Theodore Case


Theodore Case

Theodore Willard Case (1888 Auburn, New York – 1944) known for the invention of the Movietone sound-on-film sound film system, was born into a prominent family in Auburn, New York.

Family History

The local library still carries the family name and is housed in a building built from Case family donations. Generations of the Cases lived on Genesee Street in Auburn, which eventually became the residence of Theodore Case's family. In 1939, Case donated the property to a local group forming a history museum for Cayuga County, with the understanding that his lab on the property would be preserved. His wishes were all but ignored, but in the 1990's the Case Reaserch Lab was restored back to its original condition after being used as a painting studio for 40 years. The property is now operated as the Cayuga Museum of History and Case Research Lab Museum.

The Case family also had a summer home a dozen miles away on Owasco Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. The home was called Casowasco and was originally only accessible by train or boat. This summer home was one of the first in the area to have electric lighting, powered by a small hydro-electric plant on the hillside above. After Case's death, the property was donated to the Methodist church by Case's widow, closing the history in Cayuga County of one of its founding families. It now functions as a conference center and is still named Casowasco.

With the profits earned from his sale of the Case Research Lab's invention of sound film to William Fox, Case built a new home in Auburn that was, and is, the largest house in that city. The house featured an indoor swimming pool, a ballroom, a hidden room with a secret entrance, and living quarters for the many servants needed to manage the property. Behind the house were two identical buildings, one for horses, one for automobiles. The Case mansion is now used as a mental health facility while the buildings on the street behind it have been converted into homes.

Case was a man of action and sport so he owned many boats and cars and traveled often. A descendant of another of Auburn's wealthy families remembers that during the depression there were often parties at Case's new home, despite the national climate of belt tightening. Case also purchased a custom made Cadillac in the early 1930s, something that few of even the most wealthy did during that time. That Cadillac was made into a hot rod in the 1950s by its then owner. Case's Cadillac is now being restored by its latest owner. But Case might very well have had a measure of his worth because he died a wealthy man and his widow was well funded for the duration of her life.

Case's Early Work in Sound-on-Film

Case began working on his sound-on-film process in 1921 after his Case Research Lab's development of the Thallofide (thallium oxysulfide) light-sensitive vacuum tube from 1916 to 1918. The Thallofide tube was originally used by the United States Navy in a top secret infrared signaling system developed at the Case Lab. The inventions of the Case Research Lab from 1916-1926 were the creation of Case and Earl I. Sponable, who worked with Case at the lab until he went with Case to Fox Film Corporation in 1926. The ship-to-ship signaling system was first tested in 1917 off the shores of New Jersey. Attending the test was Thomas Edison, contracted by the Navy to evaluate new technologies. A complete success, the signaling system was used by the Navy for a number of years. He worked with other people, including Lee De Forest, to create a sound-on-film process similar to the sound film systems used today.

Case and DeForest

From 1921 to 1924, Case provided Lee De Forest, inventor of the audion tube, many inventions from his lab that made DeForest's Phonofilm sound-on-film process workable, though DeForest had been granted general patents in 1919. To develop a light for exposing a soundtrack to film, the Case Lab converted an old silent-film projector into a recording device. With it the AEO light was created, which was mass-produced for use in all Movietone News cameras from 1928-1939, and in recording sound in all Fox feature films from 1928-1931. Movietone News used a single-system to record the sound and image simultaneously in a camera, while feature film production moved to a system that recorded sound in a separate machine that was essentially a sound camera with the lenses and picture shutter missing. It was an optical tape recorder that used film rather than tape.

On 15 April 1923, DeForest presented 18 short films made in the Phonofilm process at the Rivoli Theater in New York City. The printed program for this presentation gives credit to the "DeForest-Case Patents". However, shortly after DeForest filed a lawsuit in June 1923 against Freeman Harrison Owens, another inventor who had worked with DeForest on sound-on-film systems, Case and DeForest had a falling-out.

The dispute between Case and DeForest was due to Case not being properly credited for his lab's contributions to Phonofilms. Case attended the April 1923 presentation of Phonofilm and was never mentioned during that presentation. By this time, DeForest had already been repeatedly warned by Case to present the truth of the inventions, to no avail. The films shown at the Phonofilm presentation used the Case Research Lab AEO Light for recording sound, were filmed with a camera designed by the Case Lab, and used the Case Lab's Thallofide Cell for reproducing the sound. Shortly after this presentation, Case stopped providing DeForest with his lab's inventions, effectively puttting DeForest out of the sound film business, but not out of the "claiming to have invented sound film" business.

The Case Research Lab then set about to perfect the system of sound film they had provided DeForest, now that DeForest was no longer able to inhibit their development of this new technology. One of the first things Case did was to change the location of the sound head on a modified silent projector to 21 frames upstream from the projected image, ensuring that no Phonofilm could be played on Case equipment. This standard was adopted by all subsequent sound-on-film systems and still applies to this day.

Movietone and William Fox

This location of where the sound is read from the film also allowed an easy conversion of silent projectors in use at the time, making the change to sound film more practical for an industry to adopt. On July 23, 1926, William Fox of Fox Film Corporation bought Case's patents relating to the sound-on-film process. From 1926 to 1927, Case worked with Fox's technicians to develop the Fox Movietone process. Fox had also previously purchased the rights to the sound film patents of Owens -- who had developed a sound movie camera as early as 1921 and coined the term "Movietone" -- and the U.S. rights to the German Tri-Ergon sound-on-film process. The Internet Movie Database lists "Fox Case Corporation" as the production company for two comedy short films by vaudeville comedy team of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough, "The Honor System" (1928) and "The Interview" (1928).

Titles filmed by Case in his process, all made at the Case Studios in Auburn, New York, include "Miss Manila Martin and Her Pet Squirrel" (1921), "" (1925), "Bird in a Cage" (1923), "Gallagher and Shean" (1925), "Madame Fifi" (1925), and "Chinese Variety Performer with a Ukelele" (1925). "Gus Visser and His Singing Duck" was nominated to the National Film Registry in 2002.

There were hundreds more test films made at the Case Lab that were lost in a fire in the 1950s. The Case Research Lab is now a museum open to the public. Adjacent to the lab is the estate's carriage house where sound-film tests were made on its second floor. That sound studio is also open to the public and its collections include a seven-foot square balsawood box that housed the camera and operator during filming. The original amplifiers and many more items used in the development of sound film at the Case Research Lab are also on display, as well as an early Wall camera used by Movietone News. The museum is currently searching for the first sound camera built by the Case Lab, believed to be in a private collection.

ee also

*Sound film
*Joseph Tykociński-Tykociner
*Vitaphone
*RCA Photophone
*Movietone sound system
*Phono-Kinema
*List of film formats

External links

* [http://www.ilovethefingerlakes.com/history/famous-people-case.htm Biography of Theodore Case]
* [http://www.silentera.com/PSFL/indexes/earlySoundFilms.html List of early sound films including Case-Sponable films]
* [http://cayuganet.org/cayugamuseum/ Theodore Case Labs Historic Site in Auburn, New York]


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