S. as "The Man From Vermont" and "The Old Country Fiddler" from the mid-1890's to the mid-1930's.
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John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. (July 4 1872 – January 5 1933), more commonly known as Calvin Coolidge, was the thirtieth President of the United States (1923–1929). He is often referred to as "Silent Cal".
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Robert M. La Follette can refer to two United States politicians.
  • Robert M. La Follette, Sr. (1855-1925) — senator, congressman, and governor of Wisconsin created the Reference Bureau of the United States
  • Robert M. La Follette, Jr.

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