This gauge was used for a brief period in the early history of cinema by operators of the Chronophotographe, a camera devised by the French camera engineer Georges Demenÿ for the then emergent cinema entrepreneur, Léon Gaumont.
Among the few operators to use this model of camera was Oscar Depue, who whilst working as a cameraman for the celebrated travel lecturer, Burton Holmes, shot a number of films of ethnographic interest, including footage, now lost, of the Hopi Snake Dance and a Navajo Tournament in 1898.
Although Depue devised a new and much larger magazine for the camera, which increased the running time of a roll of film considerably, he gave up on it in 1902 on account of the difficulty of getting hold of the 60mm stock.
Although 8mm cameras were aimed at the amateur market, they were sometimes used by ethnographers for simple documentation purposes. Among those to do so were Dina and Claude Lévi-Strauss who took a camera that Claude describes as an “oval-shaped miniature 8mm camera” on their 1935-36 expedition to the interior of Brazil.
This description would fit the Bell & Howell Filmo 127-A, the so-called ‘Straight Eight’ (see below), which was launched in 1935, i.e. the same year in which the Lévi-Strausses set out on their journey.
This was first introduced as an amateur format in 1923. Whereas 35mm film had only sixteen frames per foot of film, 16 mm had forty. Although the quality was inferior, it had the great advantage of being very much cheaper.
This gauge was used for ethnographic purposes as early as 1930 by the Board of Anthropological Research, which produced a series of films about Aboriginal people in South and Central Australia over the course of the decade. It was also used by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson during their research in Bali and New Guinea in 1936-39, and by Beatrice Blackwood, also in New Guinea, around the same period. Ursula Graham Bower used 16 mm, some of it even in colour, when shooting among the Naga and other peoples of northeast India in the 1940s, during the Second World War.
After the Second World War, Jean Rouch, working in West Africa, was a strong advocate of 16 mm colour film. It was also used in the 1950s by John Marshall in southern Africa, by Harald Schultz in Brazil and in the mid-1960s by the National Film Board of Canada to make the Netsilik series in the far north of Canada.
However, even as late as 1965, 16 mm film was not regarded by some film-makers as being of sufficient quality for professional purposes. It was on these grounds that Ian Dunlop chose to shoot his celebrated of films about the Aboriginal people of the Western Desert series in black-and-white 35 mm film, even though this meant doing without on-location sound recording.
Thereafter, however, 16 mm became the gauge most used by ethnographic film-makers until it was replaced by video and later digital formats from the late 1970s onwards.
Using film stock provided to him by George Eastman, this gauge was originally developed in 1890 by William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson while he was working for Thomas Edison. The approximate dimensions of the single frame were 35 mm by 25 mm. This was later adopted by the Lumière brothers.
Initially, the film had only one sprocket hole on each side of the frame, but this was later increased to four per side, which became the industry standard in 1909, and remains so to this day.
The Photophone system was an optical sound system developed by RCA Victor and launched in 1929. For the first time, this system permitted synchronous sound to be recorded on location. Sounds captured by a microphone were augmented by a mixer and recorded onto the same film negative onto which images were being registered as the film passed through the gate of a specially adapted Mitchell 35mm camera.
Notwithstanding the early use by the Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Straits, it was Germanophone anthropologists who were most active in using sound-recording technology in the early years of the discipline. However, their preferred technology was the Archiv-phonograph.
The problem with the system of recording onto wax cylinders was that it did not allow for easy reproduction. Therefore, in 1899, the Austrian Imperial Academy of Sciences commissioned a certain Fritz Hauser to develop a machine that would overcome this problem. He presented the result to the Academy in 1900 and it was considered sufficiently good to be used in the first field trials in 1901. The initial model was discovered to be very heavy and subsequently various lighter models were introduced.
Hauser’s machine was called the Archiv-Phonograph, and it engraved sounds onto a flat wax disc, known as a ‘phonogram’ rather than onto a cylinder. From this wax disc, a negative copy, known as a ‘phonotype’ would be made in copper. This was then coated with nickel and used to produce one or more further wax positives for storage. This archival disk was known as an ‘archivplatte’
This technology was not dissimilar to that which had been developed some years before by the Berliner Gramophone company, though there was an important technical difference in the precise means by which the sounds were recorded onto the discs. The Archiv-phonograph used the so-called ‘hill-and-dale’ vertical system of indentation that had been devised by Edison for use with his cylinders, whereas the Berliner phonographs worked on a horizontal principle.
The Archiv-Phonograph was used by Rudolf Pöch during his 1904-1906 expedition to New Guinea, as in the photograph above. He also used it during his 1908-09 expedition to southern Africa. It is clearly visible in his celebrated film, A Bushman Speaks Into a Phonograph, which is viewable here.
The first viable device for recording on a magnetised strip of wire was developed by the Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen as early as 1896. However, in the absence of suitable systems of amplification, it could not compete commercially with gramophone recording technology until the 1930s, when the British company, Marconi developed a steel tape recorder for the BBC.
Steel tape had the advantage over competing systems that it could used more than once. However, it was not only heavy and awkward to handle, but editing was problematic since any joins had to be soldered or welded together and heating the tape up in doing so meant that the recording was lost in the tape immediately adjacent to the edit point.
In the course of the 1930s and 1940s, steel tape and wire technology would be replaced by recorders that used the much more flexible and easily editable acetate tape. However, wire recorders were still in use in the early 1950s both in the BBC and among ethnographic film-makers: in 1953, Heinz Förthmann and Darcy Ribeiro are reported to have taken a Pierce Wire Recorder with them when filming a funeral among the Bororo of the Mato Grosso, Brazil.
The technology for the first prototype audio magnetic tape recorders was developed in Germany in the 1930s, but due to the dislocation caused by the Second World War, it did not become fully viable both technically and commercially until the late 1940s.
Among the first ethnographic film-makers to use a portable audio tape recorder in the field was Roger Rosfelder, who recorded the sound for the films that he and Jean Rouch made in West Africa in 1951. The model that they used was the Acemaphone, developed in Paris by the Sgubbi company. It weighed around 30 kgs and had a clockwork spring motor which was wound up with handle in the front of the machine (visible pointing at Rosfelder’s chest in the image above).
In 1951, Stefan Kudelski (1929-2013), a Polish engineer whose family had taken refuge in Switzerland during the Second World War, patented the Nagra I, a portable tape recorder that was very much smaller and at 5 kgs, very much lighter than the Sgubbi. One of the first to use this model for ethnographic film purposes was Henri Brandt, who took one with him to Niger to shoot his film, Nomades du soleil in 1953-54.
Kudelski would develop this model considerably, eventually producing, in 1958, the Nagra III, the only slightly heavier battery-driven model used by Jean Rouch and his colleagues in the shooting of Chronicle of a Summer (1961), the first ethnographic film to make extensive use of a portable synchronous sound system.
The early history of commercial wax-cylinder phonograph production is made up of a confused panorama of competing patents, multiple company take-overs. bankruptcies and a profusion of different machines. However, in the field of cylinder-based phonographs, there were two main players: a series of companies seeking to take advantage of a system first devised by Thomas Edison in 1877, and another series of companies with their roots in a slightly different invention patented in 1886 and initially known as the Graphophone.
Although they must have been sufficiently different to have been assigned two different patents, both systems worked on the same general principle, i.e. they made recordings onto a wax-coated cylinder by means of a diaphragm that in responding to airborne sounds moved a stylus which then cut indentations into the cylinder.
By the mid-1890s, the name of the company marketing the Graphophone was the Columbia Phonograph Company. Meanwhile Edison, having been distracted for some years by other projects (including the invention of a moving image camera and the incandescent light bulb), finally took charge of the commercialisation of his own invention and set up the National Phonograph Company, launching two new models in 1898, the Edison ‘Standard’ and the Edison ‘Home’.
In that same year, 1898 the Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Straits, led by Alfred Haddon, took two wax cylinder phonographs, an Edison Home and a Columbia Bijou, and used them to record music on Murray Island (today Mer). The phonographs were operated by Charles Myers who was a medical doctor by training but also an accomplished musician. A selection of his recordings are available in the British Library’s Ethnographic Wax Cylinder collection here under the heading ‘Australia’.
Although they would not have been in synch, Haddon and Myers are known to have given a simultaneous presentation of Myers’ sound recordings with Haddon’s film material and photographs to the Royal Geographical Society in London in May 1900.
The following year, Baldwin Spencer took a wax cylinder phonograph on his famous expedition with Frank Gillen across central Australia and made around 30 recordings, some of which are available here.
By 1906, the competition from disc-based phonographs had become so great that Columbia gave up producing cylinder-based machines and started to produce discs instead. Edison followed suit in 1913 but his company continued to make the cylinders until its final collapse in 1929 as a result of the Stock Market crash.
Ethnographic film-makers appear to have gone on using cylinder-based phonographs long after they had lost their commercial pre-eminence, possibly because as recording machines, they were more portable and easier to operate than machines that cut onto a disc.
At least as remembered by his daughter Franziska, Franz Boas was still recording onto wax cylinders when he went to shoot a series of short films of Kwakwaka’wakw dance in British Columbia in 1930, though these cylinders are probably now lost (see Ruby 1980 reference below)
Text : Ruby 1980. Read more on the complicated history of the Edison phonograph here
A further consequence of the fact that transfers from film to video are often made at an incorrect speed is that duration values can also be misleading.
For example, if a film shot at 16fps and lasting, say, for 12 minutes is transferred to video at 24fps, then on playback, the video version will last for only 8 minutes.
Although the playback speed of video is relatively fixed at 24 or 25fps, depending on the region of the world, for reasons explained here, it is not possible to be so sure of the frame rate at which the film passed through the camera in early cinema, particularly if they were hand-cranked.
However, 16-18fps was a widely recognised norm, so as a rule-of-thumb, if one comes across a video version of a film in which the movement is obviously accelerated, it is probably appropriate to add 30% to the given duration in order to calculate the playback duration of the film in its original filmic form.
In French, there is a convenient term for this process – la remise à cadence. No such specific phrase exists in English, but in the posts on this website, we shall refer to this process as “adjustment for speed“.