Theodore Case

Theodore Willard Case (December 12, 1888 May 13, 1944) was an American chemist, physicist, and inventor known for the invention of the Movietone's sound-on-film system.

Theodore Case
Theodore Willard Case

(1888-12-12)December 12, 1888
DiedMay 13, 1944(1944-05-13) (aged 55)
Auburn, New York, U.S.
Resting placeFort Hill Cemetery
EducationSt. John's Northwestern Military Academy
St. Paul's School
Alma materYale University
Harvard University
OccupationPhysicist, inventor
Years active19161941
Alice Gertrude Eldred
(m. 1918; his death 1944)

Early life and education

Case was born in Auburn, New York into a prominent family. Generations of the Cases lived on Genesee Street in Auburn, which eventually became the residence of Theodore Case's family. He attended St. John's Northwestern Military Academy and St. Paul's School before studying physics at Yale and Harvard University.

On November 26, 1918, Case married Alice Gertrude Eldred. The couple would go on to have four children.[1]


Early years

While at Yale, Case became interested in telephonic currents that derived from modulating light. In 1916, he opened Case Research Lab in Auburn where he studied materials that could be altered by light. His studies led to the development of the Thalofide (thallium oxysulfide) Cell, a light-sensitive vacuum tube from 1916 to 1918. The Thalofide Cell was originally used by the United States Navy in a top secret infrared signaling system developed at the Case Lab.[2][3]

Work in sound-on-film

Case began working on his sound-on-film process in 1921. The inventions of the Case Research Lab from 1916 to 1926 were the creation of Case and Earl I. Sponable, who worked with Case at the lab until he went with Case to Fox Film Corporation in 1926. The ship-to-ship signaling system was first tested in 1917 off the shores of New Jersey. Attending the test was Thomas Edison, contracted by the Navy to evaluate new technologies. A complete success, the signaling system was used by the Navy for a number of years. He worked with other people, including Lee De Forest, to create a sound-on-film process similar to the sound film systems used today.

Titles filmed by Case in his process, all made at the Case Studios in Auburn, New York, include Miss Manila Martin and Her Pet Squirrel (1921), Gus Visser and His Singing Duck (1925), Bird in a Cage (1923), Gallagher and Shean (1925), Madame Fifi (1925), and Chinese Variety Performer with a Ukulele (1925). Gus Visser and His Singing Duck was nominated to the National Film Registry in 2002.

There were hundreds of more test films made at the Case Lab that were lost in a fire in the 1950s. The Case Research Lab is now a museum open to the public. Adjacent to the lab is the estate's carriage house where sound-film tests were made on its second floor. That sound studio is also open to the public and its collections include a seven-foot square balsawood box, known as a "blimp," that housed the camera and operator during filming. The original amplifiers and many more items used in the development of sound film at the Case Research Lab are also on display, as well as an early Wall camera used by Movietone News.

Case and DeForest

From 1921 to 1924, Case provided Lee De Forest, inventor of the audion tube, many inventions from his lab that made DeForest's Phonofilm sound-on-film process workable, though DeForest had been granted general patents in 1919. To develop a light for exposing a soundtrack to film, the Case Lab converted an old silent-film projector into a recording device. With it, the AEO light was created, which was mass-produced for use in all Movietone News cameras from 1928 to 1939, and in recording sound in all Fox feature films from 1928-1931. Movietone News used a single-system to record the sound and image simultaneously in a camera, while feature film production moved to a system that recorded sound on a separate machine that was essentially a sound camera with the lenses and picture shutter missing. It was an optical tape recorder that used film rather than tape and was mechanically interlocked with the picture camera.

On April 15, 1923, DeForest presented eighteen short films made in the Phonofilm process at the Rivoli Theater in New York City. The printed program for this presentation gives credit to the "DeForest-Case Patents". However, shortly after DeForest filed a lawsuit in June 1923 against Freeman Harrison Owens, another inventor who had worked with DeForest on sound-on-film systems, Case and DeForest had a falling-out.

The dispute between Case and DeForest was due to Case not being properly credited for his lab's contributions to Phonofilms. Case attended the April 1923 presentation of Phonofilm and was never mentioned during that presentation. By this time, DeForest had already been repeatedly warned by Case to present the truth of the inventions, to no avail. The films shown at the Phonofilm presentation used the Case Research Lab AEO Light for recording sound, were filmed with a camera designed by the Case Lab, and used the Case Lab's Thallofide Cell for reproducing the sound. In September 1925, Case stopped providing DeForest with his lab's inventions, effectively putting DeForest out of the sound film business, but not out of the "claiming to have invented sound film" business.

The Case Research Lab then set about to perfect the system of sound film they had provided DeForest, now that DeForest was no longer able to inhibit their development of this new technology. One of the first things Case did was to change the location of the sound head on a sound-film projector from being above the picture head (as had been the Phonofilm standard) to below the picture head. According to Sponable,[4] there were three reasons for this change: to accommodate a large flywheel in the soundhead, to simplify the design of the printer (which printed the picture and soundtrack in two separate passes) and to prevent films made to the Phonofilm standard being played on Case equipment. Case chose a separation of 20 frames between the sound and the picture frame to which it relates, this standard was adopted by all subsequent sound-on-film systems and still applies to this day.

Movietone and William Fox

On July 23, 1926, William Fox of Fox Film Corporation bought Case's patents relating to the sound-on-film process and formed the Fox-Case Corporation. From 1926 to 1927, Case worked with Fox's technicians to develop the Fox Movietone process. Fox had also previously purchased the rights to the sound film patents of Freeman Owens, who had developed a sound movie camera as early as 1921 and coined the term "Movietone", and the U.S. rights to the German Tri-Ergon sound-on-film process.


On May 13, 1944, Case died of pneumonia at the age of 55.[5][6] He is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.[7]


After Case's death, his summer home, Casowasco, was sold to The Methodist Church by Case's widow, Gertrude, for a price of $20,000. Gertrude added 2 stipulations to the sale; the church keep the name 'Casowasco' as a tribute to the Case family history, and the property be used to serve the high purpose of God. This closed the history in Cayuga County of one of its founding families. The property now functions as a year-round retreat and conference center, as well as a Christian summer camp.

With the profits earned from his sale of the Case Research Lab's invention of sound film to William Fox, Case built a 60-room home in Auburn which was, and remains, the largest house in the city. The Case mansion on South Street had been used as a mental health facility.[8] At the end of 2011, the Unity House residence program left the mansion. At a meeting in 2016, the First Presbyterian Church (current owners of the property) approved plans to restructure the facility into a retreat center, which it continues to function as today.

The local library, known as Case Memorial-Seymour Library, still carries the family name and is housed in a building built from Case's donations. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.[9] In 1936, Case donated the Genesee Street property to a local group, forming an art and history museum for Cayuga County; the Cayuga Museum of History and Art. Once operations of the Case Research Lab ceased in 1941, the lab building and contents were donated to the Cayuga Museum. In the 1990s the Case Research Lab was restored to its original condition, with an exhibit highlighting the work of Case and the Case Research Lab. The Cayuga Museum, also known as the Dr. Sylvester Willard Mansion, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.[9]

In 2011, Pequod Productions began producing a documentary about Case's life and work entitled Talkies: The Invention of Theodore W. Case. The film is directed by Al Steigerwald.[10]

See also


  1. "SMPE Honor Roll Awards". Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. 48 (5): 437. 1947. doi:10.5594/J12696.
  2. Fielding, Raymond (1967). A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television: An Anthology from the Pages of "The Journal of the Society of Motion Pictures and Television". University of California Press. p. 179. ISBN 0-520-03981-5.
  3. Przybylek, Stephanie (1999). Breaking the Silence on Film: The History of the Case Research Lab. Auburn, NY: The Cayuga Museum. pp. 20–21. ISBN 0-9673366-1-9.
  4. Theodore Case Labs Historic Site in Auburn, New York.
  5. Electronics World. Ziff-Davis. 21: 112. 1944. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  6. Adams, Mike (2012). Lee de Forest: King of Radio, Television, and Film. Springer. p. 358. ISBN 978-1-461-40417-0.
  7. Rosell, Lydia J. (2001). Auburn's Fort Hill Cemetery. Arcadia Publishing. p. 44. ISBN 0-738-50957-4.
  8. Rosell 2001 p.45
  9. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 13, 2009.
  10. "Former Auburnian shoots Hollywood Documentary on Theodore Case". Archived from the original on April 11, 2013. Retrieved March 5, 2013.

Now We're Talking ... The Story of Theodore Willard Case and Sound on Film

Authors: Antonia Colella and Luke Colella. Now We're Talking ... The Story of Theodore Willard Case and Sound on Film

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