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

July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


July 21 • 6:00 AM

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

The new American economy in three tablespoons of blood, a Walmart gift card, and a former mill town’s DNA.


July 21 • 5:00 AM

Celebrating Independence: Scenes From 59 Days Around the World

While national identities are often used to separate people, a husband-and-wife Facebook photography project aims to build connections.


July 21 • 4:00 AM

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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