A Brief History of the Case Research Lab

While attending Yale University, Theodore (Ted) Case explored his love of science through the transmission of light and the reproduction of sound, developing a method of photographing sound waves which he referred to as a “lightograph.” Upon his return to Auburn, New York Case would establish laboratories in the basements of the family homes on Genesee Street and Casowasco on the shores of Owasco Lake. When his father inherited the Willard Mansion at 203 Genesee St., the two restructured one of the greenhouses on the property into a working laboratory: The Case Research Laboratory.

From the production of solar energy to the development of an infrared signalling system for use during World War I, the Laboratory closely followed the whims of Case’s scientific interests, and with the help of skilled workers such as Earl Sponable, the Laboratory would begin to make a name for itself in the production of advanced technology utilizing infrared light. This research and development was largely possible due to the Cases’ independent wealth. When Ted’s father died in 1918, he came into full ownership of the homestead and laboratory and continued to transform the former greenhouse into a groundbreaking research facility.

Unidentified employee with infrared signaling system

By the early 1920’s, Case was finding outside interest in his Thalofide Cells:

photoelectric bulbs sensitive to red and infrared light, which proved highly versatile in the research and commercialization of a variety of projects around the world. Of particular importance was its use by Lee de Forest in the development of his Phonofilm system: an early method of transmitting sound directly onto a film strip. Finding Case’s technology essential to his work (though never crediting the cells in the press) de Forest sent many impatient letters ordering cells in bulk.

Image of “Lightograph”

Lee de Forest with audion tubes

AEO Light/Bell and Howell Sound Recording Camera

Always emphatic on continued perfection, Case developed the Thalofide Cell further, and by December of 1922, he developed a new version of the Cell which he eventually referred to as the AEO Light. This perfected cell would become the key to making early synchronized sound film. As the light was developed as part of a professional arrangement with de Forest, the latter claimed ownership and credit for the creation even though he had no practical way of developing the technology without the Case Research Lab. This would usher in a back and forth between the Laboratory and de Forest Phonofilm: a cold war of begrudging partnership and competition as scientific talent and commercial interest came to a head.

In 1924, frustrated with the continued limitations of de Forest’s less effective sound film recording system, Case and Sponable secretly retrofitted a Bell and Howell camera themselves, developing a far more effective sound recording camera as they tested the creation themselves in the Carriage House on the Willard Mansion Campus (now the Carriage House Theater). Vaudeville acts, comedy duos, local musical groups, major figures in Auburn all were recorded as the system was perfected. When de Forest Phonofilm arranged to record the sitting president (Calvin Coolidge), Case and Sponable used their superior camera for the task, which de Forest claimed for his company as well as all of the credit for the recording of Coolidge. This proved to be the breaking point in Case and de Forest’s relationship as de Forest continued to rely on the work of the Laboratory without fulfilling financial and credit obligations.

By 1926, Case searched for new partners and eventually he and Earl Sponable had the opportunity to demonstrate their system to William Fox, the head of Fox Film Corporation. Impressed by the quality of the work, Fox and Case created a formal partnership with the creation of a new subsidiary, FoxCase Corporation. Case’s system was from then on referred to as the Movietone system, one of the four duelling sound film producing systems alongside Vitaphone, RCA Photophone, and Phonofilm (which Case also had been instrumental in developing). With the Movietone system now developed, Fox was well placed to dominate early sound film: producing newsreels to be debuted before silent feature films.

Images: background; Movietone truck with Fox-Case labelling, above; Movietone truck among herd of sheep

By the summer of 1927, Fox created the first sensation in sound film

with a Movietone Newsreel which included Charles Lindbergh’s take-off from New York to Paris. By September of that year, the Movietone system was used to create the soundtrack of the first sound-on-film feature movie: “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.” A technical marvel, the artistic movie was quickly surpassed in recognition two weeks later by the Warner Brothers production “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson. The latter stirred such a sensation with audiences hearing Al Jolson speak that it quickly led to the quick surpassing of sound film over silent film, despite frustrations with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system leading to technical errors, particularly lag between the image and sound. 1927 saw the complete transformation of the film industry to sound film, as well as the shift of the film industry from New York and Northern New Jersey to California.

Image: left; Movie poster of “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

No longer interested in the machinations and maneuvering required to remain relevant in the film business, Case eventually sold his shares in Fox-Case Corporation in September of 1929, receiving $1.5 million for his shares (about $24 million in 2022 dollars). Case retired completely to a personal life of luxury, and while the Laboratory continued to produce bulbs for Fox until the early 1930’s, the space was no longer an essential part of the operations. As Case continued to tinker within the Laboratory, he offered the grand Willard Mansion as the venue for the creation of Auburn’s first dedicated art museum, and in 1936 “for $5 and a box of cigars” the Cayuga Museum of History and Art was born. Case would still use the Laboratory and carriage house for his own purposes until 1941, when both buildings and the rest of the property passed into Museum ownership. Case died in 1944 and was buried with his relatives in Auburn’s Fort Hill Cemetery.
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Crediting for Images on this Page (Top Down)

Image: Unnamed employee with infrared signaling system

Image: A “lightograph”

Image: Lee de Forest with Audion Tubes b/t 1914-1922, from James H. Collins “The genius who put the jinn in the radio bottle”, Popular Science” Vol. 1, No. 1, May 1922, p. 31

Images: AEO Light/Schematics of Bell and Howell sound camera

Images: Movietone truck with Fox-Case branding, Movietone truck with sheep

Image: Promotional poster of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans