The following is an article from the book Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader.
Hollywood has produced a lot of bad movies over the years, but most of the time when we say we saw a real “stinker,” we don’t mean it literally. Most of the time. Behold the wonder of Smell-O-Vison.
Dr. Hans Laube was a Swiss inventor who designed machinery that removed stale, bad-smelling air from theaters and auditoriums in the late 1930s. Or at least that’s what he did until it dawned on him that it should also be possible to reverse the process and inject pleasing odors into large enclosed spaces. Not long after that, he developed a system that piped artificial scents through a network of tubes to the back of every individual seat in a movie theater, releasing them into the air just a few feet away from the nose of every person in the audience.
Laube called his invention “Scentovision.” To demonstrate it, he produced a 35-minute film that he called Mein Traum, or “My Dream,” and presented it at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Mein Traum’s scenes were timed to Scentovision’s smells: When roses appeared on-screen, the projectionist manually released the scent of rose oil into the theater; in other scenes, viewers were treated to snootfuls of peaches, burning incense, frying bacon, fresh-cut hay, and hot tar.
FATHER AND SON
Laube hoped to interest theater owners in outfitting their movie houses with Scentovision, but there were no takers. A decade after the stock market crash of 1929, the United States was still mired in the Great Depression, and theater owners had their hands full just keeping their doors open. Scentovision faded away and remained forgotten for nearly 20 years.
That it re-emerged at all was thanks to Broadway producer Mike Todd Sr. and his son, Mike Jr. The two of them had attended a screening of Mein Traum at the World’s Fair in 1939. When the elder Todd branched out into motion pictures in the 1950s, he remembered Scentovision and was intrigued by the idea of making Hollywood’s first “smellies.” But he died in a plane crash in 1958 before he could bring his plans to fruition. (Does his name sound familiar? Todd was Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband.)
BY ANY OTHER NAME
Mike Jr. took over the reins after his father’s death and hired Hans Laube to come up with an improved version of Scentovision.
Laube’s original system had relied on projectionists to release the smells in the proper order at the proper times. To eliminate human error, he came up with something he called a “Smell Brain” to release the odors automatically: Bottles containing the scents were loaded into a rotating drum in the order that they were to be released into the theater. A “smell track” similar to a soundtrack used electromagnetic cues to tell the Smell Brain when to release each scent. As soon as one was discharged, the drum advanced the next bottle into position to await the next electromagnetic cue. Puffs of fresh air and even chemical deodorants could be released into the theater between smells to act as nasal palate cleansers.
Todd insisted on one more improvement: Laube’s invention had to be renamed. Convinced that the nickname “smell-o-vision” was inevitable, he wanted “to get the jump on those who will call it that anyway,” and Scentovision became Smell-O-Vision. The new name wasn’t nearly as classy as the old one, but so what? “I don’t understand how you can be ‘dignified’ about a process that injects smells into a theater,” Todd said.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, AROMA!