Tuesday, 6 April 2010

archive cineradiography

At BAAP last week there was a showing of “Highlights from the UCL Phonetics Film Collection”. As Michael Ashby explained, when the UCL Department of Phonetics moved out of 21 Gordon Square a few years ago he discovered that they had accumulated about 12,000 feet of movie film spanning the years from the early 1920s to the 1970s. Much of this footage is rare or even unique. He is now in the process of researching and restoring the material, as finances allow.
Several of the clips he showed us were x-ray sound films of short stretches of speech, taken during the window of time between the technical advances that made it possible to carry out cineradiography and the realization that exposure to the high doses of radiation involved carried serious health risks for the person being filmed.

Films made by Ken Stevens at Haskins are relatively well known (you can watch one on YouTube here).

But I was unaware of the film made by Paul Menzerath and Robert Janker in Bonn and shown at the second International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in London in 1935. This was the first x-ray sound film and, Michael thinks, probably the first to achieve slow motion. There is one other copy known to be extant. You can watch it here (where however the date is wrongly given as 1937 and Menzerath is not mentioned). As the speaker says, “besonderes Interesse verdient vor allem die Wiedergabe der Sprache” [most of all, the reproduction of speech is of particular interest].


  1. I watched the clip; it's a nice historical document. The speaker seems to have an accent from around the Bonn area.

  2. We've come a long way since then. Those first X-ray motion films were made under continuous radiation of considerable intensity. Only low frame rates were possible, owing to the low sensitivity of the film emulsions that were available then. The spectral quality of the radiation usually meant it was difficult to distinguish between soft tissue (lips, tongue etc) and bone (especially the mandible). In the 1970s, when I did my films, low intensity radiation was released in millisecond flashes once in each film frame (the estimated total dose was about the same as a standard dental examination at that time). We had 75 frames (images) per second, and higher frequency radiation so that soft tissue was not obscured by bone. I must confess I don't know what is available today, the radiologists I collaborated with are almost certainly retired too now. In any case, X-ray exposure has to be clinically motivated nowadays, as John mentioned.

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