The company was founded by two projectionists Donald Joseph Bell and Albert Summers Howell in 1907 in Chicago IL. Working in the new motion pictures technology they saw the vast opportunity in manufacturing the equipment. They focused on professional and industrial film equipment for the first 30 years. Then introduced 8mm formats for amateur and home use in the mid-1930s. By the 1950s they were market leaders.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s projectors were hand cranked. Being a projectionist in those times mean having arms stronger than a baseball pitcher. Both Don and Albert started their careers this way.

Bell Howell founders

Don Bell’s tenure with the company only lasted 10-years before corporate intrigue and conflict occurred. Don was the marketing and sales part of the business and traveled across the country regularly. He quickly became paranoid about how the business was being run by Albert Summers and Joseph McNabb, the general manager. In 1917 he came back to Chicago and fired both Albert and Joseph. However, they refused to leave and went to the board. They received their support and bought out Don Bell’s ownership of the company and forced him out. McNabb was promoted to company president.

Where did 35mm film come from?

When Bell & Howell started there were many sizes of movie film. This created problems for theatres having to replace parts on their projectors for each film they would show. Sometimes they wouldn’t be able to show a film because size and hole perforations were different than they had encountered before. Quality and playback of films varied greatly. Projectionists had to guess at the frame rates and adjust for each film.

From day one of the company, Albert Howell choose 35mm film width as a quality and practical standard. They engineered all the cameras and projectors to work together with film meeting specifications. The results were dramatic experience in the theatres. Over a decade Bell & Howell equipment became the market leader and other manufacturers followed their standard.