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

September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.


September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.


September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?


September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.



September 15 • 2:04 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Do Places Make People?

We know that people make places, but does it also work the other way?


September 12 • 4:00 PM

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)


September 12 • 2:00 PM

Should We Trust the Hearts of White People?

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, revisiting a clip of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show.


September 12 • 12:00 PM

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you’d be if the government didn’t interfere with your life, but that’s not what the research shows.


September 12 • 10:00 AM

Whispering in the Town Square: Can Twitter Provide an Escape From All Its Noise?

Twitter has created its own buzzing, digital agora, but when users want to speak amongst themselves, they tend to leave for another platform. It’s a social network that helps you find people to talk to—but barely lets you do any talking.


September 12 • 9:03 AM

How Ancient DNA Is Rewriting Human History

We thought we knew how we’d been shaped by evolution. We were wrong.


September 12 • 8:02 AM

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.


September 12 • 8:00 AM

I Walked Through the Financial Crisis

Why are former Wall Street employees guiding tourists around the Financial District? Paul Hiebert signed himself up and tried to find out.


September 12 • 7:05 AM

Scams, Scams, Everywhere


September 12 • 6:17 AM

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.


September 12 • 4:00 AM

Comfort Food Is a Myth

New research finds that, contrary to our beliefs, such foods don’t have any special ability to improve our moods.



September 11 • 4:00 PM

Reading the Camouflage Uniforms in Ferguson: ‘You Are Now Enemy Combatants’

Why are police officers wearing green or desert camouflage in a suburban environment?


September 11 • 2:00 PM

Wage Theft: How Two States Are Fighting Against Companies That Categorize Employees as Independent Contractors

New York and Illinois have passed hard-nosed laws and taken an aggressive tack toward misclassification.


September 11 • 11:03 AM

Yes, I’m a Good Person. But Did You Hear About Her?

A new study tracks how people experience moral issues in everyday life.


Follow us


To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.

Searching for Everyday Morality

Experimenters use text messages to study morality beyond the lab.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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