Joseph Tykociner and the "Talking Film"

Reproduced with permission from the University of Illinois Archives Blog (

When Joseph Tykosinki-Tykociner arrived at the University of Illinois in 1921, little did the itinerant electrical engineer know that his dream of inventing sound motion pictures would reach fruition less than a year later. Tykociner, like many enterprising inventors of the early 20th century, developed his ideas during an era in which the academic discipline of engineering became firmly established—the creation of which bridged the gap between the roles of the “inventor” and the “scientist.” Indeed, as a discipline, electrical engineering was only a few decades old. Founded in 1891, the Department of Electrical Engineering (now the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering) at the University of Illinois was initially a unit within the Department of Physics. President Andrew S. Draper separated the two departments in 1895, wishing to develop electrical engineering into a formidable department that could respond to increasing demands for individuals trained in the “principles of electricity, as it applied in the design, production, and operation of such electrical equipment as telephone and telegraph apparatus, power plants, and city and industrial systems.”[1]

By 1903, the department had already begun to rapidly outgrow its allocation of space and resources. Morgan Brooks, Professor of Electrical Engineering, urgently wrote to Dean Nathan C. Ricker that “enrollment is increasing by leaps and bounds,” [2] noting the need for more equipment, instructors, and laboratory and teaching space. Sensing that the department’s exponential growth would continue, Morgan warned Ricker, “if we fail to have typical modern apparatus in our laboratory we must lose prestige as compared with those colleges that have money to spend in this way. I do not advocate buying every machine that is brought out; but when a machine (as our arc lighting dynamos) have been scrapped by all modern stations, it is necessary to know this fact, and to keep the apparatus for historical illustration, instead of for class demonstration.”[3] University administrators and faculty understood the need to efficiently educate students and prepare them to enter the workforce, while at the same time recognizing that if the electrical engineering curriculum at Illinois was to be competitive with its contemporaries, it needed to develop an innovative research program that was conscious of its history. In a sense, Tykociner’s arrival as the first research professor might be seen as heralding a shift in the department’s focus from being solely a technical program to one that became increasingly oriented toward research and the professionalization of innovation.

Born in Poland in 1877, Tykociner rejected his family’s wishes that he become a grain broker like his father, deciding instead to devote his life to designing a method for electrically recording sound. First conceiving of the idea of the photographic recording of sound in the 1890s, Tykociner followed in the footsteps of Thomas Edison and other inventors at the end of the 19th century who envisioned an era in which “talkies” breathed life—or sound—into silent film cinema, thus radically transforming the public’s motion picture experience. In pursuit of the latter, he immigrated to the United States at the age of 18 and worked for several electrical companies before returning to Europe in 1897 to pursue a formal education. The impressionable and inquisitive Tykociner, however, became interested in improving Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph as well as wireless radio transmission, compelling him to momentarily set aside his research on sound motion picture.[4] In 1902, he was offered a position at Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company in England, though left after two years to continue conducting research on radio communication for the Telefunken Wireless Telegraph Company in Berlin. The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) presented Tykociner with an opportunity to implement his research by equipping the entire Russian naval fleet with wireless radio.[5]

It was not until Tykociner returned to the United States in 1920 that he was able to once again experiment and research ways of recording sound on film. Tykociner briefly worked for the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before receiving an offer from Professor Ellery B. Paine, head of Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois, for a position as a research professor. Paine’s offer, however, was prompted by Westinghouse Electric’s recommendation of Tykociner—a gesture the company hoped would compensate for their hire of Professor of Electrical Engineering, Trygve Jensen, who had left the university five years earlier, taking his patents with him.[6] In the fall of 1921, Tykociner arrived at the university and quickly resumed his research on recording sound on film. Using the photoelectric cell developed by his colleague, Jakob Kunz, Tykociner was able to quickly advance his research.[7] By March 1922, he had finally created his first “talkie,” which he successfully demonstrated on the 9th of June at the request of President David Kinley and the Board of Trustees.[8] The demonstration depicted Tykociner’s wife, Helena, ringing a bell and saying, “I will ring,” after which she asked the audience, “Did you hear the bell ring?” A nervous Ellery Paine was also featured in the film reciting the Gettysburg Address.[9]

While the film garnered a great deal of attention for Tykociner, as even the New York World celebrated the invention by publishing his article in which he proclaims, “no longer is there to be a silent screen,”[10] patent disputes with the university and skeptics extinguished his hopes of patenting and commercializing the invention. In the aftermath of the dispute, he wrote to his cousins, Florence and Milward Pick:

"The new art was only born. I wished to continue my work on a larger scale. This was not possible…You see the picture. Years of efforts, complete attainment of the object in view, short moments of satisfaction and appreciation, a flood of correspondence and finally full disappointment" [11].

Tykociner continued to work at the university for nearly 25 years, during which he pioneered research in a number of areas, including zetetics and photoelectricity. Despite the skeptics, films featuring sound were commercialized shortly after his demonstration, and within a few years, talkies would become commonplace. Tykociner’s film was nevertheless one of the first to successfully incorporate sound, an accomplishment that few could boast. While the talking motion picture certainly served as an exclamation point of his career, even if a transient one, Tykociner’s research has had a considerable impact on the College of Engineering, the history of electrical engineering, and the possibilities of scientific research.