This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Before Dolby Digital, or . . . . . . . . I Hates Rabbits

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August 6, 1926:  Vitaphone System Premiers

In New York, New York, the Warner Bros.  Vitaphone system premieres with the movie Don Juan starring John Barrymore.

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Vitaphone was a sound film system used for feature films and nearly 1,000 short subjects made by Warner Bros. and its sister studio First National from 1926 to 1931.  Vitaphone was the last major analog sound-on-disc system and the only one which was widely used and commercially successful.

A Vitaphone projection setup at a 1926 demonstration. Western Electric Engineer E. B. Craft (on the left) is holding a soundtrack disc. The turntable, on a massive tripod base, is at lower center

A Vitaphone projection setup at a 1926 demonstration. Western Electric Engineer E. B. Craft (on the left) is holding a soundtrack disc. The turntable, on a massive tripod base, is at lower center

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The soundtrack was not printed on the film itself, but issued separately on phonograph records. The discs, recorded at 33 1/3 rpm and typically 16 inches in diameter, would be played on a turntable physically coupled to the projector motor while the film was being projected.  Many early talkies, such as The Jazz Singer (1927), used the Vitaphone system.  The name “Vitaphone” derived from the Latin and Greek words, respectively, for “living” and “sound”.

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The “Vitaphone” trademark was later associated with cartoons and other short subjects that had optical soundtracks and did not use discs.

Warner Bros. kept the “Vitaphone” trademark alive in the name of its short subjects division, most famous for releasing the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons.  In the 1960s the end titles of Merrie Melodies cartoons (beginning with 1960’s From Hare to Heir) carried the legend “A Vitaphone Release”.

Vitaphone was among the first 25 inductees into the TECnology Hall of Fame at its establishment in 2004, an honor given to “products and innovations that have had an enduring impact on the development of audio technology.”  The award notes that Vitaphone, though short-lived, helped in popularizing theater sound and was critical in stimulating the development of the modern sound reinforcement system.

Don Juan Preview Clip

I Hates Rabbits

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