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The Simplex projector had been around almost since the beginning of projected films. Starting in 1908, Edwin S. Porter and two projectionists / engineers friends Francis B. Cannock and Mike Berkowitz, began designing what was to become the Simplex in a back room of O'Keefe's Saloon at 42nd and Vanderbilt in NYC.

The Simplex projector introduced in 1909 - 1910 was an immediate hit, selling thousands upon thousands each year all over the world. Part of its popularity revolves around its practical features, which were constantly added to and refined all through the silent period. Features which were not available (if ever) on other projectors, such as an intermittent unit which could be easily changed out if needed, changeable aperture plates, a framing device (allowing the picture to be framed properly if threaded incorrectly), variable speed controls, just to name a few.

Noted, below is an article on the Museum’s Simplex as well as more extensive article and links on the historical development of theatrical projectors and other technical aspects as related to projectors.

A Simplex Projector Mid- 1930's 
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Specifics of the Simplex Projector on exhibit in the Museum

Implex Projector in MuseumThe Simplex on exhibit in the Museum was donated by Chuck Scimeca to the museum in October 2016. As Mr. Scimeca indicated in his explanation of the projector during the installation, “the projector in itself represents a history of Simplex technology from early inception as a projector during the silent era, (1908 – 1930) including varied technology updates, some short lived. One of most important the development of sound.

Historical Note: The creation of the first widely distributed commercial projector, the Simplex was a combination of many talents. This includes, Edward S. Porter, Francis B. Cannock, and Mike Berkowitz.

Porter, who was responsible for several major developments in motion pictures. best known today perhaps as the creator of film editing with "The Life of an American Fireman" (1902) and for his immensely successful "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) which gave us the screen's first cowboy star, G.M. "Bronco Billy" Anderson.

Francis B. Cannock, and Mike Berkowitz who had been involved previously with early development and manufacture of projectors, met regularly designing what would become the first Simplex projector in the back room of O'Keefe's Saloon at 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue in New York City. The first sketches being done on the back of menu cards.

Porter provided the money for a small machine shop, the Multi-Speed Shutter Company, to develop the first prototypes. The patents were in Porter's name with a half interest assigned to Cannock. Porter enlisted the financial support of James A. Stillman of the National City Bank who poured $80,000 into the new business.

The first Simplex came off the production line in 1909 from the Precision Machine Company which was founded to manufacture the Simplex. The year, 1910, is considered, the first year of full production of the Regular Simplex.

Simplex Projector HeadThe museum’s Simplex has four major parts: Projector Head, Lamp House, Stand and Lower Magazine. The Scimeca projector head represents Simplex projectors manufactured in the 1917 – 1926 period. (After 1926, Simplex introduced the Super Simplex). These projector heads were prevalent in theaters during the silent through early sound era.

Simplex Projector LamphouseThe lamp house, the largest part, and in this case manufactured by
Peerless was the Magnarc Lamphouse consisting of a large housing, parabolic mirror and lit by a welding rod type device that created high illumination. The arc was run by DC current created by an AC/DC converter. The “arc” was so bright that it could blind you. A tinted viewing window provided the operator with an inspection port.

Simplex Projector BaseThe Western Electric base, one of a number of varied bases offered 0n projectors during the  1917 – 1928 period, Very heavy.

Finally the Lower magazine, held 2000 feet of nitrate film (20 Minutes of film) in sealed magazines. Until 35MM safety film was developed in 1949 by Eastman Kodak, commercial nitrate film was subject to very careful handling and storage it was easily combustible.  A damper between the lamphouse and the projector head was opened when operating the projector to direct the light through the film.

A final part of the projector was the addition in the early 1920s of sound on disc and this projector most probably used the Western Electric Vitaphone system.

VitaphoneHistorical note:  The primary steps in the commercialization of sound cinema were taken in the mid- to late 1920s. At first, the sound films which included synchronized dialogue, known as "talking pictures", or "talkies", were exclusively shorts. The earliest feature-length movies with recorded sound included only music and effects. The first feature film originally presented as a talkie was The Jazz Singer, released in October 1927. A major hit, it was made with Western Electric’s, Vitaphone, which was at the time the leading brand of sound-on-disc technology. Sound-on-film, however, would soon become the standard for talking pictures. In 1919, American inventor Lee De Forest was awarded several patents that would lead to the first optical sound-on-film technology with commercial application.

SoundboxIn the late 1920’s a Western Electric Soundhead was added utilizing the long in development sound-on-film technology that had been earlier developed by Lee de Forest., considered the Father of Radio. Historical Note: In 1928, Western Electric developed a sound-on-film technology. RCA had also developed a sound-on-film technology, but in the end, the five largest studios at the time (the Big Five) chose Western Electric’s system as the standard.

Technical note: A two-channel audio signal is recorded as a pair of lines running parallel with the film's direction of travel through the projector. The lines change area (grow broader or narrower) depending on the magnitude of the signal. The projector shines light from a small lamp, called an exciter, through a perpendicular slit onto the film. The image on the small slice of exposed track modulates the intensity of the light, which is collected by a photosensitive element: a photocell, a photodiode or at later date, a CCD.

On the wall side of the projector, we have the Motor, which is housed in a protective housing to protect the operator. The flywheel, 

 Chuck Scimeca Discusses the Simplex

approximately 80 -100 pounds, kept the film moving at an even speed from the upper magazine to the lower. When the 2000 feet of film ended, the operator would engage a second projector “changeover” to continue the film. The motor was 110 V, as compared to the needs of the lamp which required an AC to DC converter that operated nearby.  While running, the operator would regularly oil the varied parts on the projector. Later, advanced projectors incorporated automatic oilers.

The rear of the projector holds the power box and has an access door to the parabolic mirror for servicing.


Additional Pictures:



Picture # 1. Two Simplex projectors with the correct routing of the heavy gauged "white wiring" and a holder on the side for the arc rods.
Picture #2. Simplex projector with the flume going up through the ceiling.
Picture #3. Abandoned Riverside Mental Hospital that that housed these projectors.
Picture # 4. Patent Filing.

Magnarc circa 1940s Magnarc Lamp House 72 DPI  
Magnarc Circa 1940s 2 Simplex Lamp House 72 dpi
 Theater Riverside Mental Hospital  Magnarc 1937 patent


Excellent review of the early sound on film machines of Western Electric


A Western Electric Sound System Picture  (1929)
An instructional film 

A real historical treat: an educational/promotional film directed by Max Fleischer & F. Lyle Goldman to explain sound film, right from the era in which this new feat was introduced.

When sound came to the early silent films, there were a number of different sound reproduction systems in competition with each other. Western Electric had developed a ‘sound-on-film’ process -- where the sound was printed directly onto the film (and therefore synchronized) as opposed to being on a separate disc.

The two stars of this film “Talkie” and “Mutie” are two film strips that explain how sound on moving pictures work.  Walter Van Brunt (AKA Walter Scanlon) voiced Mutie and  Billy Murray voiced Talkie. 

The film starts with a sound film role changing into a cartoon figure. The sound film takes a silent film to a professor, who explains how sound film works. The film is most interesting, for it clearly shows the tremendous amount of changes that had to be made to make sound film work.

For example, in live action films the camera was now placed inside a box to prevent the primitive sound recording microphone from catching up the sound of the camera itself. And theaters, too, had to invest in the change. The screen had to be porous to let the sound through produced by giant loudspeakers behind the screen.

The designs and animation of this little film is still firmly rooted in the 1920s, and the animation is remarkably stiff, especially when compared to contemporary Disney cartoons. And although the characters talk a lot, lip synchronization is only suggested, but not really there. In fact, Fleischer would mostly neglect lip synchronization way until the end of the 1930s, only using it minimally. The voice over, too, is a little bit dull and hesitating in explaining the processes, but in the end this film is too unique a document of its time not to enjoy.

Max Fleischer was one of the directors and writers, and contributed to the animation. This was in keeping with Max’s strong belief that animation was a powerful tool that could be used to explain complex ideas.




GRAUMAN"S CHINESE THEATER - Projections and Sound Systems through the Years


Links: for a unique presentation of the history of camera/film/projection form 1895 through 1900. 


Contact Info

The Museum of Western Film History
701 S. Main Street
Lone Pine, CA 93545