Preventing extinction of the Australian enterprise

Primary research coalesced in Figure 2 shows at least 67 Australian sound systems that challenged the apparent American dominance. The geographical rise and development of these alternative sound systems is noteworthy because it suggests that sound technology was spread by a multitude of sound companies, engineers, tinkerers and theatre and cinema entrepreneurs. Despite the portrayal in the trade press of Hollywood film distributors as military victors in a so-called war to wire Australia with American technology, these Australians invigorated—that is, mediated—modernity throughout a vibrant period of sound experimentation. Not all initiatives were successful, but clearly the demand for sound was heard all over Australia.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Source: Derived from articles and advertisements found in Film Weekly and Everyones between 1925 and 1932.

The Raycophone case exemplifies how at least one eminent Australian system achieved ‘national’ status through the strategic reactions to the importation of American sound technology. The Australian-made Raycophone (‘Rayco’ from its inventor, Raymond Cottam Allsop’s, name and ‘phone’ from its inclusion of disc technology) outperformed and outlived all other Australian-made sound systems. Allsop’s survival strategy began with price—promising a dual-disc and sound-on-film system for a ‘revolutionary’ cost of £1,500.[27] Raycophone was given several stealthy trade demonstrations in early February 1929, and was first demonstrated publicly on 10 June 1929.[28] The company’s take-over in April 1930 by Harringtons Ltd—an Australian photographic (and later film) equipment supplier and distributor since 1899 and a radio supplier since the inception of the industry in 1888—further ensured its survival by increasing Raycophone Ltd’s manufacturing and engineering talent, enlarging its sales and distribution potential and infusing financial resources into Allsop’s regional sound company.[29] Its success was due to the company’s political and film industry ties, which led ultimately to its 24 per cent market penetration. As of June 1937, 345 Raycophone sound-projection systems were installed and serviced in Australia,[30] demonstrating that the coming of sound to the Australian cinema was facilitated directly by employing Australian technology and Australian engineering as much as it was by American technology.[31]

Figure 3
Figure 3

Source: Advertisement, Raycophone, Everyones, 12 June 1929, pp. 26–7. Reprinted by permission of the National Library of Australia.

After the launch of Western Electric’s sound-projection system in Australia in November 1928, Allsop began developing a mechanism for projecting sound films in an auditorium, using amplifiers and loudspeakers.[32] Yet, as a radio pioneer and prominent Sydney electrician, he saw the likelihood of the advent of motion picture sound in Australia well before Western Electric-ERPI representatives set sail for the region. Allsop was an electrician in charge of designing and building transmitters for 2BL, which was a New South Wales radio station owned by Broadcasters-Sydney Ltd—one of the earliest radio stations to go to air in Australia, in November 1923.[33] According to his own testimony in an ABC radio interview in 1970, Allsop had begun developing sound-film technology in the early 1920s in experiments that were extensions of his radio knowledge. As early as 1921, Allsop claimed to have successfully synchronised a wax cylinder recording with a motion picture film, and there is no reason to doubt him. Allsop had also produced four short synchronised vaudeville films—shot in the old 2BL radio studio overlooking Market Street in Sydney—in order to prove the capabilities of his disc system.[34] Allsop ceased his sound-film experiments after 1921, however, primarily because of limitations in audio amplification.

When Allsop resumed his experiments seven years later in June 1928, there seemed to be one key reason for him getting back into sound: Warner Bros.’ success with The Jazz Singer in October 1927. By this time, the development of efficient loudspeaking mechanisms and improvements in audio amplifiers significantly enhanced the profitability of the talkies in the United States. In addition, there were 28 American talkie features in Australia in early January 1929 and only three cinemas wired for sound.[35] Furthermore, in early February 1929, headlines declared, ‘Talkie field now open for all quality sound devices’, which was in response to Western Electric’s (interchangeability) decision in the United States to allow competing systems—which Western Electric put through a rigorous approval process—to project Hollywood films.[36] In this way, Allsop and many other Australians had more than ample motivation to perfect an Australian-made sound-projection system.

Raycophone’s supporters and company sponsors were a network of influential political contacts and well-known theatre and cinema entrepreneurs—basically friends in high places whom Allsop exploited for obvious reasons. The list includes the Australian entertainment moguls J. C. Williamson Ltd, Keith Murdoch (media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s father), the Tait brothers, Farmer & Co. Ltd and the NSW Broadcasting Company (NSWBC), which represented an influential association of Australian media organisations. The Williamson–Tait group was connected with Allan and Company (music distributors) and Buckley and Nunn Ltd (radio and amplification equipment retailers).[37] Murdoch brought invaluable support to the Raycophone organisation from his Herald and Weekly Times, publishers of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Sun and Telegraph Pictorial.[38] This web of interrelated connections extended throughout the Australian motion picture and entertainment industries, linking Raycophone to Western Electric, Union Theatres and Movietone, via Hoyts Theatres.

Australian systems competed with one another in addition to international representatives. For example, in mid-1929, the Australtone sound company claimed that it planned to produce a series of short sound films in order to supply its installation clients with continuous entertainment.[39] Australtone began as a disc system, and was first demonstrated publicly to industry representatives and newspapermen in the Queen’s Theatre in Crow’s Nest in Sydney on 31 July 1929. This was about seven weeks after industry magazines claimed that the talkie war had been declared in Sydney, with Raycophone in the field. William J. Tighe was the young ambitious engineer credited with inventing Australtone and synchronising its pictures, which the press coverage indicated was an insurmountable challenge in the face of Western Electric’s market strength and overall wiring plans for Australia.[40] Tighe’s system was under great pressure to prove that it could handle disc films with the same level of quality as that of Western Electric’s Vitaphone, as well as Raycophone. A series of 12 talking films referred to as ‘local favourites’, made by the ‘world-class’ cinematographer Arthur Higgins, were used to debut the disc system along with pre-recorded music. Higgins had filmed the pictures for Australtone while Tighe innovated the system during the first half of 1929. His reputation was used to help launch Australtone as a world-class producer of sound films.[41]

While Allsop took about four months of canny planning and publicity as well as sound engineering to attract the financial backing and support needed to launch Raycophone as a competitor to Western Electric, Tighe and his relative Lewis C. Tighe, an advertising specialist, appeared to do the same in four weeks with Australtone. Australtone quickly rose in the shadow of Raycophone, but it then experienced a swifter fall.

Unlike Raycophone, Australtone did not have friends in high places. Apart from minor quality concerns, a lack of influential connections inside and outside the film industry hindered its potential to offer viable long-term solutions to smaller suburban and country exhibitors. Although the Tighes promoted Australtone as the ‘salvation of suburban men’, American film distributors refused to supply the system with their sound films and boycotted it in late 1929.[42] This dispute manifested itself as exhibitors protested the huge expenses involved in wiring their cinemas with American sound equipment (see Figure 4). As a result of the boycott, Australtone began looking to South Australia and Western Australia, where a delay in the coming of sound provided additional opportunities for installation contracts—particularly for disc equipment. At the end of 1930, South Australia reportedly had the highest percentage of disc installations—30 out of a total of 54 (56 per cent)—while Western Australia had 26 disc-only and 14 dual projectors, reflecting the nature of experimentation in those states as much as the distribution speed of disc equipment.[43] Although Australtone disappeared by 1933, its story is symbolic of the complexities of the diffusion of the coming of sound to the Australian cinema and the cutthroat competition that existed between Australian-made and international equipment.

Figure 4
Figure 4

Source: Advertisement, Australtone–Australian Synchronised Sound Pictures, Everyones, 30 October 1929, pp. 18–19. Reprinted by permission of the National Library of Australia.

While Raycophone and Australtone began their installation campaigns in NSW, the Australian-made and ‘all-Australian talkie gear’ Markophone dual-disc and sound-on-film system was publicised heavily to Victoria’s regional exhibitors in 1929 and 1930. By the beginning of August 1929, Western Electric-ERPI had installed equipment in only 13 of Victoria’s estimated 107 cinemas[44] —hence the market seemed wide open for competition. Promoters endeavoured—as with nearly all other sound systems—to publicise and demonstrate Markophone (as seen in Figure 5) in advance of its availability, creating awareness and interest in regional Victoria, which flowed into NSW.

Adaptability to existing silent projection equipment was one of Markophone’s key features. According to company records, Markophone was a ‘sound head’ and ‘synchronised disc attachment plan’ created by Hoyts Theatres’ cinema executives Leon Samuel Snider, Edward Lewis Betts and Alexander Henry Noad—investors in the system. Snider, Betts, Noad and Betts’ brothers (Edward, George and Frederick) were also large Hoyts shareholders. The names of Snider, a well-known exhibition capitalist, and the Betts family, well-known NSW exhibitors since before 1920, added a significant contribution to Markophone Ltd because of their ties to Hoyts.[45] This support from Hoyts Theatres Ltd executives—including engineering support from Hoyts technicians—helped disseminate Markophone until the mid-1930s, meaning it survived significantly longer than most other Australian sound systems.[46] The company eventually folded in the mid-1930s, when most cinemas had been wired for sound. Apparently, the company had fulfilled its central aim of servicing the transition to sound.

Figure 5
Figure 5

Source: Advertisement, Markophone, Everyones, 4 June 1930, p. 49. Reprinted by permission of the National Library of Australia.

Finally, between 1929 and 1931, Phonofilms Australia inspired another Australian sound system: the Auditone, and its many incarnations.[47] Charles Ward, a radio engineer from New Zealand who gained valuable training and experience working on the De Forest Phonofilms system in 1925, developed the Auditone in conjunction with Stanley William Hawkins, the entrepreneur who managed Phonofilms Australia in 1927.[48] Auditone was demonstrated, promoted and recast several times as a new system (with names such as First British, Ward and ‘Lumenthode-Beam Projection and Sound Apparatus’), yet failed as a result of tough competitive tactics by Western Electric. The alternative equipment showed promise by gaining a number of installation contracts, but it lost its major sponsor towards the end of 1929 when Broadway Theatres, a regional chain of cinemas, cancelled its Auditone contracts.[49] As a result of these losses, Auditone Ltd lost a significant window of opportunity before the onset of the Great Depression, which surely played a role in its liquidation proceedings in 1931.[50]

Despite what Australian histories tell us, inventors across the nation moved local manufacturing forward by pooling talents, wireless and phonography expertise, entrepreneurial visions and scientific research, forming an active national sound-film industry. The existence of many of the Australian sound companies and alternative systems pictured in the map in Figure 2 were based first on the level of investment capital used to finance new wiring and equipment manufacturing ventures, and second on the cost of the equipment. Outdated (or unwanted) technology could be sold off to smaller, suburban and rural cinemas as larger city cinemas upgraded to newer models, which became competitive advantages against other systems and exhibitors. This is a critical point because the cinemas that could not afford the latest sound technology used disc systems for much longer than most city venues in order to save money. For all of these reasons, the transition to sound was an uneven process, which took place in a seemingly unorganised way.

After 1929, Western Electric and RCA continued to wire a majority of the larger metropolitan and suburban cinemas, replacing many of the Australian systems identified in the map in Figure 2 that did not meet ‘American quality standards’. These systems were eventually thrown on what the trade press frequently called the scrap heap. In short, by 1937, all of Australia’s cinemas had been wired,[51] and all of the Australian-made systems had perished except for the Raycophone, which lasted well into the 1950s.