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Birth of Todd-AO Process 

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Brian O'Brien

A reprint of a letter written 60 years ago by Brian O’Brien. Thanks to Brian O’Brien Jr., the letter was re-discovered in 2003. What's interesting, is the date when Mike Todd met with Brian O’Brien and the date when Brian O’Brien and Mike Todd met with Walter Stewart of American Optical Company.
Date: March 2003

The Letter

Brian O'Brien (middle) on a train journey sometimes in the 1950s. Image from Walter Siegmund's collection.

April 20, 1953

Dr. Cornelis W. de Kiewiet, president
University of Rochester
15 Prince Street
Rochester, New York

Dear Dick,

On Monday, March 30th, during your absence in the South, Don Gilbert telephoned me at Southbridge, to say that he had had a call from herb Eisenhart about an announcement appearing in the Rochester papers. Apparently on the preceding Thursday, the Rochester papers carried a prominent article announcement that a new system of motion picture photography and projection had been developed by the Institute of Optics, and was to be manufactured by the American Optical Company for the motion picture industry. Apparently Eisenhart was much disturbed by this and told Dan that the Kodak people were also, since neither had had an opportunity to even learn about the system in advance. I had not seen the Rochester papers, but Don read the announcement to me. Much of it was correct, but it failed to make clear the fact that the system was developed by the American Optical Company and not by the Institute of Optics.

Since Walter Stewart and I had a date to see A. K. Chapman the coming Friday, I told Don that I would also take the opportunity to see Herb Eisenhart and the others at Baush & Lomb that same day, in order to clear up the misunderstanding which might reflect upon the University unless properly clarified. This I did, and I believe the matter is taken care of. Nevertheless, some misunderstandings might rise again, so I am outlining below the essential facts, so that you may have them available should the subject come up again. I am sending the same materiel to Ray Thompson and to Don Gilbert, for their information also.

On October 15th, 1952 I received a phone call from a Michael Todd in New York City, who wished to come to see me at Rochester that evening. I had never heard of Todd, but it seems that he is a well-known Broadway producer. When he arrived, he explained that he wished to have developed a system of motion picture photography and projection, which would give the same effect as that currently shown at the Broadway Theatre under the name of “Cinerama”. Todd explained that by using three motion picture cameras and three separate projection booths located on the floor of the theatre, motion pictures were shown upon a very large deeply curved screen, filling the end of the theatre. Although the mechanical and optical arrangements were crude and the subject matter of very indifferent quality, Todd stated that the New York audiences were peeking the theatre and were very enthusiastic about the performance. What he wanted was a system which would accomplish what “Cinerama” accomplished, but with a single camera and a single projector, and free from any obvious defects.

I explained to Todd that what he asked was very likely not possible, but that the one chance of success lay in utilizing the best of scientific and engineering talent, together with the facilities of a large optical concern. I told him I could not serve as a consultant for him because of prior heavy commitments, but recommended that he go to Bausch & Lomb, Eastman Kodak, or American Optical Company, naming them in that order. He said he did not wish to do this, but returned to New York to think it over.
Further in 70mm reading:

Todd-AO home

Todd-AO Process Time Line

Todd-AO People

Todd telephoned me a number of times in the next five weeks, asking many questions. I told him repeatedly that his only hope of success was to pout his problem in the hands of a large optical firm, each time naming the three large industries. Finally, on November 20th, he called me to say that he had been looking into the optical industry and had decided to put his problem in the hands of the American Optical Company, and asked how he should do this. I told him I was going to be in Southbridge the coming weekend, and that if he would meet me there, I would be glad to introduce him to Mr. Stewart, the President of the company. Todd seemed surprised, but agreed to do so. I believe he had had no idea of any interest on my part in American Optical Company, and I had carefully refrained from urging that he consult any particular optical firm. On Sunday afternoon, November 23rd, we met at Mr. Stewart’s office in Southbridge. Todd explained his wishes, and it was evident that he had thought through the matter very thoroughly. Mr. Stewart decided to undertake what Todd requested, if I considered it at all possible. He then explained to Todd that I had joined American Optical Company for one year while on leave of absence from the University, and asked Todd not to disclose it, since we had agreed there would be no announcement until you felt the proper time had arrived.

Only after that meeting in Southbridge did I start work on the development of a new system. I had estimated the time required at between 18 and 24 months. However, there was great pressure for speed, and since more than 100 good technical men have been at my disposal, we completed the engineering work and the optical parts of the construction in just four months.

As you know, it had been part of my plan to maintain morale at the institute of Optics at top level during my absence. It was possible to help this along by letting the principal members of the Institute of Optics staff know about the new development, and to employ several as American Optical Company Consultants, so they might feel they were contributing and receive some payment at the same time. As always, their work has been fine, and they have aided the program materially, although in no sense has this been an Institute of Optics development.

Naturally, I am anxious to secure any favorable notice for the institute, especially at this time, so some weeks in advance of any contemplated public announcement I telephoned Charles Cole to tell him that a story would be forthcoming and that I would give him full detail later. He asked a few questions, but I gave him only very sketchy outline by telephone.
Unfortunately, factors in the motion picture industry made it necessary to release the announcement on a few hours notice, and it was impossible for me to get details to Cole. The word first appeared in the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune on Wednesday morning, March 25th. Other papers picked up the story from there, embellishing it to suit their particular locality. I was amused to note that the Buffalo papers attributed the entire development to the Buffalo Plant of American Optical Company, while the Detroit Times contained and article that caused Herbert Eisenhart to think this must be a stock jobbing scheme. Actually, not one share of stocks is or have been available either in the Magna Theatre Corporation or the Todd-AO Corporation, but it is easy for people to think the worst. 

Walter Stewart and I had a very pleasant visit with Chapman, Friday morning, April 3rd, after completing our business with him, and we feel sure from what he said that he and his associates were in no way upset by the Rochester papers. In the afternoon we saw Herb Eisenhart, Tom Taylor, Carl Hallauer and Carl Bausch and gave them all facts outlined above, just as we had with Chapman. I think they were quite satisfied, and it was a pleasant meeting. Carl Bausch said that he had been perfectly certain that I would not ignore Bausch & Lomb with any Institute of Optics development, no matter what the newspapers had to say, and I believe he meant it.

It was fortunate that we had business with Mr. Chapman that morning which took us to Rochester, and it was also fortunate that Mr. Stewart was willing to go with me to Bausch & Lomb. As you know, I am determined that nothing shall retard the progress of the Institute of Optics, and I think Mr. Stewart shares my desire to help it in every way. The new development is already a striking technical success. If it meets with commercial success it may be that the institute of Optics will benefit very materially. If so, it will have been well worth the effort.

With best regards,
Very sincerely
Brian O’Brien

Copies to 

Dr. Donald Gilbert, Vice President, University of Rochester
Dr. Raymond Thompson, Vice President, University of Rochester
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Updated 21-01-24