Inventing the 20’s: 100 Years Ago in the Case Research Laboratory

How long has it been since you visited the Case Research Lab, one of the three historic structures on the Cayuga Museum campus?

The building where sound film was born was responsible for numerous other innovations.

Learn more about what was going on in the lab 100 years ago!

You can also explore the main lab space below:


The Case Research Lab spent much of 1920 seeking commercial uses for the Thalofide Cell and infrared signaling system (or Dyscrasite apparatus). At the end of WWI, the Navy had moved on from working with the Lab on the signaling system. Undaunted, Case continued experimenting with the system and seeking interest from other branches of the military. He also worked to develop uses for his Thalofide Cell, which included a daylight recording system. Along with these more formal, commercially focused experiments, Case continued to pursue all lines of inquiry that appeared in conjunction with any of his experiments, including using the Dyscrasite apparatus to listen for communication from Mars.

Infrared Signaling System: (click image to learn more)

Infrared Signaling System (Case Research Lab Collection)

Thalofide Cell:

The Case Research Lab also continued to promote their Thalofide Cell. Case published a pamphlet advertising the cell to other labs and companies for experimental purposes. He also advertised the cell in Science Magazine and in Popular Science. This would prove fateful to the Case Lab’s future direction developing sound on film.

AEO Bulb (Case Research Lab Collection)
Thalofide Cell (Case Research Lab Collection)

The Thalofide Cell advertisements were seen by Lee DeForest, an inventor known for his work developing amplifying tubes for use in radio.

In August 1920 he wrote to the Case Lab requesting further information on the cell. He wrote several more times during 1920, asking if Case had compared the cell to the Kuntz photoelectric cell, which DeForest had been using in sound recording experiments, and inquiring if the lab would do experimental work for him. In 1919, DeForest had applied for a patent for a sound recording system which he called Phonofilm. This system would later be built on and perfected by the Case Research Lab.

Thalofide Cell Drawing (Case Research Lab Collection)

Daylight Recording System: 

In 1920, the Kleerflax Linen Rug Company wrote to Case asking whether the lab had used the Thalofide cell to measure daylight falling on material such as fabric. The lab notebook entry about this inquiry states: “At present, the dye people have no way of telling whether a sunny day in Summer has the same fading effects upon their dyes as a sunny day in Winter or how many dull days will be equivalent to one day of bright sunlight. In solving this problem, it is apparently necessary to have a light reactive substance which shows a constant and unvariable change in proportion to the light falling upon it, and the method of measuring the total current this light reactive substance lets thru over a period of time.”  

This inquiry prompted Case to develop a system to record daylight; using a CLR strontium or barium photoelectric cell attached to a Leeds & Northrup potentiometer. These cells were variations of the Thalofide cell, using different minerals to achieve the same effects.

Earl Sponable (Cayuga Museum Collection)

Earl Sponable went to Philadelphia to discuss working with Leeds & Northrup to market the system.  Leeds & Northrup engineers thought that the combined system would work well, and agreed to conduct tests with the Case Lab cell and modify their apparatus for this use. The Vice-President of the company, Mr. C. Reding, assured the Case Lab that Leeds & Northrup would be interested in any plans that would help the sale of their recorders, but advised the Case Lab to develop the system fully and perform satisfactory experiments before taking the system to the Leeds & Northrup sales department. Their engineers suggested the Case Lab measure daylight with their system daily for an entire month first, and record their results. Sponable, Ted, and even Gertrude Case all helped monitor the results. 

Case, excited over the possibilities of such a system, thought it would be useful for weather bureaus, agricultural experimental stations, automobile headlight testing facilities, the dye industry, and street lighting projects.

Communication from Mars:

“On April 24th, 1920, Mr. Case and Mr. Sponable listened for possible communication from Mars, using the Thalofide cell at the focus of a 24” mirror and in connection with both the Dyscrasite apparatus and a 2 step audion amplifier such as is used in talking work. No positive results were obtained. The twinkling of the star was plainly evident upon the Dyscrasite apparatus and as this twinkling effect could be obtained from other stars besides Mars, it was evidently not due to any communication coming from Mars.” -Case Research Lab Notebook

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