Today those of us with access to cell phones and data plans tend to take things like streaming music, news, on-demand videos and face time for granted. Yet the impulse to do more than just talk over the wires has been part of the spirit of telephony since its earliest days. In the 1890's the telephonic playground was still in its infancy and commercial applications for the technology could have gone in many different directions. During this time entrepreneurial types were coming up with creative experiments for using telephones as a news delivery system or for musical entertainment.
Two years after Elisha Gray's playing of the musical telegraph in 1874, other folks decided it would be a swell idea to transmit music concerts along the commercial telegraph lines. This was done initially for the entertainment of the operators. In 1881 the first "stereo" concert was given via telephone. Clément Ader used dual lines to pass music from a local theater to two separate phone receivers. At the time this was dubbed "binauriclar auduition" a name that for some reason didn't stick. Later in 1890 AT&T was at work on a service to provide music for mealtimes. Though there were some issues with sound quality they stated that "When we have overcome this difficulty we shall be prepared to furnish music on tap." AT&T also had other development plans for the phone lines. Used for business during the day they hoped to "stream" music, lectures, and various oral entertainments to all the cities of the East coast at night.
Stateside most of these types of efforts didn't take hold but a few in Europe did. The first permanent service was an outgrowth of Clement Ader's work, known as the Paris Theatrophone. This was a subscription based service launched in the 1890's. The "Theatraphonic network" provided Parisians with "programs dramatic and lyrical" and held its own until 1932. In Hungary the concept of a telephone newspaper caught on, with the Budapest Telefon Hirmondo, which began service in February of 1893. It included news reports, original fiction, and other entertainments. Still going strong in 1925 it added a radio station while still offering a telephone relay to customers all the way up to 1944.
It was within this milieu that Thaddeus Cahill obsessed over and created what must be considered the ultimate behemoth of a musical synthesizer, the Telharmonium, a type of electrical organ. It was specifically intended to be played over the phone lines. Amplifiers hadn't been invented yet and the phone receiver was still the only available technology that could make an electronic sound audible. The Telharmonium implemented sinuosoidal additive synthesis via mechanical means using tonewheels and alternators rather than an oscillating circuit. The discs on a tonewheel have specific numbers of bumps on the edge. These generate a specific frequency through induction as the bumps move past an electromagnetic coil. Frequency and waveform are determined by the shape of the wheel, the number of bumps on it and how often they pass the tip of the magnet. Using multiple tonewheels a single fundamental frequency can thus be combined with one or more harmonics to produce complex sounds. Later the tonewheel was used in radio work during the pre-vacuum tube era as a BFO for CW.
Cahill is credited with coining the phrase "synthesizer" for describing his instrument. It was patented in 1897. Five years later he founded the New England Electric Music Company with two partners. The Telharmonium or Dynamaphone as it was also called was first demonstrated in 1906. The instrument was a true boat anchor. The Mark I version weighed in at a hefty 7 tons and could be considered light compared to the Mark II and III which weighed around 200 tons, and took up thirty train box cars when shipped to New York for assembly in what Cahill called his "Music Plant". The instrument looked like a power generator and took up an entire floor on 39th street and Broadway in New York city. Indeed the machine itself put out 670-kilowatts of power. Each generator rotor produced a pitch and a 60-foot chassis held 145 rotors.
One floor up was Telharmonic Hall, a concert space where the instrument was controlled and played. Two to four musicians could sit at the controls to play the Telharmonium from the listening hall. It was a unique arrangement of four keyboard banks each with 84 keys. Before the minimalist composers La Monte Young and Terry Riley brought just intonation back into the fold of Western music, it was possible to play the Telharmonium using just intonation. Just intonation differs from equal temperament in that it occurs naturally as a series of overtones where all the notes in a scale are related by rational numbers. In just intonation the tuning depends on the scale you are using. Equal temperament was developed for keyboard instruments so that they could be played in any scale or key. The Telharmonium through additive synthesis, and the ability to control timbre, harmonics, and volume was an extremely flexible instrument.
Though there was no channel separation the Telharmonic hall was fitted with eight telephone receivers augmented with paper horns. These were arrayed behind ferns, columns and furniture. An electrician at the company suggested splicing the current from the Telharmonium into the arc lamps hanging from the ceiling which then resonated at the same frequency as that being played to create “singing arc.” The Telharmonium could also be piped to any number connected to the AT&T phone system.
Thomas Commerford Martin wrote of the new sounds of the Telharmonium as an alliance of electricity with music. Cahill "has devised a mechanism which throws on the circuits, manipulated by the performer at the central keyboard, the electrical current waves that, received by the telephone diaphragm at any one of ten thousand subscribers' stations, produce musical sounds of unprecedented clearness, sweetness, and purity."
Cahill had ambitious plans for his "Telharmony". He advocated that a form of "electric sleep-music" could be tapped at any time for the cure of modern nervous disorders. The electric drones could also be used to relieve boredom in the workplace. But his plans were not to bear fruit in the manner he thought. His instrument sometimes caused interference or crosstalk on the phone lines, electronic music interrupting business and domestic conversation. It also required vast amounts of power. When vacuum tubes started to appear and in the 1920's other less expensive electronic instruments, that did not require the infrastructure provided by Ma Bell, started being built. Finally with the advent of broadcast radio many of these types of ventures ceased to be profitable. No known recordings of the Telharmonium exist.
In the 1930's Hammond patented the electrically amplified organ which was essentially a smaller and more economical version of the Telharmonium. This was much to the chagrin of Cahill's family as the patent on his instrument had not yet run out. Synth pioneer Robert Moog later recognized the genius of Cahill's work and his seminal place in the history of electronic music.
In William Peck Banning's 1946 book, Commercial Broadcasting Pioneer: The WEAF Experiment 1922-1926, he wrote that "historians of the future may conclude that if there was any 'father' of broadcasting, perhaps it was the telephone itself".