Cablecasting to the Victorians: in the prehistory of radio, part 2

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What’s the physical reality of pre-radio cable broadcasting?  Here is a timeline.

1877:  The idea of worldwide telephone broadcasting exists, shown by the harried cartoon performer in ‘Terrors of the Telephone,’ in the New York magazine Daily Graphic.  A popular song out of St. Louis, ‘The Wondrous Telephone,’ alludes to the idea of broadcasting lectures and music into the home.3

1880:  Clément Ader creates the Compagnie générale des téléphones de Paris for the purpose of broadcasting by wire.

1881:  The International Electrical Exposition in Paris demonstrates Ader’s telephone system at the Palais d’Industrie, with live performances from the Opéra, the Opéra-Comique, and, with some technical difficulty, the Théàtre-Français.It is in stereo,and is sensitive enough for listeners to hear the prompter.French President Jules Grévy is so pleased with this system that he has the Théàtre-Français piped into the Elysée Palace, along with the Opéra and Odéon Theater. Victor Hugo is so delighted with the demonstration that he takes his children to see the system up close at the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs.He recalls it this way in his diary:

“Nous sommes allés avec Alice et les deux enfants à l’hôtel du Ministre des Postes. A la porte, nous avons rencontré [the chemist, Marcelin] Berthelot qui venait. Nous sommes entrés. C’est très curieux. On se met aux oreilles deux couvre-oreilles qui correspondent avec le mur, et l’on entend la representation de l’Opéra, on change de couvre-oreilles et l’on entend le Théàtre-Français, Coquelin, etc. On change encore et l’on entend l’Opéra-Comique.

Les enfants étaient charmés et moi aussi. Nous étions seuls avec Berthelot, le minister, son fils et sa fille qui est fort jolie.”

In Budapest there are experimental opera broadcasts, to 12 subscribers at a time, over a six-month-old system in trials.

1884:  Special transmission to the Ajuda Palace for the king and queen of Portugal, who wished to attend the premiere of ‘Laureana’ at the San Carlo Opera House, Lisbon, but were unable, being in mourning for the princess of Saxony. Edison director Gower Bell, who managed the feat, is awarded the Military Order of Christ. A Munich theater manager runs a telephone line to his villa on the Starnberger See to monitor the success of his shows. The Berlin Philharmonic is connected by phone to its own opera house. The opera in Antwerp is heard by ministers 30 miles away in Brussels.

1885:  The San Carlo Opera, Lisbon, offers subscriptions by wire to its 90 seasonal performances; the putative audience extends as far as Palhavã, Olivais, and Braça de Prata.

1889:  Ader’s system is first called the Théâtrophone.

1890:  First successful commercial telephone-based entertainment service, the Compagnie du Théâtrophone, set up by M.M. Marinovitch and Szaravady. It is a system of coin-operated boxes in waiting rooms and restaurants around Paris,and the listener can choose from 5 different city venues. Individual subscriptions are available too, but the cost is steep, at 180 francs a year, and 15 more each time the system was used. Across the Atlantic, at the electrical exhibition in the Lenox Lyceum, Americans hear bits of comic opera from New York theaters, and also instrumental music, speeches, and recitations from Boston and Philadelphia.No commercial service like the Théâtrophone exists in the United States, however.10

1891:  In London the Universal Telephone Company puts 50 microphones into the Royal Italian Opera House in Covent Garden, and 50 more into the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, all for the sole use of Sir Augustus Harris, at St John’s Wood, who even has a special extension to his stables.

1892:  Demonstration telephone performance of The Mountebanks, a comic opera, from London’s Lyric Theatre. The evening’s revenues pay for the launch of The London Electrophone Company.11 The Electrophone exchange is private, housed in a building adjoining the General Post Office Exchange in Gerrard Street; there is a listening salon there.12

1893:  The Telefon Hirmondò, or ‘Telephone Herald’ (the expression is Magyar), is launched in Budapest, as an audio newspaper, direct to several thousand ready subscribers.13 Home subscribers can listen through their municipal telephones if they have them,14 or special earphones can be strung into their houses.15

1896:  Private connections extend to a variety of London venues, but still only for the affluent: it costs £5 to install the equipment in one’s house, and £10 to keep the wire live for the year.

1897:  The wired entertainment service grows in popularity in England. The Electrophone Company works in concert with the National Telephone Company, so that home subscribers must be connected with the telephone system in order to communicate with the Electrophone Company’s switch room. The electrophone receiver is fitted as an extension to the household telephone apparatus. There are also now sixpence-operated listening boxes in public venues like the Café Royal and the Piccadilly Restaurant: you put your coin in and wind up a clockwork timer that keeps the connection open for several minutes. It is popular music, for the most part, running during theatre hours; a remote-control pointer on the box indicates which venue is playing at the moment. Service is so popular that it originates even in popular churches, where the microphones are disguised as Bibles and hassocks. The Company invites public inspection at the Soho headquarters and at the Victorian Era Exhibition, Earl’s Court.16

1899:  The Queen at Windsor Castle hears the Electrophone for the first time, when cadets and schoolboys sing to her from Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. She and guests then listen to a concert at St. James’ hall.17

1901:  Hirmondòexperiments with coin-operated public listening posts.18 World’s Work observes in passing that there is still nothing like this system in the United States. The popularity of the Electrophone in England is still increasing, and rates are dropping, by more than 75%. Gone are installation charges, too. And the equipment is better. The Company offers a loudspeaker, able to fill an entire room with sound. They are proposing service to moving railway cars.19

1913:  In celebration of the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France, the Electrophone and Théâtrophone systems exchange attractions.

1922:  Théâtrophone-style feed from Stockholm Opoera House used for experimental radio broadcast.

1925:  Hirmondò begins radio simulcasting.


Says who:

  1. Reproduced in A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States to 1933(New York: Oxford University Press, 1966).
  2. Marvin, 209-10. The hot updraft from the footlights at the Théàtre-Français interfered badly with the microphones. See “The Telephone at the Paris Opera,” Scientific American, December 31, 1881, 422-3.
  3. Illustrated in detail in “Souvenirs de l’exposition d’électricité,” Le Magasin pittoresque (1882): 91-4, and more broadly later in Théodose du Moncel, “Le telephone,” Bibliothèque des merveilles, 5thedition (Paris: Librarie Hachette, 1887), 117-27.
  4. Marvin, op. cit., for much of this overview.
  5. Victor Hugo, Choses vues. Souvenirs, journaux, cahiers, 1849-1885, ed. Hubert Juin (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), entry for November 11, 1881.
  6. “The Theatrephone,” [sic] Electrical Review, June 21, 1890, 1.
  7. “Wanted, a Théatrophone,” Elecrical Review, July 5, 1890.
  8. Unlike “the weighing machines and pull-testers that so overcrowd our waiting-rooms everywhere.” “The Theatrophone in Paris,” Electrical Review, August 29, 1891.
  9. Link expired.
  10. “Digital Futures MSc course from the University of Plymouth,” September 2004, at, 12. Link expired.
  11. “Telephonic News Distribution,” The Electrical World, March 18, 1893, 212.
  12. “Telephone newspaper,” The Electrical World, November 4, 1893, 362. There were technical tricks to keeping sound quality high along what amounted to a party line and for preventing subscribers from talking back into the system.
  13. “The Telephone Newspaper,” The Electrical Engineer (London), September 6, 1895, 257.
  14. J. Wright, “The Electrophone,” The Electrician (London), September 10, 1897, 343-44, discusses the technical points in detail.
  15. “The Queen and the Electrophone,” The Electrician (London), May 26, 1899, 144.
  16. Thomas S. Denison, “The Telephone Newspaper,” World’s Work, April, 1901, 640-3.
  17. “Electrophone in England,” Electrical Review, October 5, 1901, 414.

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