In 1998, film editor Walter Murch carefully connected an old, 40-foot-long strip of 35mm nitrate film with a cylinder soundtrack. When he finally synchronized the gentle tune of a violin with the actions of the three men on the screen, Murch completed an approximately 105-year-old experiment.
Murch had been commissioned to restore the earliest known film and sound experiment, created by Scottish inventor William Dickson and Thomas Edison. The 17-second clip, known as the Dickson Experimental Sound Film, shows two men dancing merrily to Dickson playing the tune “Song of the Cabin Boy” from the opera Les Cloches de Corneville on the violin. The film is the product of a series of experiments the two inventors ran between 1889 to 1894 in an attempt to create a device that combined the separate sound and motion picture technologies that existed at the time.
Produced sometime between 1894 and 1895, the Dickson Experimental Sound Film was recorded on Dickson and Edison’s sound-film prototype system, or Kinetophone—an early motion picture peephole device called a Kinetoscope coupled with a cylinder-playing phonograph. The film was entirely experimental and not for entertainment purposes, according to curators. It was staged at the Black Maria, Edison’s New Jersey film studio which has been widely dubbed as America’s first movie studio. Dickson played his violin into the large cone which served as a microphone and was hooked up to a wax cylinder recorder.
The two unidentified dancing men are said to be a part of Edison’s lab. The Dickson Experimental Sound Film has also been informally referred to as The Gay Brothers, and film historian Vito Russo claims that the short clip is one of the earliest examples of same-sex imagery in cinema.
Dickson and Edison’s system ultimately failed to synchronize the picture and the sound. The first short motion pictures that successfully executed sound-on-film came decades later in 1923. It wasn’t until Murch restored the materials that we are able to witness one of the first and only surviving Kinetophone films with live-recorded sound.
“It was very moving, when the sound finally fell into sync” Murch wrote. The “scratchiness of the image and the sound dissolved away and you felt the immediate presence of these young men playing around with a fast-emerging technology.”
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