Cablecasting to the Victorians: in the prehistory of radio, part 1


Before there was radio, there were phones. Before there was broadcast radio, there was broadcasting by wire. Both of these things originated in a certain amount of nerdy improvisation, and a certain amount of business opportunism, and the success of both these things was impeded by a surprising level of resistance from their potential audiences. Astonishingly to us, contemporaries were not widely receptive to piped-in news and entertainment. How these two things germinated, and how they interrelated, is complex, and not really understood.  But it’s worth pointing out to the historian of early wireless, at the very least, that by the coming of radio the public did have about a generation’s-worth of experience with the idea of mass communication by electricity. People knew it could be done, and many of them had clear expectations about what it ought to be like. The systems were actually quite good, too. Why they worked, and spread the way they did (or didn’t), is a matter of cultural history as much as technical history. That’s kind of my thing. So here I offer some work I did ten years ago for the Antenna (vol. 20, no. 2), the newsletter of the Mercurians, who are the communications interest group within the Society for the History of Technology.  I’ll serialize it and update it a bit.  And I’ll try to make the writing better.

Think of cable broadcasting as a French invention from the 1880’s, that in its first few decades existed in varying forms in France, Portugal, Britain, the United States, and Hungary. The reasonable observer would expect such a thing in these places, there being an affluent and consuming public in all of them and also a maturing telephone system, through whose wires these enterprises could transmit. Telephones were good enough technically that Londoners, for example, could hear the French system if they chose to. And interest in entertainment by wire was well in place in all these places too. Late-night line operators improvised concerts for each other on quiet phone and telegraph networks routinely, as the Boston Herald reported in 1891, for example. So, there were numerous commercial trials, some big and some small. The Home Telephone Company of Painesville, Ohio, broadcast a live recital to a thousand customers in 1905, for example, and the New York Magnaphone and Music Company broadcast a recorded one in 1912.1

Scholarship that describes and explains all this is spotty, focusing generally on the regional technical variations, and concluding that the whole undertaking was doomed by the arrival of broadcast radio,2 though exactly what happened at the end of the wired service is not actually clear. The scholarship ignores, in any case, the very basic and very interesting question of why some systems did well and others did not. For they were not all the same, and the populations that used them weren’t either. The Portuguese system died early; the American experiments never reached commercial sustainability; and though the French and British Théâtrophone and Electrophone appear to have lasted through the Great War, their coverage was never as close to universal as their designers had hoped. The mighty Telefon Hirmondó in Budapest, by contrast, was instantly and enduringly successful, eventually simulcasting with radio, and staying popular with listeners until its destruction in the Second World War.

Why? What made Hungarian broadcasting so hearty, and its analogues in the west so sickly? The answer has nothing to do with broadcasting technicalities. It is a story of legal and cultural differences instead.


Tune in next … for an Overview of the Systems


Says who:

  1. Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communications in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 212. There was also Thaddeus Cahill’s strange and gigantic Telharmonium project that offered an early form of Muzak to restaurants along Broadway. See Thomas Martin, “The Telharmonium: Electricity’s Alliance with Music,” Review of Reviews, April 1906, 420-3.
  2. Robert Hawes, Radio Art (London: The Green Wood Publishing Co., 1991), 24.

Picture:  Théâtrophone, Jules Chéret (1890) © 2018 Jules Chéret / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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