The Man Who Broke the Sound Barrier

Originally published April 10, 2635
by Dr. Susan Marras
Temporal Anthropologist with the University of Chicago

I am Dr. Susan Marras from the University of Chicago and I have spent the last ten years studying the early twentieth century, the 1910s and 1920s primarily. This was a time of great technological and social change.

One of the technologies that fascinates me the most is motion pictures. Many don’t know it is in fact a Victorian invention. Dr. Wendell Howe, one of our temporal anthropologists who specializes in the Victorian Age, has brought back examples of these earliest films. These were usually less than a minute of grainy picture, and were little more than sideshow entertainment. Photography itself was only decades old, and now they had photos that could move! However, most expected the novelty to wear off, but others saw a future in moving pictures as a major source of entertainment.

Georges Méliès conducting himself in One Man Band (1900)
Thomas Edison was not happy with his very short films and went back to the drawing board. His company released The Great Train Robbery in 1903, a twelve minute movie that tells a story of bandits in the Old West. Meanwhile in France the magician Georges Méliès was inventing the art of special effects using not only stage tricks but film editing to create cinema magic.

Film studios and movie theaters began to spring up around the world. By the 1910s motion pictures were becoming a million dollar industry. There was one huge obstacle though--no sound. To counter act this upright pianos were used to improvise a “sound track.” In time pianos were replaced with booming Wurlitzer organs. Movie studios eventually composed musical scores to be played with their films. Some even experimented with putting sound on a phonograph record to be played with the film, but that was difficult to synchronize.

Lee DeForest
All the history books will tell you that the “sound barrier” was finally broken in 1929 with the first sound movie The Jazz Singer. Not true! Ten years earlier Lee DeForest filed his first patent for sound on film, the DeForest Phonofilm. By 1922 he had worked out all the kinks. Now the silent films had become “talkies.”

You would think the Hollywood movie studios would be beating down his door. They didn’t seem the least bit interested. In 1923 DeForest created 18 short films featuring famous vaudeville acts of the day to demonstrate his invention to the press. Again Hollywood snubbed him, saying they didn’t do vaudeville acts but filmed stories with plots. Why would their audience pay to see vaudeville acts when they could just go to a vaudeville theater? The Phonofilm Company went bankrupt in 1926.

Here is one of those films made by DeForest featuring Eddie Cantor. Ironically Cantor became one of the biggest movie stars of the 1930s performing in musicals where he sang all those vaudeville songs he had made famous. (My favorite is “If You Knew Susie” for obvious reasons.) Hollywood was wrong. Movie audiences would pay big bucks to see Vaudeville acts on the movie screen.

As for DeForest, his most famous invention the Audion, a vacuum tube that ampliphies relatively weak electrical signals, made the first ship to shore radio broadcast possible. This also created the birth of public radio broadcasting and later made television possible. Although DeForest has been called the “Father of Radio and Grandfather of Television,” as well as “Father of the Talkies,” he was largely ignored in his lifetime and is forgotten by history books. He died in 1961 with $1,200 in the bank.

Considering the impact movies, radio and television had on the culture of the twentieth century, we all owe a great debt of gratitude to Lee DeForest.

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