AT&T deserves at least some credit for the invention of talkies. The Warner Brothers purchased their pioneering Vitaphone sound movie technology from Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1925. Earlier that year, Western Electric and AT&T had created Bell Telephone Laboratories as a jointly owned but separate entity. The name Vitaphone highlights sound movies’ connection to the telephone. So too did advertisements. Warner Brothers’ billboards promoting their path-breaking sound picture Don Juan (1926) declared, “Warner Bros. / by arrangement with / Western Electric Co. and / Bell Telephone Laboratories presents / VITAPHONE.”
Both telephones and talkies exemplified electricity’s progressive promise. A Warner Brothers flier urging vaudeville exhibitors to switch to sound movies shows a naked, muscular, laurel-crowned male. The flier uses that classical image to represent intellectual progress. While the ruling Greek god Zeus used thunderbolts to cow his subjects, the classical figure on this flier prominently direct two lightening bolts to Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone product. Electricity was a potent symbol of progress in the 1920s and 1930s:
anything associated with electricity tended to generate awe and respect, as it combined intellectual complexity, the promise of a better future, and the risk of mishandling.[*]
Not surprisingly, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which was formed in 1934, has a seal prominently featuring electricity. Promoting more awe-inspiring telephone industry innovation will make for a more publicly beneficial communications industry.
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[*] Crafton, Donald (1997) The talkies: American cinema’s transition to sound, 1926-1931. History of the American cinema, v. 4 (New York: Scribner) p. 21.