Detail view of the Mechau 4 projector by AEG (1930); Photo: J.K. Leopold
Detail view of the Mechau 4 projector by AEG (1930); Photo: J.K. Leopold

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Phonographic sound system on the model of Georges Mendel

One-act films dominated the early years of cinema. Documentary films or comic scenes with a length of but a few minutes were shown. In order to keep the attendance to the "cinematographic theatre" from dropping, operators worked on ever-increasing attractions. One innovation was the addition of sound, beginning in 1903.
The idea to link image and sound was not new. It can already be found some ten years earlier with Edison. The most important precursors in the introduction of sound films were Léon Gaumont in France and Oskar Messter in Germany. Soon, there were many manufacturers of the technical equipment, and almost all film producers also offered sound films. Contents were rather homogenous: dances, opera arias, variety scenes.
As evidence for the first phase of sound film, the collection stores a Mendel phonographic system from 1909. The manufacturer was George Mendel, Paris.

Nadeltonanlage System Mendel (1909)
Nadeltonanlage System Mendel, Grammophon

The apparatus consists of a Pathé projector, English model, a gramophone, an air pump for sound amplification and a synchronisation controller for adjusting the running speed of projector and gramophone. The synchronisation controller compares the electrically transmitted speed of the gramophone with the mechanically transmitted speed of the projector. In case of differences in speed, the voltage for the projector is regulated in order to restore synchronicity. Problems with low volume were to be solved via amplification through an additional air current created by a pump. These sound films were made using the playback technique: in the studio, the pre-recorded record would be played and actors moved to match the music. The camera, in-sync with the gramophone, filmed the images. Due to the limitations of the record as a sound carrier, only relatively short scenes were possible as sound films. Moreover, the reproduction quality could not always be guaranteed.
Often after a film tear, some frames would be missing, yet the sound continued. As a consequence, synchronous runs could only be achieved imperfectly. The low volume of the gramophone only allowed the films to be shown to a relatively small audience. Thus, the system was not adequate for the emerging "cinema palaces". Due to problems with quality, which were often intensified by unprofessional operation, and the relatively high amount of work necessary to make such sound films, this technique was not able to hold its ground after 1913. Only the invention of the amplification tube and the loudspeaker 15 years later made the sound film possible.
It is highly likely that Filmmuseum Potsdam’s version of the phonographic sound system on the model of G. Mendel only survived because it was never sold. This device was given to the museum by the former State Film Archive of the GDR, along with several other objects from the former Berlin-based company Ariel Schimmel.
On inspecting and registering the objects, it became clear that the original transport case for the device was also present. Various spare parts for a number of cinematic devices as well as a large number of Schimmel company signs were found in this case, all from before 1920.
Very little is known about the Schimmel company. It was founded in 1894. On 2 November 1906 and on 30 January 1907, the company Ariel Schimmel, Berlin, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Str. 18a, applied for trademark protection for the brand name A.S.B. as well as the name Theatrograph. A projector with this name can be found in the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek. A store was later opened at Chausseestr. 25; from 1 October 1914 onwards, it was located at Burgstrasse 28. Until at least 1940, a shop existed at Krausnikstr. 19. Corresponding sales catalogues from the Schimmel company can be found in the collection of writings on film technology. The company’s partial estate, which is stored at the Bundesarchiv, was indexed in a preliminary finding aid several years ago.