‘Quality’ of local, regional and national ingenuity

Ostensibly, the coming of sound seems to have facilitated Hollywood’s dominance of English-speaking countries, raising sharp issues about the promotion and protection of foreign versus local interests. It is true that between 1929 and 1932 Australians utilised a combination of new and improved disc and sound-on-film systems as a means of circumventing US patent monopolies. Rather than group all Australian sound-reproducing equipment into one category, however—as the film industry trade papers did with the terms ‘local’ and ‘locally made’—it might be more productive to think about this history more diversely in terms of local, regional and national specificity.

A range of Australian-made sound projectors appeared as near copies of existing systems with little chance of a successful patent application, or an imported system promoted as a local product. Projection technology, then, was customised and modified (adapted) on a local level by local engineers after arriving at the installation location. Local systems can be defined as backyard innovations and one-off adaptations assembled for use in schools, country town halls, churches and travelling shows. Country-based systems were made from scratch—primarily in the disc format—representing the cheapest ways to exhibit sound films. Some were promoted by smaller, often fly-by-night organisations. All were alternatives to the dominant Western Electric and RCA equipment and to the better-known Australian equipment—Raycophone, Australtone, Markophone and Auditone—combining new and used phonograph and projector parts, motors, gears and belts (rubber and leather), connecting a gramophone player or another type of disc turntable with a silent projector. Designers were usually the operator and sole service/maintenance engineer, since only they knew how the modifications worked. Such people projected for themselves, friends or for managers of smaller venues. One local device called the Dowling Apparatus, which ‘causes the gramophone and the film to synchronise exactly’, cost as little as £5.[52] Sadly, little is known about its Mr Dowling and many other pragmatic and opportunistic tinkerers like him.

Creators of so-called locally made or alternative sound-projection systems were under enormous pressure to promote any and all competitive advantages regarding their particular equipment. Claims of local origins were often prominent in public relations articles and advertisements: Wintle, ‘Australian Made, 100% British’;[53] Astorex, ‘All Australian Talkie Equipment’;[54] Beaucaire, ‘Made and Patented in Australia’;[55] and Australtone, ‘All Australian Talkie Equipment’.[56] Paradoxically, the above claims attempted to reaffirm the idea of a national sound industry by the inventors or innovators themselves, yet few could secure successful patent applications, which represented a primary avenue for the recognition and protection of national inventions. These clever local concoctions formed the lower levels of a hierarchy of sound equipment in Australia.

‘Regional’ Australian-made equipment, in comparison, cost more than £5, but was mostly still affordable. Slick trade advertisements promoted installations of disc systems at a cost of £225–300 for a single apparatus, often omitting prices for a complete system (which was two projectors and two turntables for reel change-overs) and making prices appear more attractive. As seen in Figure 6, Bert Cross and Arthur Smith’s Cinesound sound-on-film system was advertised ‘from £225’.[57] Exhibitors had to double these prices in order to get a complete system.

Figure 6
Figure 6

Source: Advertisement, General Theatre Supplies Ltd—Cinesound, Film Weekly, 25 April 1932, p. 19. Reprinted by permission of the National Library of Australia.

Regional inventions such as Cinesound were constructed by industrial systems, produced in greater numbers and distributed to several exhibitors and/or multiple installations in cinemas throughout one particular state. They were more durable than local systems because they were often cast in metal. Unlike local sound-on-disc systems, a majority of regional systems offered sound-on-film as well. Not all of a brand’s units looked the same, however, because design modifications were necessary due to the diversity of the pre-existing silent equipment to which they were adapted. These systems, which often employed a team of service/maintenance engineers to handle large distribution contracts, made up the middle hierarchy of sound equipment in Australia.

On the whole, Australian sound companies shifted positions in the hierarchy. For example, Auditone Ltd was a regional system until it opened its second sales branch in Brisbane in June 1930, at which point Auditone became a ‘national’ system.[58] National systems had an established distribution network in place or soon developed one in order to promote and accommodate interstate sales. In addition, national companies were supported by substantially greater finance capital than regional companies. As indicated earlier, Raycophone became a national system after 1930, when established national photographic and radio supply company Harringtons acquired Allsop’s promising regional venture and transformed it into a thriving national institution. Showmen and exhibitors could now inquire about Raycophone equipment and contract information at any of the three locations operated by Raycophone Ltd in Sydney (assembly works, factory or city offices) or at one of Harringtons’ many offices in Sydney, Newcastle, Katoomba, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart, as well as in Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand.[59]

As we have seen, Australian sound companies were many and varied. Entrepreneurial individuals, radio amateurs, engineers and electrical enthusiasts and well-organised companies promoted sound-on-disc and sound-on-film projection systems because no one seemed to know which format would become standard. At the same time, US film companies continued to distribute silent films until late 1932 and early 1933 in order to profit from the cinemas still waiting to convert to sound, elongating the industry’s complete transformation. The coming of sound to Australia took at least a decade to achieve, and new developments and improvements are being made continually today.

Many of the models pictured and discussed in trade advertisements were created for demonstration purposes in order to judge the system’s potential to generate profits for the exhibitor and sound company. For example, the Wintle disc system from Melbourne (as seen in Figure 7), which was known as both Australian-made and ‘100 per cent British’, was promoted as a new local product, but never came to fruition because of a lack of exhibitor interest.

The advertisement below illustrates the confusion and the disorder exhibitors faced during the coming of sound. One trade report of bad sound reproduction could kill any chance of an invention’s acceptance, let alone success. The designs and development of many projectors reached only a prototype stage where people could view it because they could not be or were not mass-produced. Yet, installing (and purchasing or leasing) a local, regional or national Australian projection system surely provided a kind of salvation for the suburban exhibitor because it circumvented issues of foreign patent ownership and control, high import duties, royalty fees and Western Electric’s mandatory 10-year service plan. Rather than a ‘battle’, however, there was a notable frenzy of invention, innovation and adaptation during the transition as Australians attempted to project sound films with local technology.

Promotional campaigns for Raycophone, Australtone, Markophone and Auditone emphasised price, ownership and customer testimonials in localised contexts. While trying to survive, however, nearly all systems around the globe either succeeded or failed by living up to or failing to live up to Western Electric’s insistence on a particular kind of quality—expressed in the advertising discourse and trade press campaigns run by Western Electric (and RCA, to a lesser degree). Western Electric’s arrival, business strategies and intense promotional efforts can be read as overt attempts to push its quality standards at every opportunity in order to belittle competitors. As seen in Figure 8, Western Electric wanted Australians to believe that it made the ‘dream’ of projecting and amplifying the talkies a modern reality.

Australian systems had little choice but to imitate the capabilities of Western Electric equipment in order to project all types of Hollywood sound films. This strategy was known commonly as the ‘interchangeability’ factor, and was really about a system’s perceived performance and service in a global context. Demanding quality from an alternative system was Western Electric’s primary control device. Each sound company mentioned above had to be able to demonstrate—through trade screenings or through gaining Western Electric’s approval and/or through a distributor’s continuing contracts for films—that its equipment provided exhibitors with sound that was good enough to keep the patrons coming.

It seems that sound companies continually perfected their systems in this way throughout the transition to sound. The American RCA Photophone succeeded because, after July 1928, it and Western Electric had agreed to make their systems fully compatible. As a result, when RCA arrived in Australia in May 1929, the quality of its system had been accepted and endorsed by Western Electric for nearly a year. As seen in Figure 9, the RCA company promoted heavily its patented technology and aggressive service strategies.

Figure 7
Figure 7

Source: Advertisement, Wintle Sound System, Everyones, 4 June 1930, p. 43. Reprinted by permission of the National Library of Australia.

Figure 8
Figure 8

Source: Advertisement, Western Electric, Film Weekly, 1 August 1929, p. 13. Reprinted by permission of the National Library of Australia.

Figure 9
Figure 9

Source: Advertisement, RCA Photophone, Film Weekly, 26 December 1929, p. 17. Reprinted by permission of the National Library of Australia.

As we have seen, other systems, such as Australtone, were not as fortunate because they did not meet Western Electric’s standards. Hence, a system’s versatility (its ability to handle films recorded in the Movietone, Vitaphone and Photophone format) undoubtedly played a role in its success.[60]