The idea of combining motion pictures with recorded sound is nearly as old as the concept of cinema itself. On February 27, 1888, a couple of days after photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge gave a lecture not far from the laboratory of Thomas Edison, the two inventors privately met. Muybridge later claimed that on this occasion, six years before the first commercial motion picture exhibition, he proposed a scheme for sound cinema that would combine his image-casting zoopraxiscope with Edison's recorded-sound technology. No agreement was reached, but within a year Edison commissioned the development of the Kinetoscope, essentially a "peep-show" system, as a visual complement to his cylinder phonograph. The two devices were brought together as the Kinetophone in 1895, but individual, cabinet viewing of motion pictures was soon to be outmoded by successes in film projection. In 1899, a projected sound-film system known as Cinemacrophonograph or Phonorama, based primarily on the work of Swiss-born inventor François Dussaud, was exhibited in Paris; similar to the Kinetophone, the system required individual use of earphones. An improved cylinder-based system, Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, was developed by Clément-Maurice Gratioulet and Henri Lioret of France, allowing short films of theater, opera, and ballet excerpts to be presented at the Paris Exposition in 1900. These appear to be the first publicly exhibited films with projection of both image and recorded sound. Phonorama and yet another sound-film system—Théâtroscope—were also presented at the Exposition.
Three major problems persisted, leading to motion pictures and sound recording largely taking separate paths for a generation. The primary issue was synchronization: pictures and sound were recorded and played back by separate devices, which were difficult to start and maintain in tandem. Sufficient playback volume was also hard to achieve. While motion picture projectors soon allowed film to be shown to large theater audiences, audio technology before the development of electric amplification could not project satisfactorily to fill large spaces. Finally, there was the challenge of recording fidelity. The primitive systems of the era produced sound of very low quality unless the performers were stationed directly in front of the cumbersome recording devices (acoustical horns, for the most part), imposing severe limits on the sort of films that could be created with live-recorded sound.
Cinematic innovators attempted to cope with the fundamental synchronization problem in a variety of ways. An increasing number of motion picture systems relied on gramophone records—known as sound-on-disc technology; the records themselves were often referred to as "Berliner discs", after one of the primary inventors in the field, German-American Emile Berliner. In 1902, Léon Gaumont demonstrated his sound-on-disc Chronophone, involving an electrical connection he had recently patented, to the French Photographic Society. Four years later, Gaumont introduced the Elgéphone, a compressed-air amplification system based on the Auxetophone, developed by British inventors Horace Short and Charles Parsons. Despite
high expectations, Gaumont's sound innovations had only limited commercial success—though improvements, they still did not satisfactorily address the three basic issues with sound film and were expensive as well. For some years, American inventor E. E. Norton's Cameraphone was the primary competitor to the Gaumont system (sources differ on whether the Cameraphone was disc- or cylinder-based); it ultimately failed for many of the same reasons that held back the Chronophone.
In 1913, Edison introduced a new cylinder-based synch-sound apparatus known, just like his 1895 system, as the Kinetophone; instead of films being shown to individual viewers in the Kinetoscope cabinet, they were now projected onto a screen. The phonograph was connected by an intricate arrangement of pulleys to the film projector, allowing—under ideal conditions—for synchronization. However, conditions were rarely ideal, and the new, improved Kinetophone was retired after little more than a year. By the mid-1910s, the groundswell in commercial sound motion picture exhibition had subsided. Beginning in 1914, The Photo-Drama of Creation, promoting Jehovah's Witnesses' conception of mankind's genesis, was screened around the United States: eight hours worth of projected visuals involving both slides and live action were synchronized with separately recorded lectures and musical performances played back on phonograph.
Meanwhile, innovations continued on another significant front. In 1900, as part of the research he was conducting on the photophone, the German physicist Ernst Ruhmer recorded the fluctuations of the transmitting arc-light as varying shades of light and dark bands onto a continuous roll of photographic film. He then determined that he could reverse the process and reproduce the recorded sound from this photographic strip by shining a bright light through the running filmstrip, with the resulting varying light illuminating a selenium cell. The changes in brightness caused a corresponding change to the selenium's resistance to electrical currents, which was used to modulate the sound produced in a telephone receiver. He called this invention the photographophone, which he summarized as: "It is truly a wonderful process: sound becomes electricity, becomes light, causes chemical actions, becomes light and electricity again, and finally sound."
Ruhmer began a correspondence with the French-born, London-based Eugene Lauste, who had worked at Edison's lab between 1886 and 1892. In 1907, Lauste was awarded the first patent for sound-on-film technology, involving the transformation of sound into light waves that are photographically recorded direct onto celluloid. As described by historian Scott Eyman,
It was a double system, that is, the sound was on a different piece of film from the picture.... In essence, the sound was captured by a microphone and translated into light waves via a light valve, a thin ribbon of sensitive metal over a tiny slit. The sound reaching this ribbon would be converted into light by the shivering of the diaphragm, focusing the resulting light waves through the slit, where it would be photographed on the side of the film, on a strip about a tenth of an inch wide.
In 1908, Lauste purchased a photographophone from Ruhmer, with the intention of perfecting the device into a commercial product. Though sound-on-film would eventually become the universal standard for synchronized sound cinema, Lauste never successfully exploited his innovations, which came to an effective dead end. In 1914, Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt was granted German patent 309,536 for his sound-on-film work; that same year, he apparently demonstrated a film made with the process to an audience of scientists in Berlin. Hungarian engineer Denes Mihaly submitted his sound-on-film Projectofon concept to the Royal Hungarian Patent Court in 1918; the patent award was published four years later. Whether sound was captured on cylinder, disc, or film, none of the available technology was adequate for big-league commercial purposes, and for many years the heads of the major Hollywood film studios saw little benefit in producing sound motion pictures.