Faster Than the Speed of Sound

An Important Figure in Talkies Leaves Us an Intriguing Clue About Projection Speeds in the Silent Film Era

As much as one may look at silent film the 1920s and feel like they are being run too fast, it’s important to be aware of what was actually happening in theaters at the time. The running speed of 90 feet per minute, or 24 fps, was chosen for sound film in 1926 by Western Electric because that was the average speed that films were being shown in theaters around the country. 

We know this from Western Electric’s Stanley Watkins, in an interview he gave in 1961 that’s quoted in Scott Eyman’s excellent book on the horserace of Movietone and Vitaphone sound systems, “The Speed Of Sound”. 

The average speed. Because there were theaters running film at speeds of “100 feet per minute and up”. 100 ft/min = 27 fps.

The other thing to remember about projection speeds is that cameramen were aware of the speeds their films were being shown, as were the directors and performers. They adjusted or compensated for the speed-up. But that’s a topic for another post (or you can watch “A Study in Undercranking”, the disc extra I did for Criterion’s release of “The Kid”).

In my research on projection speeds in the mid-to-late 1920s I have come across an occasional item. It takes some diligent searching on the Media History Digital Library’s “Lantern” search feature. I found something interesting recently in a report to the Society of Motion Picture Engineers in 1927. The Society added “Television” to its name a few decades later and may be known to you now as “SMPTE”.

Earl Sponable penned an article, or had given a talk, at the meeting of SMPE at the end of September 1927 entitled “Some Technical Aspects of the Movietone”. Sponable was the Technical Director of Fox-Case Corporation in New York; he and Theodore Case were key developers of the Movietone sound-on-film system.

The talk Sponable gave and the printed edition of it is mostly about recording and sound reproduction, but at one point in a segment in the printed report listed as “Discussion”  he was discussing the finer points of the Movietone sound system, and at one point the conversation veers into running speeds. A Mr. F.H. Richardson, a member of the Board of Governors, asks about the effect that oil on the film would have in sound reproduction. Sponable answers this and then veers into projection speeds for talking pictures, and references the Society’s arriving at a standard speed of 90 feet per minute for talkies, after some back and forth between using 85 or 90.

What he says next I found fascinating.

“In connection with the Society’s standard, I have been unable to find any New York theater which is running film at 85 feet a minute; the present normal speed is 105 feet (italics mine), and on Sundays often 120 feet per minute is used in order to get in an extra show.”

105 feet per minute is 28 frames per second. 

So…people were seeing films at 28 fps in many theaters by 1927. And sometimes at 32 fps on Sundays. 

Earl Sponable 105 feet per minute

You can read the whole article here.

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