Motion picture sound created in Auburn

Watching a movie on the big screen has become a hobby, even a career for many. It's taken many years to turn motion pictures into the award winning blockbusters we're used to. An Auburn native made it possible to hear all the action. His name is Theodore Case. In this edition of Your Hometown, Iris St. Meran takes us to the Case Research Lab and shows us how he gave a voice to silent movies.

AUBURN, N.Y. -- When you're watching a movie or even TV, you probably don't think twice about what you're hearing or even how you're able to hear it. Before Hollywood became Hollywood, A man by the name of Ted Case was studying sound and how to reproduce it. What he developed gave life to the sound on film industry.


It all began right here in this greenhouse in Auburn which Theodore Case and his father Willard turned into the Case Research Lab. They were both interested in science. While in college at Yale, Theodore or Ted as many people called him became interested in recording sound on film.


Case Research Lab Curator Lauren Chyle said, "The whole process of developing sound on film and developing the technology happened over the course of 20 years. They opened the lab in 1916 and it wasn't until 1922 that Ted Case developed the AEO light, which was really the key to putting sound on film. That technology was used all the way until the 1970s when Dolby Digital Sound was developed."


This is an AEO Light. It stands for Alkaline Earth Oxide. It was sensitive to changes in electricity. So, when you spoke into a microphone, it would flicker. That would turn sound into light which would then be photographed.


"So when he hooked this light into a camera, he was able to take a picture of the sound, take a picture of the light changing and therefore record it on film," said Chyle.


This took just a matter of seconds. But Case created many test films to perfect the technique. In this particular test film, Case is reading a speech from President Lincoln.


In the mid-1920s Case and his assistant presented their sound on film system to William Fox of the Fox Film Corporation. It was a test film of his assistant's pet canary. Fox was amazed by this development, and he and Case became partners.


There had been sound on pictures before, but the first movie with sound needed a record and the sound had to be synced with video. Case just needed one source: a camera.


"And you could take it anywhere in the world. The Fox Case Corporation sent out these movie tone trucks all around the world. They filmed things like Mussolini giving a speech in Italy. They filmed Lindbergh giving a speech before he flew across the Atlantic, so it was really the first access some people in the United States had to seeing the rest of the world," Chyle said, it’s also important because it increase the speed with which people had access to these things."


Although this made a big impact in the industry, Case wasn't really interested in entertainment. He never made creative films, just tests. One of his tests, the singing duck is listed on the Most Important Films Registry.


He wanted to focus more on science. In addition to motion picture sound, he worked for the Navy and helped develop infrared signal system for secret messages sent on the ship. In 1936, he donated this lab to the Cayuga Museum.


"Case didn't get a lot of credit for his invention until the Case research lab was redone in the 90s. The curator at that time, Stephanie, going through the papers and the objects that were here in the museum and kind of rediscovered the story. Ted Case died young, he died in 1944 so he didn't really live on into the golden age of Hollywood when movies became popular," said Chyle.


This is the place where Ted Case would make his test films. It's almost exactly the way he left it. No one but museum staff have been up here, but they plan to restore it so the public can see for themselves the world's first sound stage.


And if your hometown has an interesting story, we want to hear from you. Send your ideas to yourhometown@ynn.com.

Spectrum customers get full access
to all our video, including our live stream.