Case Research Lab

Behind the Cayuga Museum stands the Case Research Lab, the Birthplace of Talking Movies.

Theodore Willard Case was born in 1888 into a house of wealth and scholarship.  His father Willard Case (1857-1918) was fascinated with the budding field of electricity, and Theodore inherited this love of science.  Ted graduated from Yale in 1912 and in 1914 he and Willard began setting up laboratories in the basement of their homes at 196 Genesee Street and Casowasco, the Case family estate on Owasco Lake.

Willard Case inherited the Willard estate at 203 Genesee Street in 1916.  He remained at 196 Genesee Street, and Theodore moved into the Willard home.  Willard and Theodore converted a greenhouse into a scientific laboratory the same year. They called the enterprise the Case Research Lab (CRL) and hired Earl Sponable as an assistant.

 


By 1918, the Case Research Lab had a core research team of four men, and employed at least ten additional men and women as mechanics, machinists, glass blowers, and secretaries.  Alice Gertrude Eldred worked as a glassblower and lab assistant for $5 a week upon her graduation from Auburn High School in 1917. She caught Cases’ eye, and became his wife in 1918.

By late 1922, the CRL invented the AEO light, a very sensitive cell (light bulb) that could react to variations in sound waves. Two years later the CRL began working on their own sound film system, recording test films in the carriage house behind the mansion.

In 1926, Case and Sponable demonstrated the CRL system to William Fox of Fox Film. Fox and Case became partners, creating the Fox-Case Corporation to commercialize sound film. They gave the new system the name Movietone, with the slogan, “it speaks for itself.” Movietone made its public debut in 1927 with shorts shown before silent feature films in New York theaters.  The first all-Movietone premiere was on May 25, 1927 at the Roxy Theater, which included Charles Lindbergh’s takeoff from New York to Paris for his transatlantic flight.  The Lindbergh short caused the first sensation in sound film, capturing audience attention like never before.

For the first time, the public could see and hear newsmakers. Because the sound system was built into the camera, events could be filmed on location. Movietone News teams were sent around the globe, giving many Americans their first “look” at the rest of the world.

In September 1927 Fox released the first feature film Sunrise, with Movietone music and effects.  During 1928 and 1929 the CRL functioned mainly as the cell production facility for Fox-Case Corporation.

In 1929, Case sold his interests in the Fox-Case Corporation back to Willam Fox. He moved his family to a sprawling Neo-Gothic mansion that he built on South Street, the most fashionable neighborhood at the time.   The CRL continued to produce AEO lights used in Fox Movietone cameras until 1941.

 

In 1936, Theodore sold the Willard-Case mansion to a group organizing a museum, headed by Walter Long, for “$5 and a box of cigars.”  When the Case Research Lab ceased operations in 1941, he deeded the lab and all of its contents to the Cayuga Museum.


The Case Research Lab Museum exhibits the working spaces of the darkroom, chemistry lab, and recording studio; the first sound camera; experimental recording equipment; and a history of the commercialization of sound film including such ventures as Phonofilms, Fox-Case Movietone, and Fox Films (now 20th Century Fox).

The research, restoration, and interpretation of the buildings and archives of the lab began in 1990. Since then, a great deal of history has been unearthed from dozens of notebooks, thousands of pages of correspondence, and many other lab archives.

The Case Research Lab collection contains the equipment, complete lab notebooks, volumes of technical drawings and photographs, extensive business and personal correspondence, manuscripts and reports, patents, receipts, and scrapbooks spanning the 18 year history of the Lab.  The collection also includes archival materials from Earl Sponable, which were donated to the Cayuga Museum by his daughter, Catherine “Mimo” Sponable, in the 1990s.

Come take a guided tour and learn more about the world changing inventions of the Case Research Lab.