If de Forest kicks again, tell him we consider that Auburn is the home of the new invention.”

William Dapping, Editor of The Auburn Citizen

Auburn, The Unspoken Birthplace of Sound Film

Auburn, The Unspoken Birthplace of Sound Film

Auburn, The Unspoken Birthplace of Sound Film

Auburn, The Unspoken Birthplace of Sound Film

Auburn, The Unspoken Birthplace of Sound Film

Auburn, The Unspoken Birthplace of Sound Film

Why Auburn?

One of the most common questions asked at the Cayuga Museum is, “Why did all of this happen in Auburn?” To understand Case’s achievements, it is essential to highlight the ways that Auburn, New York was central to his work in sound film.

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In the 1920’s, Auburn was near its peak in prominence and influence in the United States, with a population around 30,000. Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, Auburn (like many cities in Upstate New York) was a major hub of industry, political movements such as Abolition, Women’s Suffrage, and Temperance, and commerce. The Case family was first attracted to this budding city in the mid 19th century, and by the early 20th century the family enjoyed the exceeding wealth produced within the city. In many ways, Auburn benefited from being at the near geographical center of Upstate New York, with many of the nation’s most innovative people and companies at the time living only a short train ride from one another. The film industry in the region similarly benefitted from this proximity.

As you can see in this sectional map of New York, Auburn was almost literally at the center of filmmaking while Case was working there. Ready access to Kodak film, skilled workers from Cornell University, an abundance of high-end movie theaters curious about new technology to beat out competitors, and easy access to the film industry in New York City placed Case in an ideal position to use his wealth to make his Laboratory a focal point in changing history. By the mid-1920’s, Auburn via the Case Research Lab was producing the most advanced sound film system in the world. Explore in the sections below some of the ways that Auburn supported Case’s work more directly!

The Press

Local press in Auburn and Syracuse were thrilled with the work occurring in the Case Research Lab, and in many cases the Auburn Citizen was one of the few media sources accurately crediting Case’s contributions to De Forest Phonofilm. In the early months after the discovery of the AEO Light, articles in national media such as Scientific American and The Evening World Radio, Case’s accomplishments (if mentioned at all) in the Phonofilm system were limited to the contribution of the Thalofide Cell. Angered by the national media’s erasure of credit, Case relied on the Auburn Citizen to set the record straight.

On September 14, 1923, The Auburn Citizen Editor William Dapping submitted a brief to the Associated Press detailing,

If de Forest kicks again, tell him we consider that Auburn is the home of the new invention.”

This strong belief in Case’s contributions from local media, as well as his personal generosity and friendliness on an individual level, stood in contrast to later characterizations on the national level of Case as a reclusive scientist who was jealous of de Forest’s accomplishments.

Legal Support

Perhaps the most blatant example of Auburn’s power and influence with relevance to Case was his ability to work with top-notch lawyers, perhaps one of the most important factors that shielded Case from the veritable battles of lawsuits that would define the race to introduce sound film to the world. Overlapping patents and rapid growth in the industry made the field ripe for corporate and patent lawyers. In two instances, Auburn area lawyers who aided Case in his work would end up becoming prominent political figures.

John Taber (hover mouse over photo to learn more)

Case’s personal attorney, John Taber, provided the essential veil between Case and de Forest in the early days of the AEO light in 1922. Taber’s work for Case provided the legal footing by which Case could claim his contributions to the AEO light, establishing the formal contract between the two businesses as separate entities, and would cement De Forest Phonofilm’s need to purchase the bulbs from the Case Research Laboratory, as well as provide due credit. In 1923, Taber was elected to the US House of Representatives and would serve there for 40 years until 1963.

John Foster Dulles (hover mouse over photo to learn more)

On the other end of Case’s legal relationship with de Forest, his departure from Phonofilm was overseen by another Auburn son destined for politics. In his formal separation, Case sought  legal counsel from John Foster Dulles. Dulles would be the first to suggest that de Forest’s actions were deserving of legal action. Many years later, Dulles would become a New York Senator, Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower, and the namesake of Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C.

The prominence of legal professionals with their origins in Auburn gave Case strong representation that helped him gain many legal victories in the “sound film wars” that would define the later 1920’s.

Venues

Aside from the obvious physical contributions of the buildings that formed Case’s home, laboratory, and film studio in the carriage house, Auburn provided many other practical boons to Case’s work in sound film. The Universal Theater in Auburn was a strong supporter of early sound film developments, and worked directly with Case to debut Phonofilms (as can be seen in the 1924 advertisement found in the Auburn Citizen). Similar to the recognition by the local press, The Universal likewise emphasized Case’s contributions more directly than national media.

One particular instance of Auburn’s celebration of Case’s work was the 1925 Auburn Exposition of Progress, held on the former grounds of the Auburn Theological Seminary (which included the modern day Willard Chapel). This industrial fair celebrating the innovators of Auburn featured the Case Research Lab prominently. Case Research Lab workers set up a pavilion where the new “talkies” could be displayed, with De Forest Phonofilms and test films from the lab itself able to be viewed. One of these test films featured former Auburn Mayor, warden of Sing Sing, and prison reformer Thomas Mott Osborne explaining his new system for prisoner-based self governance. Viewers loved the unique opportunity to view the new, homegrown technology, and in one case a crowd even stampeded the doors of the tent to gain entry to see the films.

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Play a Clip of Thomas Mott Osborne's Recording

Auburn’s industry, wealth, and (most importantly) its people were an essential part of what made the work of the Case Research Laboratory possible. In countless ways, the supportive nature of the small city and the wealth it afforded Case gave him the opportunity to transform his Laboratory into a national player in the development of sound-on-film technology.

Thank You for Reading!

Crediting for Images on this Page

Header: South St., corner of Genesee St., c. 1930

Image: Case Research Lab, early 1920s

Image: State St., c. 1920

Image: John Taber, Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress

Image: Senator John Foster Dulles, public domain, Wikimedia commons

Image: The Universal Advertisement, The Auburn Citizen, p.4 June 7, 1924

Image: Auburn Exposition of Progress, Case Research Lab exhibition

Image: Auburn Exposition of Progress, Case Research Lab exhibition

Video: Thomas Mott Osborne discussing prison reform c. 1925

Image: Ted Case resting at Auburn Exposition of Progress