Lights, Camera, ‘Cuse!

Photo by Jordan Harmon

“John M. Wall, 82, Inventor Of Movie Sound Film Is Dead.”  That’s how the headline read in the July 24th, 1963 edition of The Post-Standard.

Motion Picture Photography: A History, 1891-1960

Syracuse resident John Wall invented the first camera that combined film and sound simultaneously, and he did so at his company headquarters, formally located at 936 North Clinton Street. This story was inspired by Jordan Harmon, Creative Technology Director at Zoey Advertising, who invited me to visit and learn about the historic building his agency calls home.

When you approach the building, you notice the words J.M. Wall Machine Co. Inc. are carved into the stone above the entrance that leads to the advertising agency.

Here at 936 North Clinton Street, Wall built his cameras that developed a way to record sound on movie film, changing the film industry forever. The first statement on the patent awarded to Wall in December 1931 states, “The main object of the invention is to provide an intermittent feed mechanism which is adapted to operate at very high speed which is necessary in the feeding of the film in a motion picture camera during the taking of “ultra speed” pictures”.

Wall’s camera was the continuation of previous work, including that of Theodore Willard Case of Auburn, New York.  Small and easily transported, Wall’s invention quickly became widely used by many news organizations, government agencies and those in the film industry, including Warner Brothers. On September 2nd, 1945, it was his camera that recorded the official surrender of the Japanese, ending World War II aboard the USS Missouri.

Wall’s monumental invention also helped paved the way for television production and it was here in this very building that Syracuse produced its first television broadcast on December 1st, 1948 as noted in the book, Syracuse Television. Operating as the WHEN-TV channel, announcer William Bohen chatted with his guest, harpist Melville Clark, about his recent visit with England’s Princess Elizabeth. Clark played a few tunes on his harp and the station was born, later becoming WTVH-TV.

Religious programming played an integral role in the early days of WHEN-TV. The station was the first in the nation to televise an entire Roman Catholic mass. It’s interesting to note that the owner of Zoey Advertising is Steve Roberts, whose grandfather, Rev. Charles Schmitz, had a religious program that broadcasted out of the same building his business calls home, a fact he didn’t find out until just recently.

824 Livingston Avenue

John M. Wall would go on to lose much of the money he made from his invention on a failed electric shaver he developed late in his life before retiring to his home at 824 Livingston Avenue in 1958. He would pass away five years later, but his contribution to both film and television live on, and so does his name above the entrance to 936 North Clinton Street.

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David is a nonprofit manager living in the Eastwood neighborhood of Syracuse. He began telling historical tales on his Instagram account, @SyracuseHistory in 2013 and co-founded in the fall of 2016.