Claude Hamilton Verity in New York

I have written about Claude Hamilton Verity, an inventor from Leeds, and his efforts to develop a commercially successful synchronization between sound and image before (see here). This post follows up on Verity’s trip to America, and looks at his efforts through his own words.

On 9 November, 1923, Verity set off for New York aboard the Aquitania from Southampton, and on arriving declared he was meeting the vice president of the Vitagraph film company, J. Stuart Blackton. Verity’s purpose in traveling to America was to promote the synchronized moving pictures he had demonstrated at Harrogate in 1921 and London, Leeds, and Bradford in 1922.

On 20 January, 1924, the New York Times published an article comprised largely of Verity’s pronouncements on the future of the sound film. If you want to read the article in full you will, I’m afraid, have to pay (about $4); but you can also find this article in The New York Times Encyclopedia of Film, 1896-1979.

Verity’s pronouncements cover three topics: the need for the sound film to reinvigorate the interest of audiences, the prospects for the sound film, and the technical difficulties of the sound film and Verity’s attempts in overcoming them.

Verity first remarks on the fact that audiences, as far as he is concerned, are wearing of the silent films, as its novelty has long since worn off:

Personally, I believe that music carefully edited and synchronized with the pictures adds greatly to the enjoyment of the production. And I really believe that the public is losing interest in the silent film – it maybe gradual but nevertheless I believe it is true.

To explain this loss of interest, Verity points to the varied nature of the programme provided by exhibitors, including musical interludes, and singing and dancing acts as proof that audiences needed some other entertainment alongside a silent film. He also goes onto point out that this fine for moderately-sized theatres large towns and cities where, exhibitors can afford to put on such additional entertainments, but that this is scarcely possible in the more numerous smaller establishments that he describes as the ‘backbone of the industry.’ The need for sound, then, is a matter of maintaining audience interest in the medium of cinema, especially as everything else appears to have been tried:

Producers have exhausted nearly every conceivable subject; they have clothed their artists in elaborate costumes and presented them with almost nothing on.

Despite the fact that he spent so much of his time and own money on developing devices for the synchronization of sound and image, Verity seems to be ambivalent about their prospects. On the one hand, he thinks that there is a ‘great future’ in the synchronized picture and that pictures synchronized with sound, ‘be it voices or music, will enhance the worth of productions;’ while at the same time, he states that ‘I don’t think that talking and singing pictures have really much entertainment value.’ This is, I think, an odd opinion for some one who claims to have spent some £7000 on his own inventions for precisely this purpose (see here), but then many inventors fail to realise the potential of their devices because they view the problem from a purely technical standpoint. The synchronization of sound and image was a technological puzzle, but it took a showman to really make it work. Sound pictures, would Verity states, lead to new interest in films with the recording of music hall acts, sketches, and songs, but he sees it only as a means of recording existing acts and not of creating something new; and the principle beneficiaries would be the legion of small theatres that cannot attract such acts and can, therefore, substitute for them, with a film.

The second half of the article is comprised of Verity discussing the technical problems of the sound film, but his first statement in this area is an intriguing plea for government investment in potential technologies.

The history of almost all discoveries reveals how fate clings to the secrets stored up for the future welfare of mankind. Progress is ever slow. Inventors carry on their lonely and strenuous efforts secretly, and nearly always under the greatest financial difficulties. The state should alter this so that when an inventor could prove before an appointed commission that he had practical ideas, which, if developed, would be to the general welfare of the community at large, he could receive laboratory facilities or financial assistance.

Such a scheme would immediately cut venture capitalists out of the picture with the state holding the rights (in some form) to patents and would therefore never happen; but this argument provides an insight into Verity’s own position as an inventor. Born into a family of hardware merchants in Leeds, Verity produced a range of inventions and held a series of patents but he never worked for a large corporation and appears to have met the expense of development from either his own pocket or from the profits of the family firm. We know from Douglas Gomery’s research on the history of sound technology that the major corporations with the large research laboratories (Western Electric, General Electric, Radio Corporation of America, and so on) along with the major Hollywood film studios (Warner Bros., Fox) successfully introduced synchronized pictures at the end of the 1920s. In Verity we have a skilled and creative inventor, but one who also epitomizes the British tradition of the ‘practical man’ working alone his shed – that said, as a lone inventor he has achieved much, getting to New York to meet with the vice president of the Vitagraph film company. Verity’s trip to New York at the end of 1923 comes just before Warner Bros. purchases Vitagraph (in 1925), and begins turning out Vitaphone sound shorts using a sound-on-disc system. Verity’s patents for sound cinema from 1916 to 1929 all relate to sound-on-disc systems, and it would be interesting to discover what, if anything, Vitagraph learned from Verity or if (and why) they thought his invention unworthy. Verity went to the trouble of traveling over 3000 miles to meet Blackton, and Blackton went to the trouble of meeting Verity, so each must have expected something from this meeting. It would be fascinating to know if either of them got it. It would also be fascinating to know who else Verity was meeting with, but the New York Times article refers only to his being ‘in the city for several weeks.’ (The Ellis Island immigration records list his intended stay as 3 months, so the article was published at the end of this period). Verity is dismissive of the film industry, so perhaps he found it to be a wasted trip:

It stands to reason that the vested interests in the screen are not particularly anxious for the success of the synchronized film, but I think when a commercial solution is actually found they will fall over one another to obtain its actual control.

It is also interesting to note that there is a break in the patents filed by Verity in the UK for sound film devices from 1922 to 1928. Perhaps he found his New York trip to be particularly discouraging, as his swipe at ‘vested interests’ would indicate.

Verity refers to his various attempts to produce synchronized films. The first attempt he refers to only to say that it was ‘too complicated,’ but gives no other details. The second attempt he refers to was a sound-on-disc system that would provide a ‘commercial solution.’ Verity states that this system has been successfully demonstrated in England several times, and is presumably the device demonstrated at Harrogate in 1921. This ‘second attempt’ is almost certainly the device described by the 1916 GB patent and the 1917 US patent and later improved on the early 1920s. (See here and here for details on Verity’s patents and how to access them). It would seem obvious that it is these patents that Verity has traveled to New York to discuss with Vitagraph. The ‘Verity system’ operated by recording the sound separately from the images, and then providing the projectionist with the sound and the disc and a mechanism that would allow him to keep the two in synchronization to within 1/25th of a second by adjusting the variable speed of both devices according to an array of lights that represents their relative speeds.

Although, Verity states that his system ‘never once failed,’ he admits the need for a new device that will enable for sound to be ‘synchronized on the same film’, and claims that his third attempt has provided a solution to this problem.  He is, however, somewhat sketchy on the detail here, and it may be that an idea had suggested itself to him after the meetings in New York. The impetus behind this ‘third attempt’ appears to have been frustration with projectionists who could not follow the instructions for the Verity system and thereby let the film get out of synch – cuttingly he remarks that while the technology ‘never once failed,’ ‘it is human nature to fail at times to work according to instructions.’ This is, of course, perfectly true, and if sound film had been dependent upon the skill of the projectionist it may have failed due to the variability in the quality of the show from one theatre to another. Sound-on-film was an advance on sound-on-disc for many reasons, not least because it removed human error from the exhibition of motion pictures. Sound-on-film would also mark an improvement, in Verity’s opinion, for shooting on location as this would allow for the simultaneous recording of sound and image. He notes that a sound-on-film system would present considerable difficulty in editing down the 50000 feet of film shot to the 8000 of a feature, but then at no point does he ever seem to express any understanding of the process of editing (or any other production practices) and so his calim to have solved this problem is perhaps dubious. In Verity’s patents there is no mention of a sound-on-film system, and his patents from the late-1920s all relate to improvements for sound-on-disc systems, and one patent which refers to a method of synchronizing films with wireless broadcasts (notably after Logie Baird, Marconi, and Farnsworth). We can therefore conclude that this ‘third attempt’ was not realized – certainly not in form suggested by this interview. Nonetheless, he signs off by stating that ‘inventors are having a race in various parts of the world hunting for the true solution of the synchronized picture. I believe that at last I have found it.’

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About Nick Redfern

I graduated from the University of Kent in 1998 with a degree in Film Studies and History, and was awarded an MA by the same institution in 2002. I received my Ph.D. from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2006 for a thesis title 'Regionalism and the Cinema in the United Kingdom, 1992 to 2002.' I have taught at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire. My research interests include regional film cultures and industries in the United Kingdom; cognition and communication in the cinema; anxiety in contemporary Hollywood cinema; cinemetrics; and film style and film form. My work has been published in Entertext, the International Journal of Regional and Local Studies, the New Review of Film and Television Studies, Cyfrwng: Media Wales Journal, and the Journal of British Cinema and Television.

Posted on May 13, 2010, in British Cinema, Claude Hamilton Verity, Film History, Film Industry, Film Studies, Film Technology, Silent cinema and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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