Silent Movie Capital
During the early 1900s, when Chicago was the center of the motion picture industry, Donald J. Bell worked as a projectionist in theaters around northern Illinois, where he became well acquainted with the equipment used for showing movies. As his interest in films and equipment grew, a friend helped secure him permission to use the machinist tools in the powerhouse of Chicago’s Northwestern Railway, where Bell remodeled an Optoscope projector (lantern slide projector by Kodak) and later modified a Kinodrome projector (a vaudeville attraction and exhibition service – various changing topical motion picture shorts – by George K. Spoor of Essanay Studios. Bell met Albert S. Howell at the Crary Machine Works, where many of the parts for projectors were manufactured.
Bell & Howell
Howell was born in Michigan and traveled to Chicago to work in a machine shop that built and repaired motion picture projectors. In 1906 he applied for his first patent, a device that improved framing for 35mm Kinodrome motion picture projectors. With Bell’s experience as a movie projectionist, contacts in the movie industry, and ready cash, and Howell’s inventive genius and mechanical aptitude, the two men decided to start their own business. Incorporated with a capitalization of $5,000 in February 1907, Bell & Howell Company entered the business of manufacturing, jobbing, leasing, and repairing machines.
During its first year of business, over 50 percent of the company’s business involved repairing movie equipment made by other manufacturers. What made the company famous, however, was its development of equipment that addressed the two most important problems plaguing the movie industry at the time: flickering and standardization. Flickering in the early movies was due to the effects of hand-cranked film, which made the speed erratic. Standardization was needed as divergences in film width during these years made it nearly impossible to show the same film in any two cities within the United States.
By 1908, Bell & Howell refined the Kinodrome projector, the film perforator, and the camera and continuous printer, all for the 35mm film width. With the development of this complete system, and the company’s refusal to either manufacture or service products of any other size than the 35mm width, Bell & Howell forced film standardization within the motion picture industry.
Bell & Howell
In 1910, the company made a cinematograph camera entirely of wood and leather. When Bell and Howell learned that their camera had been damaged by termites and mildew during an exploration trip in Africa by husband and wife filmmakers Martin and Osa Johnson, they designed the first all metal camera. Introduced in 1912, the design 2709 soon garnered the reputation as “the most precision film mechanism ever made” and was produced for 46 continuous years. In 1914, Bell and Howell decided to permanently locate its offices on Larchmont Avenue in Chicago. Following the relocation of the motion picture industry from Chicago to Hollywood, Bell & Howell’s first movie camera was used in Southern California in 1912. By 1919, nearly 100 percent of the equipment used to make movies in Hollywood was manufactured by Bell & Howell. The first 2709 camera went to Chicago’s Essanay in 1912, the third to the New York Motion Picture Co. in the fall of 1912. Eastman seems to have acquired Bell & Howell perforators from 1910 on.
Its unique features included:
The first motion picture camera system to be built with a body machined from cast aluminum.
The first to have a rack over system that allowed for precise viewing and for critical focus.
The first with a four lens turret
The first to have register pins that held the film completely steady and in a precise position.
It had 400 ft twin compartment magazines and later 1,000ft. The film movement was quite different to any that had been before; a “shuttle gate” clamped on the film and lifted it forward, depositing its perforations on fixed register pins for each advance of a frame. The fixed pin movement was used by Walt Disney in camera #50 to shoot the Technicolor feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarf. The design was so good that the basic camera body remained in factory production unaltered until 1957.
Charlie Chaplin at his hand-cranked Bell and Howell model 2709 (serial number 227) camera which he purchased in 1918 for about $2,000
In the silent era, cameras were hand cranked by choice rather than necessity. The Bell & Howell had a motorized crank, but few chose to use it. Hand cranking allowed cameramen to slow down or speed up the action. They came to know instinctively whether audiences would, for instance, be bored because the action was moving too slowly or not take a scene seriously if it moved too fast. With the advent of sound synchronization, however, motorized film became necessary in order to standardize shooting speed.
Charlie Chaplin on location for “The Gold Rush” (1925) with B&H 2709 cameras.
In spite of its obvious superiority, the 2909 all metal Bell & Howell took a relatively long time to make any impact on American production. Essanay again bought the first one, but sales were minimal. Indeed, 1912 seems to have been the first year that Bell & Howell sold any appreciable number of cameras, leading some recent historians to date the invention of the camera in that year. After 1912, sales increased slowly. By 1915, The Static Club Bulletin reported that ‘Bell & Howells are getting common as Kodaks. Soon lnce bought them for his Santa Monica studio, and American followed suit. Harry Perry recalled that Lasky bought its first Bell & Howells in 1919: ‘Two of them were around the studio for a year before anyone would touch them. We preferred the old Pathes’; but by 1927, ‘The Lasky Studios had no Mitchell cameras. We relied upon Bell & Howells and Akeleys.’ 22 According to W. Wallace Clendenin, 1920 saw the studios almost 100% Bell & Howell equipped; in that year the company sold 142 cameras
In the midst of the company’s success, however, internal problems began to emerge. While Howell supervised production, Bell acted as a company salesperson, a job that required many long trips. In order to meet the needs of a growing business during his absences, Bell hired Joseph McNabb as both bookkeeper and general manager in 1916. When Bell returned from one of his trips, he discovered that McNabb had made drastic changes in the operation of the company. While confronting McNabb, Bell accused Howell of acting as McNabb’s accomplice. Bell gave them their last paychecks and fired them.
A Bell & Howell 2709B, serial number 653, was built in mid-1923 and filmed two of the greatest, most famous, and successful of all of the silent films, Ben-Hur and The Big Parade in 1925.
The following day, McNabb and Howell returned to the office and offered to purchase Bell’s holdings in the company. The purchase of Bell’s interests in Bell & Howell amounted to $183,895. Having contributed an initial investment of $3,500 a little over ten years earlier, Bell was satisfied with the purchase price. Bell moved first to New York and then to California and was never again associated with the company except in name.
Bell and Howell had expanded into the amateur movie market in 1919 when the company began developing 17.5mm equipment. In 1921 McNabb and Howell were invited to Rochester, New York, by George Eastman of Eastman Kodak to observe experiments using l6mm reversal material. McNabb and Howell were impressed with the results and redesigned all the company’s 17.5mm equipment to use the 16mm film. In 1923 Bell and Howell manufactured the first spring-driven l6mm camera, beating Eastman Kodak by two years. The demand for this camera was so great that, even at a price of $175, it was on back order until 1930.
Bell & Howell Patent No. 1,038,586
Publication date Sep 17, 1912
Filing date Jul 26, 1912
Priority date Jul 26, 1912
From Moving Picture News, October 5, 1912
Patent No. 1,038,586, Albert S. Howell, of Chicago, III, assignor to Bell & Howell Co., a corporation of Illinois, is for a motion picture machine, but relates particularly to the film feeding mechanism proper, the object being the provision of a simple and effective mechanism for feeding the film intermittent, or step by step, which shall have a high degree of accuracy so that the film will be moved exactly the required distance each time. Through the medium of a vibratory flexible plate the perforated film is made to engage alternately with fixed pins which effectually prevent any movement or slipping between the feed strokes or steps, and with reciprocating pins which forward the film. Hence the main claim is for film feed mechanism comprising a film guide way, means for shifting said guide way transversely to its direction, reciprocating pins adapted to extend into said guide way and engage the film therein in one position of said guide way, and fixed pins adapted to extend into said guide way and engage said film in the other position.
Also, specifically a flexible fllm guide way and means for flexing said guide way to bring it into and out of the path of the reciprocating pins. The adjoining figure represents an elevation of one side of a moving picture camera partially in section, in which the invention is embodied, showing the manner of actuating the feeding mechanism.
Bell & Howell Company Factory
1803 W. Larchmont Ave.; SW corner of Larchmont and Ravenswood
Additions, 1925-27 – West and East Elevations. Sheet #2. Microfilm roll #27a, frame #3-16.