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The Vivaphone

This page contains information about the Vivaphone, invented by Cecil Hepworth c.1905-6 to combine sound with film in the early days of cinema.

Hepworth invented the Vivaphone, an early synchronized sound system that utilized a phonograph - one of many competing systems to add sound to the silent film.  A Catalogue of Vivaphone films was published in 1909 (PLEASE contact us if you have a copy). The Vivaphone is the subject of British Patent No. 10417 of 26th April 1910. There were numerous competing systems on both sides of the Atlantic.

When making the film, the actors mimed to a ten inch commercial record lasting some two minutes. The idea was to synchronise sound and film on replay. Sometimes this worked well, other times not, with hilarious consequences!

The Cinephone and the Vitaphone are similar types of systems used for sound and film synchronization. In Barker's Cinephone, each scene was acted in front of a recording phonograph and then re-enacted in front of the camera to match the recording. A projector was adjusted so that it ran at the same fixed speed as the phonograph. Visual dials as indicators adjusted the speed.


Hepworth's Vivaphone was simpler than the Cinephone, where the synchronization of sound and visuals, was adjusted by using a single indicator in combination with coloured glass. The indicator, powered by an electro-magnet, showed either green or red lights to the operator for adjusting the speed. The lithograph on the right is believed to be an authentic illustration of the general set-up, although somewhat stylised it does show that the early projectionists needed to be quite adept to keep control of the many different parts of the apparatus to achieve a successful result.

There is a fascinating article about the Vivaphone contributed by Terence Brown, from an unrecognised record collector's magazine. It describes a speech by Unionist politician Andrew Bonar Law MP who recorded a speech and then was filmed reciting it in 1908. Even then, MPs were well aware of the importance of the media.

These films went far and wide: Nezih Erdogan, an author writing about the early years of cinema in Istanbul has been in touch to say "I have had access to the correspondences of an Armenian film importer, Armenag Utidjian who bought films and rented a Vivaphone from the Hepworth Co. in 1913" - and here is the order, made on 16th December 1913:

...To me the most remarkable thing about this union [of talking machines and cinematography] is the speed and completeness with which it has been accomplished. Until two or three years ago the high contracting parties were completely aloof from one another, and although from time to time there were rumours of an engagement, it was not until quite recently that the mating took place. Moreover, it would seem that although the marriage appears to have been arranged in America, there is not the remotest likelihood of a divorce...

[Cecil M. Hepworth - British Cinema Pioneer  in "The talkies", by "John Scotland"]

If you have any diagrams, photos, or information about the vivaphone please contact us.

Reference - Stephen Herbert Further Information supplied by: Terence Brown, Nezih Erdogan - Thank you!

Can you help? Do you have more information about the events or people on this page? If so, please contact us! Thank you.

This site hepworthfilm.org - material developed from 2005-2012 - Page Last Updated: 25/08/2013 - Contact us