Edison Shows the First Talking Pictures Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Thomas Alva Edison developed a system for adding sound to motion pictures by using a phonograph linked to a film projector.

Summary of Event

Thomas Alva Edison began experimenting on a device that would show moving pictures because he wanted visual images to accompany the music reproduced by another of his inventions, the phonograph. He said that moving pictures would do for the eye what the phonograph had done for the ear. He thought that both sound and visual images could be stored on a phonograph cylinder and then reproduced at any time by the user. Motion pictures;sound technology Sound recording technology;motion pictures Kinetophone Inventions;kinetophone [kw]Edison Shows the First Talking Pictures (1913) [kw]First Talking Pictures, Edison Shows the (1913) [kw]Talking Pictures, Edison Shows the First (1913) Motion pictures;sound technology Sound recording technology;motion pictures Kinetophone Inventions;kinetophone [g]United States;1913: Edison Shows the First Talking Pictures[03240] [c]Science and technology;1913: Edison Shows the First Talking Pictures[03240] [c]Inventions;1913: Edison Shows the First Talking Pictures[03240] [c]Motion pictures;1913: Edison Shows the First Talking Pictures[03240] Edison, Thomas Alva Dickson, William Hutchison, Miller Reese De Forest, Lee Eastman, George

Edison selected William Dickson from his staff to work on the project at his new laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. Dickson, an accomplished experimenter with a strong interest in photography, started the work in 1887. He fixed small photographs onto a phonograph cylinder and viewed them through a microscope as they rotated. He found that sequential images of a moving object gave the impression of movement when passed rapidly through the viewer’s line of sight. Edison and Dickson had examined several devices that exploited the phenomenon of persistence of vision—the eye’s retention of images for a short time. It was well known that a sequence of images could be manipulated to give the visual illusion of movement. Edison and Dickson were confident that a series of small photographs could achieve this effect. This was the conceptual beginning of motion pictures.

Thomas Alva Edison.

(Library of Congress)

By 1888, Dickson had built a device that could reproduce both sight and sound. This “moving view” apparatus contained a phonograph cylinder and a drum covered with a series of small photographs. Both were centered on a common axle. When the axle was turned, the viewer watched the moving pictures through a microscope and listened to the accompanying sound track through earphones connected to a reproducing diaphragm on the cylinder. This device was the first attempt to show talking pictures. Further experiments proved that this approach was not feasible because the sound and the vision elements could not be synchronized. The phonograph cylinder had to revolve with a continuous motion to ensure good reproduction of the sound track, while the photograph drum needed an intermittent motion: The image had to be moved into the line of sight, fixed there for a fraction of a second so that the eye could record it, and then rapidly moved out of the line of sight. Despite months of experiments, the problem proved insurmountable, forcing Edison to drop the idea of combining sight and sound in one device.

Once released from the demands of talking pictures, Dickson experimented with the best method of manipulating sequential photographs to give the impression of movement. His research produced the important innovation of the perforated strip of film, which replaced the photographs on a revolving drum. Dickson was aware of the use of thin celluloid strips as photographic film. He ordered a strip of film from George Eastman of Rochester, New York, who had used such strips in his cameras. Dickson exposed the images one after another on the continuous tape of film. The edges of the strip were cut with holes to fit the teeth of the ratchet that moved the strip rapidly past the lens. The film camera, patented by Edison in 1891, was a light-proof box containing a lens, a shutter, an electric motor, and a length of celluloid film with perforated sides.

Edison also patented a device for viewing such strips of film—the kinetoscope. Kinetoscope This was a large box that held a strip of positive images as it was moved past an illuminated eyepiece at the top of the machine. An electric motor moved the strip of film to the eyepiece, where a slotted disc exposed the images to the viewer at a rate of about forty frames per second. The kinetoscope was designed as an arcade machine. It closely resembled the coin-slot phonograph, which had become popular in penny arcades and other public places. By 1893, the first kinetoscopes were placed next to phonographs in arcades. Two years later, Edison took the next step of putting a phonograph in the bottom part of the kinetoscope housing. Named the kinetophone, this machine was a second attempt to show talking pictures. The viewer looked through the eyepiece to see the images while listening to the sound track on ear tubes connected to the phonograph. The problems of synchronizing sight and sound again proved too difficult to overcome, however. The kinetophone was a commercial failure and very few were manufactured, but this machine set an important precedent as a self-contained sight and sound system.

Edison was confident that he could perfect this technology and capture a mass audience. After introducing a commercial film projector, he resumed experiments on the kinetophone in 1899. The machine now consisted of a film projector linked to a special long-playing phonograph. The strips of film used in the kinetoscope had run for less than a minute, enough to keep the customer’s attention in an arcade but insufficient to satisfy an audience in a film theater. As audiences became more accustomed to the novelty of moving pictures, they wanted to see films that told stories. The average playing time of an Edison phonograph cylinder at this time was about two minutes; it was not enough to accommodate the longer films being made at the turn of the century.

The best format for a long-playing phonograph was the disc rather than the cylinder. Invented by Emile Berliner, Berliner, Emile the disc-playing talking machine had become a serious competitor to Edison’s phonograph. The playing time of a disc record could easily be extended to around seven minutes, and oversized discs offered much longer playing times. Edison found it difficult to desert the format he had invented and concentrated instead on increasing the size of the cylinder. The kinetophone was developed around oversized cylinders of about 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) in diameter and 19 centimeters (7.5 inches) in length. Playing time was about six minutes. Once the playing time had been increased, there still remained the task of amplifying the volume of the playback to ensure that the sound track could be heard from every seat in the theater. Increased volume could be achieved by putting more pressure on the reproducing needle as it made its way along the groove, but this caused wear on the wax cylinder that ultimately eradicated the sound. Edison hired Daniel Higham, Higham, Daniel an inventor from Massachusetts, to work on the kinetophone in 1908. Higham designed an oversized reproducer assembly that contained a special valve that enhanced the movement of the diaphragm as it picked up the sound vibrations made by the reproducing needle. The result was a much louder playback.

Edison appointed his close associate, Miller Reese Hutchison, to be director of the kinetophone program. Hutchison had invented the automobile horn before he joined Edison’s lab; in the process, he developed methods of sound recording with numerous horns in order to achieve a more balanced sound track. By 1910, Hutchison had a working kinetophone to show to the press. The entertainment consisted of an announcer making a variety of sounds and a dancer performing with musical accompaniment. Although this demonstration was a success, thousands of additional experiments were undertaken to perfect the synchronization of sight and sound. Hutchison tried a variety of controlling devices to coordinate the film projector at the rear of the auditorium with the phonograph behind the screen. After rejecting a system of electrical controls, Hutchison finally decided on a simple mechanical system. A clutch mechanism was used to adjust the speed of the revolving cylinder of the phonograph to keep it in time with the film. The film projectionist worked the clutch with a cord that ran on pulleys. In 1913, the kinetophone was formally introduced with Edison’s claim that he had perfected talking pictures.


The kinetophone had a profound effect on motion picture audiences. When it was first publicly demonstrated in New York City, the newspapers reported that gasps of astonishment could be heard when sound came from the screen. The kinetophone was so popular that it was soon on the road, thrilling audiences all over the United States. It became the leading profit maker for the Edison enterprise in 1913, exceeding income from silent pictures, phonographs, and records.

The first talking pictures garnered national publicity, bringing more fame to Edison and more profits to his film exhibitors. It also gave encouragement to other inventors who were working on talking pictures, including Lee de Forest, the inventor of an early vacuum tube called the audion. Audions Where Edison’s approach had stayed within the realm of existing knowledge of acoustics and mechanics, de Forest’s experiments were directed at the completely new area of electronics. The audion could amplify electrical signals and also had potential as a controlling device—the two key problems in devising a system of talking pictures.

The fame of the kinetophone was short-lived, for after the novelty wore off, movie audiences became impatient with its shortcomings. The playing time of the kinetophone could not accommodate the longer, epic films that were popular in 1913. Audiences wanted their entertainment to last hours, not minutes. Problems with synchronization continued to plague the kinetophone. After another year of unsuccessful experiments and theatrical failures, Edison gave up on the kinetophone and made no further attempt to perfect talking pictures. His attempts, however, had shown the way and demonstrated the appeal of the talkies to film audiences. Another ten years were to pass before electronic recording and amplification made talking pictures a commercial reality. The sound was picked up by microphones that changed the vibrations of sound into electrical signals. The sound was recorded onto discs by a recording stylus that was activated by the changes in a magnetic field. The discs were oversized and revolved at low speed, thus creating a long playing time. The electrical signals were reproduced from the record and amplified by vacuum tubes. Audiences heard the sound track through loudspeakers placed throughout the theater. Fourteen years after Edison announced the coming of talking pictures, The Jazz Singer opened up a new era in film entertainment in 1927. Motion pictures;sound technology Sound recording technology;motion pictures Kinetophone Inventions;kinetophone

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Balio, Tino, ed. The American Film Industry. Rev. ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. Collection of scholarly articles on the early years of the film industry includes several contributions that deal with the technology of motion pictures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conot, Robert. A Streak of Luck. New York: Seaview Press, 1979. A popular biography of Edison that seeks to debunk the Edison myth. Section on motion pictures describes the kinetophone as well as attempts to create talking pictures by inventors other than Edison.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. 4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. Comprehensive history of film includes discussion of Edison’s contributions to film technology in chapters 1 and 7. Features glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hendricks, Gordon. The Edison Motion Picture Myth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961. Detailed study of the invention of the motion picture argues that Edison took the credit for the work of others, especially William Dickson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Origins of the American Film. New York: Arno Press, 1972. Concise account of the inventions that created the film industry by one of the leading scholars on the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Musser, Charles S. Before the Nickelodeon: Charles S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Authoritative history describes the part played by Edison and his employees in the early years of film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ramsaye, Terry. A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture Through 1925. 1926. Reprint. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. Popular history of motion pictures by an author who was closely connected to the film industry and a personal friend of Edison. Discussion is somewhat biased in Edison’s favor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, David. From Peepshow to Palace: Birth of American Film. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Provides an overview of the history of American film between 1893 and 1913. Chapter 2 discusses Edison’s work on adding sound to motion pictures. Includes many illustrations.

Warner Bros. Introduces Talking Motion Pictures

The Jazz Singer Premieres as the First “Talkie”

Sound Technology Revolutionizes the Motion-Picture Industry

Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age

Categories: History Content