“Phantoms of the Real Actors”: The First Prediction of Sound Film (1877)

It was a groundbreaking article that set forth the idea of synchronized audiovisual “reproduction” for the first time: that is, the prospect that sounds and moving images could be recorded at the same time for future playback together.  But as far as I can tell, no media historian—as of this writing—has ever quoted or cited it.

The date was Wednesday, November 7, 1877.  An issue of the Scientific American nominally dated ten days later—November 17, 1877—was hot off the press in New York, and newspapermen there would have been among the first to get their hands on it.  As they leafed through its pages, they would have found a letter inside by Thomas Edison’s associate Edward Johnson in which he disclosed the principle of the speaking phonograph to a large readership for the first time.  If that wasn’t newsworthy, what was?

So the New York Times quickly cranked out an article imagining a future in which people would buy and consume bottled speech much as they did bottled wine.  That article is well known and was even included in an anthology of primary sources for the history of the phonograph, cinema, and radio just a few years ago.  But it wasn’t alone.  On the same day, the New York World came out with an article pursuing a different line of speculation into the wonders the new invention might bring.  This other article seems to have been wholly forgotten in the meantime, but in some ways it was even more prescient than the one in the Times.  Here’s its text.

A Singular Invention

In a late number of the Scientific American an instrument is described as the invention of Mr. Edison, of New Jersey, by means of which the words of a man may be audibly reproduced at will years after they have been uttered.  As is the case in Mr. Edison’s speaking telephone, the tones are propagated from a vibrating metallic diaphragm, but in the phonograph, as the new contrivance is called, the vibrations of the plate are recorded by indentations in a strip of paper which, by a simple piece of mechanism, may afterwards be made to communicate the original vibrations to another diaphragm, and thus bring out the words as they were at first heard.  If it shall ever be possible to reproduce the quality of the voice, upon which the recognition of a speaker largely depends, the phonograph will place it in our power to listen to the voices of the dead long after the lips which uttered them shall have crumbled into dust.  Even now mannerisms of speech through which friends unmistakably recognize each other even when the voice of the speaker is disguised, and which are therefore most intimately connected with personality, can be re-echoed—at least in plausible theory—by means of this instrument, through which any man may if he choose make for himself a Comtean sort of immortality which at any moment may be quickened at the pleasure of his survivors.  This, however, he might do as effectually by simply committing his precepts to writing, chirography being quite as characteristic as peculiarities of diction.  We imagine that it will be a long time before we shall be able to preserve the voices of our ancestors in our houses, as the Egyptians kept the mummied bodies of theirs; but the promise and potency of the phonograph point to a day in which there shall be a faint approach to the unlocking of that vast library, the air, of which Charles Babbage said that it contained in indelible characters all that “man has ever said or woman whispered.”  People who wish to put themselves on record will have only to breathe into the phonograph, and then when they are dead they may be made to speak as if they were actually in the flesh, only that they must be content with repeating all and originating nothing.

A further development in the reproduction of men whose bodies and forces have been dissipated in various forms of energy and matter will be their presentation before our eyes as they looked while living.  Possibly this desirable object might be accomplished by taking a great number of life-size photographs of the subject from different points of view, coloring them properly and then reproducing them in relief by means of mirrors, whereupon the man would appear to us as he did in life; and since one set of photographs might be rapidly or gradually changed for others, bodily movements might be represented which would be quite as natural as the tones of his voice resounding through the phonograph in keeping with the movements of the phantasmagory.  The production of historical plays in which the phantoms of the real actors of the scenes depicted should walk the stage and speak with the very echo of the voices of the long dead would be easily possible, provided only that in life they had suited the action to the word and the word to the action in the presence of skilled phonographists and artists of the camera.  Great men, unless also they were very good men with a heart for the future entertainment and instruction of the race, might refuse to mouth their words before the phonograph, but when once one of them had been induced to do so all the rest would follow, and the giants among us would be reproduced for our children’s children unto many generations.  There seems to be nothing absolutely impossible in this notion, but we can conscientiously say that we trust it will never be made real.

Speaking of re-echoing, the Scientific American of December 22, 1877, would go on to state: “It is already possible by ingenious optical contrivances to throw stereoscopic photographs of people on screens in full view of an audience.  Add the talking phonograph to counterfeit their voices, and it would be difficult to carry the illusion of actual presence much further.”  A response to this passage by Wordsworth Donisthorpe, published in the issue of Nature for January 24, 1878, is often cited in turn as the first source to suggest combining the phonograph specifically with motion sequence photography to reproduce recorded happenings simultaneously for the eye and ear.

But it turns out that the New York World had already suggested that idea on the very day news of Edison’s invention first broke.  It’s true that we find this idea intermixed distractingly with several others, but it was unquestionably there.  The suggestion that photographs could be “rapidly or gradually changed for others” might have held open a secondary prospect of fading slowly from one image to another, but the central idea was to reproduce “bodily movements,” and for persons to be seen to “walk the stage,” rather than just to display successive static scenes.  And the images and sounds were, in principle, supposed to be captured simultaneously for synchronous playback—or at least that’s the conclusion I draw from reading that the effect was to hinge on participants suiting “the action to the word and the word to the action in the presence of skilled phonographists and artists of the camera.”  The writer characterizes the results as “historical plays” and seems to envision them being made only for the benefit of posterity, and not for exhibition in the present, doubtless inspired by the Scientific American‘s emphasis on the preservation of voices beyond death in its introduction to Johnson’s letter.  It’s unclear whether these “historical plays” were to be studio reenactments by the original participants or secured directly during major historical events; maybe nobody had yet thought things through quite that far.  Either way, though, the World definitely expected the combination of phonograph and motion photography to serve a historical, documentary purpose, which is a perspective that’s missing from the other early proposals along these lines (the Scientific American in December 1877 and Wordsworth Donisthorpe in January 1878).

It was, I should point out, the time-shifting aspect that was the truly new element here.  The idea of reproducing audiovisual spectacles at a distance in real time had already been suggested some months before as a conceptual outgrowth of the telephone (see “The Electroscope” in the New York Sun of March 29, 1877).  Thus, sound television had actually been predicted before sound film was, although it ended up taking longer to realize in practice.  But live sound television wouldn’t have preserved people’s “phantoms” beyond death, so it’s understandable why someone might have considered that to be the mind-blowing part of the story on November 7th.

The World article doesn’t explicitly mention projecting images onto a screen.  Instead, it proposes a kind of life-sized stereoscopic projection using mirrors in terms we might now connect more readily with the practice of creating holograms of deceased celebrities on stage.  Indeed, it’s arguably as much a piece of the conceptual prehistory of the celebrity hologram as it is a piece of the conceptual prehistory of the sound film.  But bear in mind that some of the earliest speculation into moving pictures took for granted that these would be stereoscopic; see Sir John F. W. Herschel’s 1860 article on the subject here, for example.  And of course some of them now are stereoscopic, even if most aren’t.  So I don’t believe the fact that the World article describes figures being reproduced “in relief” (i.e., in 3D), or its lack of reference to a screen, should in any way disqualify it as a prediction of sound film.

Our modern experience of the past has been profoundly reshaped by our ability to see and hear into it via sound recordings and moving pictures working in tandem.  And the World article of November 7, 1877, seems to have scoped out this future for the first time, even if only to cast doubt on it: “we trust it will never be made real.”  But that article has also proven surprisingly difficult to track back to its first appearance in print.  I can’t show that to you in facsimile.  In fact, I’ve never seen it.

Instead, I’ve identified four different newspapers that copied the New York World article, always crediting the source, and always using the title “A Singular Invention”; and the text as I’ve presented it above is a composite that factors out what I take to be their individual typographical errors or innovations.

  • The Daily Gazette (Wilmington, Delaware), November 9, 1877, via Chronicling America and Fultonhistory.com.
  • The Spirit of Democracy (Woodsfield, Ohio), November 11, 1877, via Chronicling America—this is the source that specifies November 7, 1877, as the article’s original date, and it was also the first one I found.
  • The Commercial Advertiser (Potsdam Junction, New York), November 15, 1877, via NYS Historic Newspapers.
  • The Toledo Chronicle (Toledo, Iowa), November 22, 1877, via Chronicling America.

Of course, I’d prefer to have tracked down the article exactly as it first appeared rather than reconstructing it from multiple later-generation sources.  But the New York World of this period turns out to be surprisingly elusive, considering how prominent a publication it was.  The first clipping from it indexed in the Edison Papers dates from January 12, 1878.  Many dates are available via Newspaperarchive.com, but nothing from 1877.

That same year is also missing from Readex’s “Early American Newspapers” collection, where the available run of the New York World ends on December 31, 1876.  No luck at Chronicling America or Newspapers.com either.  Fultonhistory.com reportedly has a complete run of the New York World from 1862 to 1882, but when I tried browsing page by page, I found myself disappointed yet again.  For one thing, what that site has is the semi-weekly edition, which appeared only on Tuesdays and Fridays.  There was also a daily edition, as well as a weekly edition published on Wednesdays.

The beginning of the New York World entry in Pettengill’s Newspaper Directory and Advertisers’ Handbook for 1878 (New York: S. M. Pettengill).

November 7, 1877, was a Wednesday, so the source citation given in the Spirit of Democracy must refer to the daily or weekly edition.  Still, I figured it would be worth checking to see if the same article had also made it into the next semi-weekly World, which should have come out on November 9th.  The scans at Fultonhistory.com are organized by microfilm reel, and their beginning and ending dates appear to match those of the reels held by various libraries.  However, on the reel marked “1877-1878,” there’s a jump from June 29, 1877, to July 1, 1879, and then a jump back from December 30, 1879, to January 1, 1878.  In other words, the second half of 1879 has been inserted where the second half of 1877 ought to have gone.  Then, on the next reel, marked “1878-1881,” there’s another jump from December 31, 1878, to January 2, 1880, with a frame in between reporting that the year 1879 was lacking, missing, or mutilated.

In fact, unless I’m missing something, what’s really missing is the second half of 1877 and the first half of 1879, while the second half of 1879 is merely located out of sequence.  Now, I still think it would be possible to consult the article in its original form with sufficient patience and effort.  According to a list of institutional holdings, both the daily and weekly editions of the New York World dated November 7, 1877, should be available on microfilm from the New York Public Library.  But those issues don’t appear to be available anywhere digitally as of this writing, and the midst of a pandemic isn’t a particularly good time to be making interlibrary loan requests or using public microfilm readers.  So for the moment I’ll content myself with the low-hanging fruit I already have.

It seems ironic, though, that the first published source to envision our ability to experience the past in the dynamic, multisensory way we now associate with the sound film should turn out to be one we can’t easily see quite as it was.

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