Europe picked up the yen for syncing sound with film in 1896 and so continued the initial attempts to sync film with the phonograph. German filmmaker Oskar Messter invented the Tonbilder Biophone which connected the two and used electromagnetism to sync sound with film in 1903. Unfortunately, sound and film could not be recorded at the same time and thus the process was not fully formed yet. This didn’t stop Messter from making many 3-4 minute sound films. Most featured opera singers and they were wildly successful—so much so that over 500 theaters had his Tonbilder Biophone system in Germany between 1905 and 1913. Later, he would employ a compressed air gramophone or Auxetophone which was able to project sound at a much higher volume, but this was a rough way to sync sound to film. Since the two were not synced, they referred to them as sound images rather than sound films. Here’s an example of one of his early sound films circa 1905.

Edison was also dabbling in the pseudo sound films just after the turn of the century. Essentially the film played and a live performer or gramophone hidden behind the screen would dub in the voice. He made hundreds of these, but very few survive. Here’s one from 1907.

And another one for good measure.

Edison finally achieved synchronization with a fishing line and a series of pulleys with the Kinetephone. These were a fair synchronization of sound, but often failed and were too complicated for many operators to control. They were never meant to replace silent films—they were only shown to one person at a time. One of the first of these was a series of nursery rhymes.

German inventor Eugene Lauste really changed everything when he was the first to record sound on film in 1910. He had moved to the United States and worked in Edison Labs in the late 1890s then moved to England and worked for Biograph after the turn of the century where he filed his first patent in 1907. His sound on film method which he started tinkering with in 1904 worked by speaking into a microphone where the sound waves would be converted to changes in an electric current which is then converted into light. The light is then photographed onto the film negative. The dense portions of light would give a stronger signal. When light is then sent through the negative it is converted back into electric current and then back into sound. We now refer to this as optical sound. This method was perfected with the Tri-Ergon process which was created by Josef Engl, Joseph Massole, Hans Vogt from Germany in 1919. The Tri-Ergon process added variable density which better amplified the sound.

In order for the sound to be clear it needs a highly sensitive light. That’s where Lee de Forest stepped in. He was able to see the advantages of radio early on and worked with Howard Armstrong who was the true inventor of positive feedback which allowed for radio signals to be boosted substantially (Lee de Forest attempted to take credit for it). Radio signals are actually light waves and the light created by positive feedback was highly sensitive. So with this De Forest worked on the same process as Eugene Lauste, but he brought on Theodore Case as well who provided Thallofide Cell which produced much better sound. De Forest made many shorts from 1921 to 1930. He filmed opera, radio shows, and vaudeville acts. One of the latter was DeWolf Hopper who was legendary for his recitation of “Casey at the Bat” a poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer.

Theodore Case knew that his work would be more appreciated elsewhere and went on with this process and brought it to Fox Movietone. Instead of using 21 frames per second as he did with phonofilm, he used 24 frames per second which is still standard for shooting on film. Fox Movietone also bought all the patents for the Tri-Ergon process. At Fox, they decided to produce Newsreels bringing in famous figures and stories from all over the world. 

Things started moving quickly from here on out. Edison was recorded on August 12, 1927. The Jazz Singer was released on October 6, 1927. More about the rise of Vitaphone and the inevitable switch back to the sound on film in the next section.