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Anecdotes from the Archive

Anecdotes from the Archive


Intriguing finds from Scientific American's past
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In 1892 Live Music Was Just a Phone Call Away


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Between cds, mp3s, live streams, satellite radio, and even conventional AM/FM radio, it’s hard to imagine being without near-instantaneous access to music. While it may seem like only recently that we’ve been able to listen to music via our phones, it turns out people were doing just that over 100 years ago.

The July 2, 1892, Scientific American Supplement reported on the use of a device called the theatrophone that had been in use for two years already in Paris. The basic idea was to be able to call into a theater and hear live music being played. One could either subscribe to receive the service in home or utilize one of the theatrophones set up in various locales such as hotels, restaurants, vestibules, and cafes throughout the city.

theatrophone


For 50 centimes, one could listen to five minutes of music. A wicket on the front of the machine displayed the theater from which the music was heard. There was one central station where the Theatrophone Company operated out of, and this was connected to several secondary stations that were placed in the theaters. A series of microphones were set up on the stage and picked up the sound to be transmitted back to the central station.

theatrophone operator


The theatrophone had 3 cables, 2 used for the transmission of music and the other for an alarm set for 5 minutes, keeping track of the listener’s time and changing theaters at each interval. If a listener happened to catch the live performance as it was ending or during an intermission, he would be wired into a different location for the remainder of time paid for. If all theaters were in an intermission, then the listener would be treated to recorded piano music so his money was not wasted. The alarm wass operated by a crank, seen to the right of the operator. There was a stop mechanism within the alarm so that each revolution of the crank caused the ratchet wheel supporting the disk of names to advance one tooth at a time.

theatrophone alarm


At the time of the article, there were 100 theatrophones installed in Paris running on 11 different lines, as well as a number of private subscribers who paid a fixed amount for a certain number of listenings in the home. “Such is the installation that very recently permitted the Lord Mayor of London to give some guests an opportunity of listening to the opera, and the prefect of Nantes to hear the latest popular songs without having to submit himself to the smoky atmosphere of the concert hall.” It was later reported that the prefect of Nantes canceled his theatrophone subscription once he realized how much he missed crowd surfing and that it was much easier to meet girls if he went out to concerts instead of staying home to listen by himself.

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