Thomas Edison and the Origin of Sound and Color in Films

Broadway dancer Annabelle Moore in Thomas Edison’s “Annabelle Serpentine Dance” (1894), the first appearance of color tinting on film.

Just the other night, while staying with the 7-year-old boys for whom I often babysit, I came across a rerun of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” while searching for quality entertainment to take the place of their obsession with Nickelodeon. I told them that “one of the best shows ever made is on,” and with reluctance they allowed me to change the channel. But when they saw the show was in black and white, they began to dig their heels in. “Black and white is boring!” I heard. “Why do you like so many things that are in black and white?” “Some of the best things ever made were shot that way,” I replied, and stood my ground when they asked to change the channel back. We got through the whole episode, but not without massive amounts of complaining about how this is terrible because it’s not in color.

It is worth exploring the desire we have for the “newest, realest” visions onscreen. There is a pervasive notion (that I find quite offensive) that black-and-white is somehow inferior, imperfect, and to be shunned in favor of color film because seeing things in color is more “real.” I have found that this is often the case for silent films as well, although as, tragically, silent films are all but absent from general TV programming (except for TCM’s Silent Sunday Nights), it is hard to see this attitude in action. People who think this way, I feel, are missing the entire point of suspension of disbelief, and of filmmaking itself. However, through the two centuries that film has been alive, there seems to be a constant effort to enhance color, enhance perception of reality, and enhance a sense of awe in the viewer, so as to make him forget that he is looking at a screen.

The first efforts to colorize film began in Edison’s West Orange, NJ studio, called “Black Maria,” in 1894. The building, designed by W.K.L. Dickson in 1892, sported a ceiling that could be opened when needed, in order to better capture light, and a base that was set on a revolving pivot so it could always be aligned with the sun. One of Edison’s many masterpieces was the kinetoscope, a cabinet affixed with a series of pictures running underneath a lamp, emitting flashes of light so quickly on each frame that the frame appeared to be frozen. The rapid succession of still frames created an optical illusion that the pictures were moving, and this was the genesis of the motion picture projector.

A man watching a moving picture through the kinetoscope.

By 1894, a number of years after Edison’s invention of the kinetoscope, mini “movie theaters,” known as kinetoscope parlors, began to emerge in New York City. For 10 cents, the customer could watch a “peep show” as they were called, and lines often formed around the block for the privilege. In June of that year, Edison and the owners of the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company staged a boxing match to be filmed at Black Maria. When the company showed the film in their kinetoscope parlor, people scrambled so desperately to see it that police had to be summoned to keep the crowds in line.

It was also there in Edison’s studios in 1894 that Edison invited Annabelle Whitford Moore, a well-known vaudevillian, to perform in a filmed dance for the kinetoscope. When the prints were finished, he had the novel idea to alter the film to create the illusion that Annabelle’s dress was changing colors as it moved. Frame by frame, he tinted the film by hand so that when the light passed through the film, it came through stained. What followed was the very first known color film, known as “Annabelle Serpentine Dance.”

Edison continued with several more hand-painted color segments in his work, most notably in The Great Train Robbery (1903), in which bright purples, oranges and yellows were used to tint the characters’ clothes, the smoke from gunshots, and the dust kicked up by horses in the film. George Meliès also employed it to great effect and beauty in A Trip to the Moon (1902).

The Great Train Robbery in its entirety.

A Trip to the Moon. Many scenes from this movie were used in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, released last year.

A new process called Technicolor, which gave filmmakers the opportunity of entirely new spectrum of color, began to develop in the 1920’s, and though color film continued to be used intermittently in short subjects, it wasn’t until 1935 that a film was shot entirely in color. Becky Sharp, starring Miriam Hopkins, became the first feature film to be shot in three-strip Technicolor.

And in 1937 came a breakthrough in color cinema–the first full-length animated color film, also the first full-length animated feature produced in the United States.

The same year as Edison’s experiments with color came his experiments with sound. Utilizing his previous invention of the phonograph, he decided to attempt a marriage between the kinetoscope and the phonograph, to make the first “talking picture.” He set the stage at Black Maria with two men, a violinist, and a recording device into which the violin played. The men danced to the melody of the violin, while the sound was recorded on Edison’s phonograph. He synced the phonograph recording with the film on the kinetoscope, and when Edison’s kinetoscope viewers looked in, they saw, and heard, this:

It was labor-intensive and cumbersome, as it was nearly impossible to sync the phonograph exactly right with the film, but nonetheless, Edison had stumbled upon a gold mine. By 1895 he was distributing “kinetophones”–kinetoscopes with phonographs inside the cabinet, into which the viewer could look to see the film while listening to the sound from the phonograph, by way of rubber tubes to be inserted in the ears. The invention was a huge hit at first, but work on the still crude machine came to a halt when Dickson left Edison and the kinetophone was not heard from again for 18 years.

In 1913, Edison released a new version of the kinetophone, with the image to be projected onto a large screen, instead of through the peepholes of the kinetoscope. Edison connected the projector and the phonograph by way of a long pulley, so the sound and image could be synchronized as much as possible, and Edison had made a grand total of nineteen “talking pictures” by 1913. However, he became increasingly discouraged with the unions, that stipulated that only area union members could operate the machinery, resulting in misuse of the kinetophone due to lack of training. The dissolution of the Motion Pictures Patent Co., which deprived him of a patent for his inventions, led him to become further frustrated, and by 1915, he had quit sound pictures due to the difficulties he encountered.

In 1914, a former worker from Edison’s laboratory, Eugene Lauste, received the first patent for sound on film technology, which transformed sound into light waves which are recorded directly onto the film. The product was commercialized in 1919, leading the way to several landmark films–Don Juan (1926), the first film to employ a recorded soundtrack and sound effects, Sunrise (1927), the first film to feature human voices, and then finally, the very first commercially released talking picture, The Jazz Singer, in 1927.

These are the very first words ever spoken as dialogue in a motion picture.

I would like to thank the Library of Congress for providing me with invaluable information for this post. I hope I have sufficiently covered the early days of color and sound pioneering, without which nothing we take for granted today would have been possible. Thank you for reading!

Thomas Edison (center) with W.K.L. Dickson (standing on the left) and laboratory employees at Black Maria, 1892.


2 responses to “Thomas Edison and the Origin of Sound and Color in Films

  1. What an awesome post about Thomas Edison contribution in films . I absolutely loved/loved the videos…

    Thank you for your support during my illness. In my journey around CMBA blogs I’m feeling very loved..

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. I like to read the history behind the moving pictures, and I always find Edison’s contributions fascinating. BTW, you might tell your 7-year old fans of Nickelodeon that in 1905 Pittsburgh businessmen Harry Davis and John P. Harris created the first movie theater, called the nickelodeon. It was named for the price of admission combined with “odeon,” the Greek word for theater. Ha! Take that apostates!

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