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Musical Wires
The Théâtrophone

A chic Parisian dials in. Jules Cheret’s poster for the launch of the new Compagnie du Théâtrophone, 1890.
A chic Parisian dials in. Jules Cheret’s poster for the launch of the new Compagnie du Théâtrophone, 1890. | Benjamin Gavaudo, Licence Ouverte

We’re celebrating radio. But what existed before radio came along? The théâtrophone! Users had to sign up with the telephone company – just as we subscribe to a streaming service provider today – and music and operatic performances were broadcast over the phone. Lev Bratishenko tells us the story of the théâtrophone.

By Lev Bratishenko

The British inventor Charles Wheatstone liked to impress guests with performances of the “acoucryptophone,” an “enchanted lyre” hanging from the ceiling that he made a show of winding up. It worked because the suspending wire was attached to the soundboard of a piano on the floor above; an accomplice played, and sound resonated through the wire. Wheatstone’s invention, which he showed publicly until at least 1823, as well as his later work, led to speculation about the feasibility of a device to transmit music across greater distances:

“Who knows but by these means the music of the opera performed at the King’s Theatre may ere long be simultaneously enjoyed at [the] Hannover-square Rooms, the City of London Tavern, and even at the Horns Tavern in Kensington.” [1]

This would, in fact, happen; it just took longer than expected. By 1848, the editors of Punch imagined an “opera telakouphanon” that would serve homes “with the liquid notes of Jenny Lind as easily as they are with soft water.” [2] Still too early, but live soprano on tap, that’s good. That’s got something.

Coin-operated Théâtrophone Coin-operated Théâtrophone | Public domain It was only with the invention of the telephone that a system for long distance musical plumbing became practical, and music was played on the telephone almost immediately. Alexander Graham Bell’s demonstration to Queen Victoria at Osbourne House in 1878 included a song that she heard “quite plainly.” [3] We would call it plain in another sense too—the quality of early telephony was so poor that music, which is louder and more forgiving of distortion, transmitted better than voice. As late as 1900, readers of The Phonograph and How to Use It were instructed to “avoid singing with too much expression.”

Early microphones and speakers had many design limitations, but the low quality was also a function of rudimentary circuitry. The first telephones used telegraph wires, single-strand iron wires grounded in the earth; the higher quality circuit, patented by Bell in 1881, was not common in telephones until the 1890s. Earth-grounded circuits add noise to telephone conversations because the ground is shared with machinery, electrical lines, and natural earth currents, while a metallic circuit uses two wires, still made of iron at the time, for the circuit and thus reduces interference (copper was introduced for long-distance conversations starting in the 1880s).

Listening to ground static on a private experimental telephone line

Telephone and telegraph operators were among the first to hear experiments in musical broadcasting. The Virginia engineer and telegraph manager C. E. McCluer recounted one such adventure on the “far speaker” from 1876. He regularly listened to ground static on his earth-grounded, private experimental telephone line:

“One Sunday night on returning from church, I placed the telephone to my ear with the intention of spending a few moments in further observation of the phenomenon that was engrossing my attention. The mysterious noises were still there—noises that I cannot adequately describe, but which must be heard to be appreciated—when, just as I was about to remove the telephone from my ear, I heard what at first impressed me as being an angel voice from the spirit land, rendering what to my excited senses seemed to be a most heavenly and ravishing melody.”

He spent the rest of the evening sharing the receiver with his wife:

“But I soon discovered that they were not singing a duet, as my wife had suggested, but the male voice was rendering another Sunday school air, and in an entirely different key. The wonder grew upon me. I became so excited I could not remain still … [until] finally the mysterious voices died away into silence, after each had rendered a half-dozen or more familiar hymns and Sunday school songs. [4]

It took him a few days to solve the mystery: telegraph operators in the Virginia towns of Staunton and Charlottesville, almost a hundred miles from McCluer in Lynchburg, had been experimenting with the transmission of sound by modifying the telegraph network. Their system required the full power of the telegraph batteries to function—which is why they were experimenting on a Sunday—and still they barely heard each other, but McCluer’s “superlatively sensitive Bell telephone” received their concert by a combination of induction and electric leakage.

McCluer listened in mono, though that distinction didn’t exist yet because stereo sound only debuted at the 1881 International Exposition of Electricity at the Palais de l’Industrie in Paris, where it surprised even the few already familiar with telephones. From August to November, three evenings a week, thousands waited at the exposition to hear through earpieces live sounds from the stages of the Opéra and the Théâtre Français, almost two kilometers away. This musical telephone, which would eventually be marketed as the Théâtrophone, was the invention of Clément Ader.

Old telephones sound better if you bang them during conversations.

Ader had ten large carbon microphones—tubes filled with carbon dust, the resistance of which varies as it is compressed by sound waves, which is why old telephones sound better if you bang them during long conversations—installed in the footlights of each theater, and ran wires to the Palais. Each microphone could sustain eight receivers and each receiver had two earpieces: the left connected to a microphone on the left side of the stage, and the right to one on the right. The press was enthusiastic about the new sound, which they called “auditory perspective” or “binauriclar audition” or “hearing in relief.” [5] Actors’ footsteps were audible even though the microphones were housed in rubber-footed iron boxes to minimize vibration, and this combined with the novelty of stereo to produce an exciting sensation of space.

But the system was packed up with the exposition and the self-taught Ader turned his attention to other projects. He had already installed the first telephone line in France in 1878 and co-founded the first telephone company in Paris, the Société générale des téléphones, in 1880; he had also tried bicycle production and laid the first underwater cable, but is remembered mostly for bat-like airplanes powered by steam (which may not have ever really flown).

By 1892, there were a hundred public Théâtrophones in Paris.

A version of Ader’s system survived as an exhibit at the Musée Grévin, where visitors could listen to less refined programming from the Eldorado music hall. In 1889, Ader reprised his popular invention for the Exposition Universelle, and in that same year, the Compagnie du Théâtrophone was founded by the entrepreneurs Marinovitch and Szarvady to market the system. [6] Soon a permanent listening room was built in the lobby of the Théâtre des Nouveautés, along with a switching room that functioned like a tele-phone exchange—an “acoustic octopus,” according to Cocteau. [7]

Sources were added gradually, and soon home subscribers could pay an annual subscription of 180 francs for a dedicated Théâtrophone receiver on which they listened to entire performances of their choice, incurring an additional charge per evening of listening. [8] Théâtrophone receivers were solidly built in line with that age’s idea of electrical beauty: varnished wooden furniture with brass fittings, their wires insulated in wax or cloth. The Théâtrophone company installed coin-operated receivers in cafes and hotel lobbies where fifty centimes or one franc got you five or ten minutes of live something. These public boxes were equipped with displays indicating the currently connected theater, which the operator would change from time to time. [9] By 1892, there were roughly a hundred public Théâtrophones in Paris offering a choice of five theaters. [10]

During intermissions and other lulls in any given performance, the operator could instead engage “a pianist [who] makes himself heard in a hall in the vicinity of the company’s central office, and all the lines of the Théâtrophone being then branched upon this music hall, all the dials give the indication of the piano. There can therefore be no surprise nor interruptions in the auditions.” [11] Later, recordings were used.

Marcel Proust subscribed to the Théâtrophone.

The Théâtrophone’s sound quality was variable. Valve amplifiers only being invented some twenty years after the Théâtrophone, at first it was difficult to increase signal gain beyond the amplifying power of the carbon microphones themselves. Nevertheless, it appealed to those, like Marcel Proust, who enjoyed staying in their bedrooms. Writing to Georges de Lauris in 1911, Proust noted that “I have subscribed to the Théâtrophone, which I use rarely, as the sound is poor. But for Wagner’s operas, which I know almost by heart, I compensate for their acoustic shortcomings.” [12] Debussy was a different story, and Proust recounted his experience of listening to Pelléas et Mélisande through the wires: “Like foreigners who aren’t surprised by Mallarmé because they don’t know French, musical heresies apparent to you can pass unnoticed by me, especially through the Théâtrophone where I once heard a pleasant but ambiguous rumbling only to realize that it was the intermission!” [13]

Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be evidence of compositions that took advantage of this confusion. No music was composed for the Théâtrophone, though jam sessions over commercial telephone lines did occur, at least in America, as early as 1891: “The operator in Providence plays the banjo, the Worcester operator the harmonica, and gently the others sing ... the music will sound as clear as though it were in the same room.” [14]

The Théâtrophone was exported as an idea and not necessarily as a product of the Parisian company. When the king and queen of Portugal were mourning the princess of Saxony in 1884, they could not attend the premiere of a Lisbon opera, so an enterprising engineer from the Edison Bell Company installed a private system of six microphones onstage and received a military order of merit for his trouble. There are other reports of transmissions in Brussels, Stockholm, Vienna, and Frankfurt, not to mention a suspicious Munich theater manager who added a line to his villa at Tutzing to monitor performances. [15] But papers didn’t always specify the kind of connection and we can assume that most were mono telephone lines and not stereo Théâtrophone lines, like the Brussels–Paris connection that allowed the Belgian queen to listen to Faust in 1887. The annihilation of distance remained more newsworthy than the transmission of stereo sound.

The only service dedicated to providing stereo music by wire outside of Paris was London’s Electrophone. The British National Telephone Company transmitted sound to the International Electrical Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham from Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool in 1892, and for three pence before eight in the evening and six pence after, visitors could listen for ten minutes. The Electrophone Company was founded two years later and offered subscriptions to theaters, concerts, and church services for £5 a year—at first. Later, there are letters from the managing director of Electrophone to various gentlemen’s clubs expressing his regret for being forced to begin charging rent for the company-provided receivers. [16] The curious could attend “auditory tastings” at company headquarters on Gerrard Street before subscribing. [17]

Electrophone receivers came with twin “lorgnette” under-the-chin headsets to preserve hairdos and relieve arms, and were available with a manual switch so that subscribers could use a telephone and an Electrophone on the same line. Programming was similar to that in Paris, though more churches seem to have been wired in London—fifteen Sunday services were available in 1906. [18]

Churches produced one of the more fantastic examples of early microphone installations since microphones were seen as intrusive. While theaters could tolerate a ring of black cigar boxes onstage, church microphones took “the form of a dummy bible lying in a natural position on the pulpit desk, or a hassock under the lectern.” [19] A spectacular “bible” at Highbury Quadrant Church was built of black and white marble, though its bizarre proportions make you wonder who was fooled.

Telephone operators play gramophone records on request in Delaware.

How popular were these services? Bell Telephone had three thousand phones in America by the end of 1877, but this was nothing compared to the size of the telegraph network, and an Electrical Review article thirteen years later thought a “theatrophone” installed on Broadway would “familiarize the public with the use of the instrument; probably nine-tenths of the population have never used a telephone.” [20] London’s telephone network only had 3,800 subscribers in 1885, most of which were businesses. This rose to about 65,000 by 1903. In this context, the Electrophone’s 600 subscribers in 1906 were a tiny fraction even of the elite, but Edward VII could be counted among them.

Class tensions had already been anticipated. An article in The Electrical World from 1890 warned of “the awful devastation that could be wrought by ‘The Organ Grinders’ Telephonic Mutual,’ with a drop-a-nickel-in-the-slot attachment … And what new terrors would be added to that Juggernaut of the metropolis, the boardinghouse, when ‘Sweet Violets’ and other appetite-destroying tunes could be turned loose at feeding time.” [21] Sadly, costs never came down enough for these inventions to be deployed at feeding time, though a photo from 1917 shows wounded veterans enjoying free Electrophone “whilst lying in bed,” [22] just like convention-bound royalty, tired writers, and the infirm. A common theme of early reports is one of overcoming immobility: “We now see in the United States, in several very extensive parishes, that the faithful for whom it would be impossible to go to the temple can, thanks to the telephone, follow the celebration of the offices without leaving the house.” [23]

The closest that the more developed American telephone network came to the Théâtrophone or Electrophone was probably the Telmusici service in Wilmington, Delaware, which began in 1909. A telephone operator would play gramophone records on request and subscribers could rent a receiver with a megaphone attachment. The sound was mono, but coin-operated boxes were installed in restaurants and hotels, along with lists of available records. Some thought the modesty of this venture was due to America’s “insatiable demand for news” [24] but the lack of a telephone news service (such as Hungary’s late nineteenth-century Telefon Hírmondó) suggests otherwise—as do the financial struggles of musical impresarios of the time.

The quality of both the Théâtrophone and the Electrophone improved in the 1920s and 1930s with advances in amplification and more sensitive microphones, but they were doomed by radio. By 1932, the year it shut down, the Théâtrophone had peaked at thirty sources, among them l’Opéra, l’Athénée, les Deux Ânes, le Moulin de la Chanson, les Concerts Poulet, le Lido, le Café de Paris, and Notre Dame cathedral, while the Electrophone had two thousand subscribers in 1923, two years before the company was liquidated. The tenacious Mrs. Cooper and Mrs. Hatchcock sustained a vestigial line of the Electrophone at Bournemouth until 1937. [25]


[1] The Repository of Arts, 1 September 1821

[2] Punch, 30 December 1848, vol. 15, p. 275

[3] Queen Victoria’s diary

[4] Telephony, January 1908, pp. 42–45

[5] Scientific American, 31 December 1881, p. 422

[6] A stock certificate from the company bearing the founders’ signatures 

[7] Le Monde, 1 February 2010. See also Danièle Laster, “Splendeurs et misères du Théâtrophone” Romantisme, no. 41 (1983), p. 77. 

[8] Louis Montillot, Téléphone pratique (Paris: A. Grelot, 1893), p. 461. 

[9] For feminine and masculine stereotypes in early telephony, as well as a fuller survey of telephonic precedents for news services and more, see Carolyn Marvin’s excellent “When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[10] See Scientific American Supplement, 2 July 1892

[11] Ibid. Budapest’s Telefon Hírmondó news service, started in 1893, did have rotations of specially trained “stenors” reading updates into telephones every fifteen minutes, with regular live musical programming in the evenings—but with-out stereo receivers and not, as far as we know, all night.

[12] A un ami: correspondance de Marcel Proust avec Georges de Lauris (Paris: Amiot-Dumont, 1948), p. 234. My translation.

[13] Marcel Proust, Lettres à Reynaldo Hahn (Paris: Gallimard, 1956), p. 199. 

[14] Boston Evening Record, quoted in Scientific American, 10 October 1891, p. 225. Also quoted in Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New, p. 212.

[15] Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New, p. 209.

[16] H. S. J. Booth to the Secretary of the Reform Club, 2 January 1903. 

[17] Living London, vol. III, ed. George R. Sims (London: Cassell and Company, 1903), p. 115.

[18] New Scientist, 23–30 December 1982, p. 794

[19] The Electrical Engineer, 10 September 1897, pp. 343–344. 

[20] Electrical Review, 5 July 1890, p. 4. 

[21] The Electrical World, 20 September 1890, p. 195. Quoted in Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New, p. 81.

[22] The Electrical Experimenter, August 1917, p. 230. 

[23] Scientific American Supplement, 2 July 1892

[24] Electrical Review, 5 July 1890, p. 4

[25] New Scientist, 23–30 December 1982

This article first appeared in issue No. 50 of Cabinet magazine. Cabinet is published four times a year and is based in Brooklyn, New York. Founded in 2000, the non-profit magazine covers art and cultural subjects.

Many thanks to the
Cabinet team and many thanks, also, to the author, Lev Bratishenko, whose article found its way into the radio-themed edition of the magazine thanks to an encounter in Potsdam.