The history of electronic music is intimately tied up with the history of radio and telecommunications. Many of the same breakthroughs and devices invented by electrical engineers for communicating in morse code, telephone and radio were adapted for use by musicians. Electricity opened up new worlds of sound beginning in the 19th century. This series on the music of radio will explore the ways telegraphy, telephony and radio have impacted the creation of electronic music from the late 19th century and onwards into the 20th and 21st. It will also explore the ways radios and the signal and sounds they receive and emit have been used by electronic musicians and composers in the creation of new music. Our story begins with the Musical Telegraph.
Elisha Gray, co-founder of the Western Electric Company, is perhaps most well known as a developer of a prototype telephone. Some scholars consider Gray the true inventor of the telephone. Both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray used liquid transmitters in their experiments with voice transmission over wire. The telephone seems to be one of those ideas that was floating around in the ether at the time, and it is my view that each inventor developed the work independently. In fact Gray arrived at the patent office to file his apparatus "for transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically" just two hours after Bell. After a number of years in the courts, it was Bell's patent that the lawyers held up in a number of decisions.
Though Gray may only be considered a kind of begrudged step-father in terms of telephony, it is clear that the electric synthesizer is the fruit of his seed. In 1874 after Gray had retired from Western Electric to focus on independent research he came up with one of the seventy patents attributed to him. In this case, the Electro-harmonic Telegraph. It was a chance by product of his work on the telephone.
In the course of his work Gray learned he could control sound from a self-vibrating electromagnetic circuit. This led him to the invention of a basic oscillator made of steel rods whose vibrations were created and transmitted over a telegraph line. The instrument consisted of a number of single-tone oscillators that could play over a range of two octaves. Each tone was controlled with a separate telegraph key.
After giving several private demonstrations of the instrument he gave a public performance at the Presbyterian Church of Highland, Illinois on December 29, 1874. A newspaper announcement stated that it transmitted "familiar melodies through telegraph wire". In later models of the instrument he added a simple diaphragm speaker that amplified the tones to a louder volume.
To be fair Bell came at the telephone also through his work as a teacher of the deaf and adjacent studies of music, hearing, sound, and human anatomy. While working for Western Union Telegraph he had been obsessed with solving the problem of creating a "multiple telegraph" -or a way to transmit a number of messages over the same wire. It was this work on the harmonic telegraph that spurred him on to his own invention the telephone.