Technical World Magazine, August, 1913, pages 814-818:
B R I N G I N G T H E " T A L K I E S " T O Y O U R H O M E
E D W A R D L Y E L L F O X
IN the central station of the Telephone Company, a switchboard girl is sitting at a private telephone. Her pencil is poised above an order book. There comes a call and, as she takes the message, the pencil races across the paper.
"All right, Riverdale," she replies. "You may expect it at nine o'clock."
Pressing a button she glances over her message to see if she has transcribed it correctly and presently turns it over to a boy. He hurries it off to another smaller room which looks like the salon of a talking machine company. Here one sees stacks of rubber disks, the embalmed voices of Caruso and Raymond Hitchcock. Here, too, there are talking machines, but of a sort different from any we have seen before. They are more elaborate. They are surrounded by little accessories about which we know nothing. And behind them, joined to them by wires, is a vast switchboard. It covers the entire wall.
Behind a deep-backed desk near the door sits a man. To him comes the boy and, dropping the message on the desk, hurries on. The man reads:
"Mrs. Harkins wants talking moving pictures tonight at nine o'clock. Subscriber's number 243 Riverdale; address 79 Willow Road."
The man turns to his assistant.
"That's the ninetieth request we've had this evening," says he, as he looks at his watch. "It's only five o'clock now. Tell Fowler to hurry right out with one of the smaller projectors, tell him to rig it up, making sure to have it connected direct with this switchboard. And tell him to hurry. He'll have to set up some other instruments in the same neighborhood and they'll all have to be in place by nine o'clock."
A few minutes before nine Mrs. Harkins's dinner guests, tiring of talking over the coffee and liqueurs, saunter into her big living room and see a moving picture screen in place. They drop into the seats that have been arranged and presently are watching an exhibition of "talkies"--different "talkies" from any they have ever heard before, different because the voices seem to come from all parts of the screen, seem to be the voices of each individual shown thereon. Simultaneously, one hundred other "talkie-parties," managed directly from the Central Station, are beginning in different parts of the city.
Of course this is fantasy--that is all but the italics. You might call it prophecy. We shouldn't care to be pinned down, however, to the exact year in which the prophecy will be fulfilled. But in that scene, there is a great deal of truth. It isn't something just picked out of the air. There is a big underlying reason for it. To a certain extent it is fact.
An invention has been perfected that would make possible the reproduction of talking moving pictures over one hundred different wires in over one hundred different cities. Mark me--"would make possible".
What the ultimate possibilities of this invention are, cannot be told. They cannot be visualized. Possibly the mechanism will be perfected to such a point that any home can be the scene of a "talkie party" any evening. It is looking too far into the future; the picture seems too dim. There are items of cost and conditions that must be gone into more thoroughly and changed before any such Utopian idea can be realized. Still, there has been invented a new talking picture. Let us see who did it, how, what it is.
When I asked George R. Webb, who has an office in the heart of New York, if he was the inventor of this machine, he made light of it.
"We've been working on this thing ten years," he began. I was president of some telephone lines down Wilmington way. (Struggling inventor!--Ye gods!) Well, our plant wasn't paying as well as it should, so I began looking for ways to utilize the system. There was always a big lull in the evenings, you know, and I wanted to see if we couldn't make use of our wires then. It occurred to me to send music by wire, to transmit it from a central station into the homes of our subscribers, to accomplish it in such a way that they wouldn't have to hold a receiver to their ears. In our Wilmington plant, we began experimenting. We rigged up a talking machine with some necessary mechanical changes and installed it in what I called our private workshop. From this room we ran a wire to an office in another part of the building. Then we turned on the talking machine and hoped that the sounds would be reproduced in the other room."
At this point one of his associates laughed. He seemed to recall something.
"And for two years the thing wouldn't even croak," he chuckled. "We all thought Webb was cracked."
But Webb kept on. He built different transmitters and different horns. One day a faint sound issued from the reproducer on the top floor. It was a snatch of a popular song of the day. But it was only a snatch. Webb changed the reproducer a bit and tried again. In a few days he heard the song again, the whole song, but the tones were poor. In fact, they were scarcely audible.
So he built still another kind of horn. In fact, he made a thousand different types before he obtained one that would reproduce full round tones, unspoiled by any metallic scraping. Then came a day when he added an inch and a half to the length of the horn and found he had the secret. He told his friends it produced a tone clearer even than that of the best known talking machine. After they had heard it they were convinced.
"I'll tell you what I did," said Webb, as he called for a boy to bring him this wonderful horn. "I remembered the human throat as being the perfect mechanism for the utterance of articulate sounds and I modeled the shape of my horn after it."
The horn he showed me bore out this statement. After we had examined it he went on to say that they had continued their experiments in a Baltimore plant. Here he found it was possible to send music over six different wires--music that was heard in six different rooms. But six weren't enough. For a good commercial proposition Webb had to have many times that number. In fact, not until he devised a water cooled transmitter, did the practicability of the invention become apparent. Using the Wilmington telephone system, he sent music over the wires one evening into one hundred and thirteen different homes.
But that was only the first half of his work. It was only the perfection of the device that may make the talking picture as common in the home as the evening newspaper. In fact, Webb was not thinking about talking pictures yet. He had developed the magnaphone for speaking purposes, the instrument that you hear in the big railroad terminals announcing the arrival and departure of trains. He was installing this system in hotels, department stores, factories, schools, hospitals, asylums, baseball stadiums, and battleships. For a time it overwhelmed him. He didn't have a chance to think of combining it with moving pictures. But the magnaphone was just a development of the little device that he worked out in the factory at Baltimore. It consisted of a loud speaking transmitter and producer. It magnified sound, perfected the articulation, and enabled speech or music put into the transmitter at one point to be given from the reproducer at distant points. And if a hundred Wilmington families heard Toreador they heard it with equal clearness--just as four hundred people in different parts of the Grand Central Station hear that the 5:15 will leave for New Rochelle on Track Seven.
But with his magnaphones working successfully, with the Government just having finished a test for their use on battleships, Webb turned his attention to moving pictures. He heard the "talkies" and decided they wouldn't do. He watched audiences and thought them bored. He decided that the trouble was because the illusion wasn't perfect. The voices all came from the same place on the screen. So Webb told himself that he'd have a "talkie" whose voices would seem to speak from everywhere.
He began to direct a series of experiments. His first point of attack was the screen. He installed the vocal equipment in a different way. On the back of a moving picture frame, he placed eight of his musical reproducers, two on a side. This was to assure the voices coming from everywhere. Then he worked out a scheme for the synchronizing of these voices with the moving picture film to be shown. He did it in this way:
He took a photoplay plot and had dialogue written into it. The company learned their parts. When they were perfect in them, they played the piece and a recording instrument took down every word. Then, they played the piece at the same tempo, speaking the lines so as to keep the time exactly the same and a camera caught their actions. There he had the two sides of it,--for the eye, the ear. All he now had to do was to produce them together.
He rigged up a talking machine beside the moving picture projector. Wires were run from the talking machine to the different reproducers behind the screen. Each wire took up mechanically its thread of the speaking. Then the projector and the talking machine were run in unison. The words of the characters came from that part of the screen where they happened to be.
So much for the Webb talking picture. He is going into it on a big scale. He is giving demonstrations now on Broadway. He has a studio on the outskirts of New York. He is going to prepare films as quickly as possible. He believes he will completely revolutionize the moving picture field. He believes that the "talkie" now on the market lacks realism because every voice seems to come from the same place. He thinks that the public will respond to what he considers his more realistic plan of having voices actually seem to come from the characters. He is not going to do anything about supplying music and pictures to homes for some time. He may never do anything about it. He does not know whether it will work out. Under present conditions he is dubious about its practicability. His chief objection appears to be caused by the human element, by the necessity of starting every home show from a Central office simultaneously.
But there is a big idea behind what he has done and what he or somebody else will do. It is the idea of carrying on our amusements by big scale productions, just as most of the bread that New York eats today is supplied by one concern. The idea of service to the individual now includes the idea of accommodation. We have come to the point where we consider the ease with which our desires may be catered to. Soon we may think it very pleasant to simply call up some office and ask them to turn talking moving pictures into our home for the evening. Webb admits that it is only a question of practicability.
Suppose that two hundred families wanted to spend the evening with talking picture parties in their homes. As Webb's device now stands, he can have his men install two hundred sets of screens, projectors, and reproducers during the afternoon. After dinner from two switchboards in his central station, each controlling one hundred wires, the dialogue of the play can be sent through the transmitters while parallel wires start the moving picture reels. And when it is all over new films can be put on.
An apparatus of this sort will be in use tomorrow. It is as certain as the telephone. It is bound to come. The trend is toward specialization of the wants of the individual. Luxuries are becoming necessities to the American people. What is the unique toy of today will be the established necessity of tomorrow. When Webb first thought of sending music over telephone wires, his friends laughed.
Now, down in Wilmington from noon until eleven o'clock at night one can "call in sweet music". All that remains to be cleared away is the obstacle of cost and that will be lowered just as the price of automobiles has been lowered.