The Dickson Experimental Sound Film

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The Dickson Experimental Sound Film
Frame from restored version of The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894/95)
Directed byWilliam Dickson
StarringWilliam Dickson
CinematographyWilliam Heise
Music byRobert Planquette
Distributed byThomas A. Edison, Inc.
Running time
17 seconds
CountryUnited States

The Dickson Experimental Sound Film is a film made by William Dickson in late 1894 or early 1895. It is the first known film with live-recorded sound and appears to be the first motion picture made for the Kinetophone, the proto-sound-film system developed by Dickson and Thomas Edison. (The Kinetophone, consisting of a Kinetoscope accompanied by a cylinder-playing phonograph, was not a true sound-film system, for there was no attempt to synchronize picture and sound throughout playback.) The film was produced at the "Black Maria", Edison's New Jersey film studio. There is no evidence that it was ever exhibited in its original format.

In 2003, The Dickson Experimental Sound Film was included in the annual selection of 25 motion pictures added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and recommended for preservation.[1][2]


The film features Dickson playing a violin into a recording horn for an off-camera wax cylinder.[3] The melody is from a barcarolle, "Song of the Cabin Boy", from Les Cloches de Corneville (literally The Bells of Corneville; presented in English-speaking countries as The Chimes of Normandy), a light opera composed by Robert Planquette in 1877.[4] In front of Dickson, two men dance to the music. In the final seconds, a fourth man briefly crosses from left to right behind the horn. The running time of the restored film is seventeen seconds; the accompanying cylinder contains approximately two minutes of sound, including twenty-three seconds of violin music, encompassing the film's soundtrack.


The restored version of the film.

A soundless 35mm nitrate print of the movie, described as precisely forty feet long, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and transferred to safety film in 1942. Thomas A. Edison, Incorporated donated the Edison Laboratory to the U.S. National Park Service in 1956. The soundtrack was inventoried at the Edison National Historic Site in the early 1960s when a wax cylinder in a metal canister labeled "Dickson—Violin by W.K.L. Dixon with Kineto" was found in the music room of the Edison laboratory. In 1964, researchers opened the canister only to find that the cylinder was broken in two; that year, as well, all nitrate film materials remaining at the facility were removed to the Library of Congress for conservation. Among the filmstrips was a print that the Library of Congress catalogued as Dickson Violin. According to Patrick Loughney, the library's film and TV curator, this print is "thirty-nine feet and fourteen frames [two frames short of 40 feet]."[5]

The connection between the film and the cylinder was not made until 1998 when Loughney and Edison NHS sound recordings curator Jerry Fabris arranged for the cylinder to be repaired and its contents recovered at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound in New York. A new reel-to-reel master was created, allowing for fidelity reproduction onto digital audio tape. As the library was not equipped to synchronize the recovered soundtrack with the film element, producer and restoration specialist Rick Schmidlin suggested that award-winning film editor Walter Murch be enlisted on the project (the two had worked together on the 1998 restoration of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil). Murch was given the short piece of film and the two minutes of sound recovered from the cylinder to work with.[6] By digitally converting the film and editing the media together, Murch synchronized the visual and audio elements. Industrial Light & Magic also had an unspecified role in the film's restoration.[7] This version was projected on a 20' screen at the Edison National Historic Site on June 1, 2002, as part of the Black Maria Film Festival.

On the cylinder, before the camera starts rolling, a man's voice can be heard to say, "I asked if it's working. Is it working already? Go ahead." This extra sound is included on the version of the film that was distributed in the early 2000s.[8] However, since filming had not yet begun when the words were uttered, this cannot be claimed as the first incidence of the spoken word on film.

One question that remains unanswered is how the eventual running time of just over 17 seconds was arrived at. Per the curatorial reports, the 35-mm prints have a standard 16 frames per foot of film—39 feet (12 m) plus 14 frames thus equals a total of 638 frames. Murch describes the film as having been shot at 40 frames per second (fps); Loughney describes it as 46 fps. At 40 fps, 638 frames would run 15.95 seconds, which should be the maximum length of the restored film if all other reports are correct; as Loughney notes, at 46 fps, the film would last 13.86 seconds. If the latter figure is correct, as many as 9 seconds of film are missing from both extant prints if the entire violin performance was filmed. On the basis of his own tests of eighteen Kinetoscope films, scholar Gordon Hendricks argued that no Kinetoscope films were shot at 46 fps, making the speed of 40 fps reported by Murch more likely.[9] Yet there is still a difference of more than a second between the maximum potential running time at that speed and the actual duration of the film as digitized by Murch. That 17-second running time works out to an average camera speed of approximately 37.5 fps, a significant difference from Murch's report.


In his book The Celluloid Closet (1981), film historian Vito Russo discusses the film, claiming, without attribution, that it was titled The Gay Brothers.[10] Russo's unsupported naming of the film has been adopted widely online and in at least three books, and his unsubstantiated assertions that the film's content is homosexual are frequently echoed.[11] In addition to there being no evidence for the title Russo gives the film, in fact, the word "gay" was not generally used as a synonym for "homosexual" at the time the film was made.[12] There is also no evidence that Dickson intended to present the men—presumably employees of the Edison studio—as a romantic couple. Given the lyrics of the song Dickson plays, which describes life at sea without women, it is more plausible that he intended a joke about the virtually all-male environment of the Black Maria. Also, in some areas of life it was acceptable in the 19th century for men to dance with men without homosexual overtones being perceived; all-male "stag dances," for instance, were a standard part of life in the 19th century U.S. Army and were even part of the curriculum at West Point.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Librarian of Congress Adds 25 Films to National Film Registry". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-09-29.
  2. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-09-29.
  3. ^ A few sources, including Dixon (2003, p. 53) and, suggest that the violinist is or might be Charles D'Almaine, who recorded a number of cylinders for Edison. For a detailed rebuttal of this claim, see Loughney (2001), p. 216. A photograph positively identified as of D'Almaine, available online, also belies the notion that he is the violinist seen in the film. See also Hendricks (1966), p. 122.
  4. ^ See, e.g., UNLV Short Film Archive Archived 2007-06-27 at the Wayback Machine. Courtesy of Wikipedia editor Franz Jacobs, the following material can be accessed to compare Dickson's performance with a selection from "Song of the Cabin Boy", demonstrating that Dickson plays the vocal part on the violin:

    See Two Hundred Opera Plots, by Gladys Davidson, for a description of the opera. Ion Martea, in his May 19, 2006, essay on the film Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine for the Culture Wars website, claims erroneously that the music Dickson plays is "an excerpt from Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana."

  5. ^ Loughney (2001), p. 217.
  6. ^ Loughney (2001) describes the sound as "nearly two minutes long" (p. 217). Murch, in his brief 2000 note, calls it "a couple of minutes long"; in his 2004 interview he says "two and a half minutes long."
  7. ^ "Dickson Experimental Sound Film".
  8. ^ UNLV Short Film Archive Archived 2007-06-27 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Hendricks (1966), pp. 6–8.
  10. ^ Russo (1987), pp. 6–7. For rebuttal of Russo's claim, see, e.g., Dixon (2003), p. 53; Justin DeFreitas, "Moving Pictures: Documentary Puts Modern Gay Cinema in Context", Berkeley Daily Planet, July 7, 2006 (available online).
  11. ^ See Movies of the 90s, ed. Juergen Mueller (Bonn: Taschen, 2001), p. 147. See also Larry P. Gross, Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), p. 57. Gross also erroneously calls it a "five-minute avant-garde film" and describes the men as dancing to music "played on an Edison gramophone", though he does properly state that "we don't know what Dickson intended this light-hearted scene to suggest" (ibid.). The passage is adapted from a section introduction written by Gross for The Columbia Reader on Lesbians & Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics, ed. Larry P. Gross and James D. Woods (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 291.
  12. ^ A particularly relevant example of the way the word "gay" was actually used is provided by a later Edison Manufacturing Company film, directed by Edwin S. Porter. As described by scholar Linda Williams, The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)

    is composed of a static long shot.... A clerk is tidying up when two women enter. The younger woman seats herself before the clerk as the older woman's attention wanders. When the clerk begins to try a shoe on the young woman, the master long shot is replaced by an "insert" close-up of her foot and ankle showing the clerk's hands fondling the foot. As the shot continues the woman's full-length skirt rises, and the audience gets a good view of her stockinged calf. Returning to the original long shot, we see the rest of the action: the clerk, apparently aroused by the sight and touch of her calf, kisses the young woman; the older woman finally notices and begins beating him on the head with her umbrella.

    Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible", exp. ed. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 65–66.

  13. ^ See John C. Waugh, The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox—Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan and Their Brothers" (Ballantine Books: 1994), pp. 19, 131, 138.



  • Dixon, Wheeler Winston (2003). Straight: Constructions of Heterosexuality in the Cinema (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003). ISBN 0-7914-5623-4
  • Hendricks, Gordon (1966). The Kinetoscope: America's First Commercially Successful Motion Picture Exhibitor. New York: Theodore Gaus' Sons. Reprinted in Hendricks, Gordon (1972). Origins of the American Film. New York: Arno Press/New York Times. ISBN 0-405-03919-0
  • Loughney, Patrick (2001). “Domitor Witnesses the First Complete Public Presentation of The Dickson Experimental Sound Film in the Twentieth Century,” in The Sounds of Early Cinema, ed. Richard Abel and Rick Altman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 215–219. ISBN 0-253-33988-X
  • Russo, Vito (1987). The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Row). ISBN 0-06-096132-5


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