Menus Subscribe Search
Illustration from the September 1919 issue of Popular Science magazine

The Sound Effects of Silence: SFX Before There Were Talkies

• November 14, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Before silent movies evolved into talkies, various efforts to create the aural ambiance depicted onscreen included this roomful of noise-making contraptions.

Illustration from the September 1919 issue of Popular Science magazine

The term “silent movie era” is rather misleading. From the invention of the cinema in the late 1890s until the adoption of the “talkies” in the late 1920s, motion pictures may have lacked the sound experience we enjoy today but the theaters were far from silent.

Despite a long list of failed experiments, most films of this era didn’t include synchronized sound. However, auditory elements were recognized very early on as an important tool for influencing the emotions that audiences felt during a movie.

Theaters in large U.S. cities would employ enormous orchestras with as many as a hundred musicians, while smaller towns most often would include an accompanying pianist or organist. In 1926, roughly 26,000 musicians were employed by American movie theaters. But the other two audible elements we take for granted in movies today were largely missing from films of the silent era: dialogue and sound effects.

There were experiments in the late 1900s with “behind the screen” dialogue (actors doing their best to synchronize their voices to the actors on the screen) though these attempts confused audiences and the practice quickly disappeared. Even more rare than live dialogue by actors were live sound effects. In 1917 inventor Frank Illo tried to change that. He developed a system of sound effect machines unified through a central control which sought to heighten the realism of the movies through a variety of sound effects which could be played in the theater and operated by a single person. Illo was granted U.S. patent 1,278,152 on September 10, 1918.

Frank Illo’s U.S. patent number 1,278,152 for a sound effect producing machine (1918)

The September 1919 issue of Popular Science magazine featured a depiction of Illo’s machine (shown at the top of this post) with an illustration and short article titled, “New Thrills in the Movies.” The article explained how a sound effect machine might be employed, using the Great War as the subject of a hypothetical movie or “photo-play” as they were often known at the time:

Let us suppose we are witnessing a photo-play of the war. A locomotive puffs into a station behind the lines, whistle shrieking, bell ringing. Soldiers alight and march away. Their hob-nailed shoes clumping on the cobbles. From the distance comes the deep-toned reverberation of cannon.

All these noises, and more, are produced by a machine invented by Frank Illo, of Dallas, Texas. Briefly the machine is an assembly of many sound-producing instruments unified through a central electrical control; more specifically, a series of shafts, belts, and pulley, diaphragms covered with buckskin, revolving cylinders partly filled with water or with lead shot or steel balls, wooden beams and slats, flexible sheets of tin or other metal, air-valves, whistles, bells, etc., to be used at the will of the operator.

Illo’s machine could mimic everything from a train’s engine to thunder to the thump of cannon balls. But there’s no evidence that theaters were eager to make room for such a cumbersome and enormous machine.

The arrival of synchronized sound in the late 1920s fixed the problem of needing live sound effects, but absolutely destroyed the theater musician’s business. As Robin D.G. Kelley notes in his 2001 essay “Without a Song,” those approximately 26,000 musicians employed by theaters in 1926 dwindled to just 14,000 musicians in 1930 and slipped further to just 4,100 by 1934. In the early 1930s musicians launched a massive (and obviously unsuccessful) campaign to keep the talkies out of movie theaters, arguing quite correctly that they were putting thousands of people out of work.

But no such campaign was launched on behalf of sound effects artists. Most likely because—much to Illo’s chagrin—his sound effect machine never really took off.

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

More From Matt Novak

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


August 18 • 6:00 AM

The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.


August 18 • 4:00 AM

Ferguson Is a Serious Outlier

One black city council member is not nearly enough. In a study of city councils, only one place in America had a greater representational disparity than Ferguson, Missouri.


August 16 • 4:00 AM

Six Days in Ferguson: Voices From the Protests

A day-by-day chronology of what happened in Ferguson, drawn from the best reporting by journalists and witnesses on the ground.


August 15 • 4:00 PM

Skirting Ochobo: Big Business Finds a Way Around Local Customs

The “liberation wrapper,” which was designed to shield mouths from public view while eating, has helped a Japanese chain increase sales by over 200 percent.


August 15 • 2:00 PM

How Wall Street Tobacco Deals Left States With Billions in Toxic Debt

Politicians wanted upfront cash from a legal victory over Big Tobacco, and bankers happily obliged. The price? A handful of states promised to repay $64 billion on just $3 billion advanced.


August 15 • 12:00 PM

How the Sexes Evolved

The distinction between males and females is one of the oldest facts of biology—but how did it come to affect our social identity?



August 15 • 10:00 AM

Will Philadelphia Ever Be Home to a Middle Class?

Jake Blumgart has watched his friends decamp his adopted hometown for places with more opportunities and city services. Will anyone be left to build a better Philly?


August 15 • 8:32 AM

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization.”


Follow us


Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

Do Ticking Clocks Make Women More Anxious to Have Children?

Yes, but apparently only women who grew up poor.

Facebook App Shoppers Do What Their Friends Do

People on Facebook are more influenced by their immediate community than by popular opinion.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.