First sound movie First stereo sound movie First colour sound movie First colour stereo sound movie
First 3D sound movie First 3D stereo sound movie First 3D colour sound movie First 3D colour stereo sound movie

First sound movie

1. The technology

2. The human subject

First sound movie

The Dickson Experimental Sound Film is a film made by William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson (1860–1935) in late 1894 or early 1895. It is the first known film with live-recorded sound and appears to be the first example of a motion picture made for the Kinetophone, the proto-sound-film system developed by Dickson and Thomas A. Edison (1847–1931). (The Kinetophone—consisting of a Kinetoscope accompanied by a cylinder-playing phonograph—was not successful as a sound-film system as it was difficult to synchronize image and audio 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. Newly digitized and restored, it is the only surviving Kinetophone film with live-recorded sound.

The movie features Dickson playing a violin into a recording cone for an off-camera wax cylinder. In front of Dickson, two (unidentified) men dance to the music. In the final seconds, a fourth man briefly crosses from left to right behind the cone. The running time of the restored film is 17 seconds; the accompanying cylinder contains approximately two minutes of sound, including 23 seconds of violin music, encompassing the film's soundtrack. After its restoration in 2000, the Dickson Experimental Sound Film was selected for inclusion in the United States National Film Registry. [The Pre-History of Sound Cinema, Part 1: Thomas Edison and W.K.L. Dickson, Murch, Hendricks]



First sound-on-film

In 1907 Eugene Lauste (1857–1935), a French technician who had worked for Thomas Edison alongside W. K.-L. Dickson, took out a patent [GB190618057, 1907-08-10] for a device called the Photocinematophone, by which sound would be recorded optically alongside the images on a film strip. Between 1910 and 1913 he shot some experimental films in his garden in Brixton, south London. He failed to find financial backing, however, and the process went no further.

According to Merritt Crawford in Fielding [and see also JSMPE], the first true sound picture was made by Lauste in the USA in 1911, and a short length specimen of this 1911 sound film was in the museum of the Bell Laboratories in 1931. The present whereabouts of this specimen has yet to be confirmed: contact with the Nokia Bell Labs Archives in March 2017 suggests they are no longer aware of it themselves.

A collector, Rocky Acceturo, bought some of Lauste's papers in an estate sale, and found a short strip of Lauste sound film among them, probably from about 1912. The Smithsonian also has a strip, though even shorter, and two more clips are held in the Earl Theisen Collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Acceturo's strip has no more than a second of sound recording, and although the sound has been reconstructed by technicians at the University of South Carolina Moving Image Research Collections the sound is too indistinct to be identifiable. History Detectives reproduces what little there is. [The Bioscope, History Detectives, Moving Image Archive News, Allen, Geduld]



First sound feature film

Don Juan, directed by Alan Crosland (1894–1936), was the first feature-length film with synchronized sound effects and musical soundtrack (Vitaphone—sound-on-disc), though it has no spoken dialogue. It premiered at the Warner Theater on Broadway and 52nd Street in New York City on 6 August 1926. [Eyman, Geduld]

Crosland's Vitaphone The Jazz Singer (also directed by Crosland) was released on 6 October 1927, and was the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences. Its release heralded the commercial ascendance of the 'talkies' and the decline of the silent film era. [Eyman, Geduld]

Lights of New York was the first all-talking feature film. Directed by Bryan Foy (1896–1977), who was later to produce the 3D feature House of Wax, it was released on 28 July 1928. Though it cost only $75,000 to produce, it grossed $2,000,000. [Eyman, Geduld, IMDB] Since 2018 it has been available on DVD.


First stereo sound movie

'Trains at Hayes Station', 1935


Alan Dower Blumlein (1903–1942), the inventor of stereophonic recording, made a few short test films in early July 1935, in which his original intent of having the sound 'follow' the actor was realised fully. The first was 'Trains at Hayes Station'; it is 487 feet, lasts for 5 minutes 11 seconds, and shows various steam trains arriving and departing from Hayes station, filmed looking down from a window in the EMI offices at Hayes. [Alexander]

The clip shown is from an original held by the Universal Music Group, which bought EMI in 2012. The Archive of the Alexandra Palace Television Society has a copy of this film.



First stereo sound feature film

The first sound feature film experienced in stereo by contemporaries was This is Cinerama, which premiered on 30 September 1952, at the New York Broadway theatre. It was essentially a 115 minute travelogue, designed to showcase the new 3-projector widescreen format. It was directed by Merian C. Cooper (1893–1973) and Gunther von Fritsch (1906–1988).

The first stereo sound feature film, not experienced in stereo when originally shown, but—thanks to the survival of the original microphone tapes—now available with remastered stereo, was the celebrated The Wizard of Oz, of 1939. The director was Victor Fleming (1889–1949). The stereo version has been available since 1999. The 2009 Blu-ray version features a lossless 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track. (Scott claims that this was preceded by Listen, Darling in 1938, but I haven't been able to verify this. The stereo version on YouTube, of Judy Garland's song 'Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart', from this film, is clearly dubbed, so the recording wasn't synchronised.)

Disney's 1940 Fantasia—which consists predominantly of animation—should also be mentioned on the strength of its live action interstitial scenes. Its experimental use of 'Fantasound' employed eight channels of recorded sound, mixed down to left, centre, and right speakers, plus a control channel, for projection. Sound was recorded during April and May of 1939.

MGM were in fact using multitrack recording from 1938, but were at that time mixing down to a single optical track on the film itself. On 21 June 1938 Judy Garland recorded 'It Never Rains But What It Pours' for the movie Love Finds Andy Hardy—MGM's very first stereo recording. Although the film—directed by George B. Seitz (1888–1944)—is available on DVD, the soundtrack is in mono, and it's not clear whether the stereo soundtrack could be reconstructed. NB According to Schulman the earliest surviving Garland pre-recordings to have been remixed into stereo from individual optical channels were 'In-Between' and 'Meet the Beat of My Heart', recorded on 24 June 1938 for this film.

Even this may have been preceded: The conductor Leopold Stokowski recorded onto a nine-track sound system at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, during the making of the movie One Hundred Men and a Girl for Universal Pictures in 1937—director Henry Koster (1905–1988). These tracks too were mixed down to mono for the final release, and again it is unclear whether or not a stereo soundtrack could be reconstructed, even given the will.



First VHS videotape

Although magnetic videotape technology appeared earlier (an early version was publicly demonstrated in 1951), and indeed pre-recorded videocassette tapes (Cartrivision, 1972), it was JVC's VHS (Video Home System) that dominated the mass market for over 20 years. Introduced in Japan on 9 September 1976, the first VHS video cassette recorder was the JVC HR 3300. The T-120 tape it employed could record a maximum of two hours of video, the long play mode being introduced in September 1977. [Videocassette Recorder History]

Generally accepted as the first movie ever released on VHS cassette is 청춘교사, or Cheongchun gyosa (The Young Teacher), a 1972 South Korean family drama marketed on VHS home video from 1976. [IMDb]


Full references for printed works

Scott Eyman (1997) The Speed of Sound. Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926–1930. New York: Simon & Schuster

Raymond Fielding, ed. (1967) A Technological History of Motion Pictures. Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press

Harry M. Geduld (1975) The Birth of the Talkies. From Edison to Jolson. Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press

Gordon Hendricks (1966) The Kinetoscope. America's First Commercially Successful Motion Picture Exhibitor. New York: The Beginnings of the American Film

Laurent Mannoni (2005, 2010) 'Baron, Auguste', in Richard Abel, ed. (2005, 2010) Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. London and New York: Routledge

Rosalind Rogoff (Spring 1976) 'Edison's Dream: A Brief History of the Kinetophone', Cinema Journal, 15.2, American Film History, pp58-68

Jonathan Scott (2023) Into the Groove. The Story of Sound from Tin Foil to Vinyl. London: Bloomsbury Sigma

Virgilio Tosi (2005) Cinema before Cinema. The Origins of Scientific Cinematography, 2nd edn. London: British Universities Film and Video Council.

Walter L. Welch & Leah Brodbeck Stenzel Burt (1994) From Tinfoil to Stereo. The Acoustic Years of the Recording Industry 1877–1929. Gainsville, FL: University Press of Florida


© 2009–2023 Benjamin S. Beck

Return to Technology contents page


If you know of any earlier examples, please contact me.



Return to Firsts contents page

Return to website home page

This page was last revised on 2023-03-18.