Dickson Experimental Sound Film

The [Dickson Experimental Sound Film],[1] made in 1894 or 1895, is considered the oldest surviving sound film. It shows William Kennedy Laurie Dickson – responsible at the time for the development of the Kinetograph in Thomas Alva Edison’s laboratory – playing the violin next to a large phonograph horn and two unidentified young men awkwardly dancing to music together. However, it did not exist as a synchronous sound film until 2000, when the editor and sound designer Walter Murch joined together the audio and image track – which had been stored separately as a phonograph cylinder at the Edison Historical Site and as a film copy at the Library of Congress – with the aid of a digital editing system.[2] The experiment being conducted here took place at the preliminary conclusion of various experiments by Edison and Dickson to produce a technically exact and stable chain of simultaneity of sound and image from recording to replay. While [Dickson Experimental Sound Film] was being made, there could have been an electromechanical synchrony device as described by Dickson.[3] However, the Kinetophone marketed by Edison shortly thereafter – a Kinetoscope with an integrated phonograph – did not have a synchrony mechanism except in the sense that both devices were started at the same time. It was primarily dancing and marching scenes that were made available for this machine that were accompanied by compatible but not synchronously recorded music.[4] Motion that reacts to music – and not the production of sound or speech in the image – tends to facilitate the perception of synchrony.[5] This choice of motif may therefore be seen as a strategy to shift the creation of simultaneity to the viewer – into his or her perception. Thus, the [Dickson Experimental Sound Film] not only represents the completion of a series of technical experiments, but the beginning of the negotiation of a specific audiovisual contract[6] between technology and perception.

According to Patrick Loughney – who at the time of the first public (asynchronous) showing of the film and sound in 1998 was curator of film and television at the Library of Congress – the square brackets, which he consistently uses for this film, indicate that this is a supplied title, i.e., that there is no official title and that this is a temporary descriptive one until a reliable permanent title can be agreed on. Cf. Patrick Loughney, “Domitor Witnesses the First Complete Public Presentation of [Dickson Experimental Sound Film] in the Twentieth Century,” in Richard Abel and Rick Altman, eds., The Sounds of Early Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), note 1, 219.  


  • original Title: [Dickson Experimental Sound Film]
  • Date: 1894 (?) – 1895 (?)
  • Genre: Film

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