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The Telharmonium Was the Spotify of 1906

Detail from the cover of Scientific American’s March 9, 1907 issue, which had a glowing article about the telharmonium. (Image: archive.org)

It’s a tumultuous time for streaming music services. One of the year’s biggest albums, Adele’s 25, was released on November 20, but not made available on Apple Music, Spotify, or any other streaming app by the artist’s own decision. On November 23, music service Rdio, the first smartphone-era music streaming service to try to crack the U.S. market, began winding down after five years of struggling to attract paying subscribers.

Rdio, however, was not the first service to allow American subscribers to stream music from their phones. That honor goes to the telharmonium, the first patent for which was granted in 1897. It was, essentially, a Victorian Spotify.

Invented by lawyer Thaddeus Cahill and initially known as the dynamophone, the telharmonium made use of telephone networks to transmit music from a central hub in midtown Manhattan to restaurants, hotels, and homes around the city. Subscribers could pick up their phone, ask the operator to connect them to the telharmonium, and the wires of their phone line would be linked with the wires emerging from the telharmonium station. The electrically generated tunes would then stream from their phone receiver, which was fitted with a large paper funnel to help pump up the volume. (The electric amplifier had not yet been invented.) 

The music was generated live at what Cahill called a “music plant,” which was located at Broadway and 39th Street. An entire floor of the building, which came to be known as Telharmonic Hall, was filled with the 200 tons of machinery required to generate the telharmonium’s tunes. With its banks of spinning rotors, switchboards, transformers, and alternators, the behemoth instrument gave “the impression of nothing so much as a busy machine-shop, or the center of a considerable manufacturing industry,” according to a 1906 article in McClure’s Magazine.

One of the telharmonium’s tone mixers. (Photo: McClure’s Magazine, 1906)

Amid all this machinery, the telharmonium still required humans to generate the tunes. In a room on a floor above the music plant were two keyboards attached to all the rotors and generators by wires. Cahill recruited musicians to play these customized keyboards. Each key, when pressed, operated a switch that would set a particular dynamo in motion. Then, explained McClure’s, the “electric waves sent out by the great central machine are transformed, by the familiar device of the telephone, into sound waves, and reach our ears as symphonies, lullabies or other music, at the will of the players.”

“Apparently he had two players playing continuously, 24 hours a day,” says Andy Cavatorta, a telharmonium enthusiast and sound artist who designed and built Bjork’s gravity harps. “It was a sort of weird, non-stop eerie telharmonium music, including a lot of pieces that were composed just for the instrument.”

Two keyboard operators make beautiful music together. (Image: McClure’s Magazine, 1906)

This eerie music—and the technology behind it—blew people’s minds. “One’s first feeling, upon hearing of the new machine, is one of utter incredulity,” raved McClure’s. The New York Times went further in a feature on the telharmonium published in December 1906:

“[I]t is scientifically perfect music, capable of reproducing any sound produced by any musical instrument and many more that no musical instrument produces. Sounds like the extravagant exaggeration of a charlatan, doesn’t it?”

The Times article struck the fancy of one Mark Twain, who, a week after reading it, ventured over to 39th and Broadway to see the newfangled machine for himself. Impressed by the “beautiful, novel” invention, he did not mince words, according to the Times. “Every time I see or hear a new wonder like this I have to postpone my death right off,” he said, while sitting at the music plant’s keyboard console. “I couldn’t possibly leave the world until I have heard this again and again.”

A New York Times headline from December 1906. (Image: TimesMachine)

Nine days later, at his New Year’s Eve party, Twain was boasting of his plans to become an early adopter of the telharmonium. (Service had expanded to restaurants and hotels in late 1906, but private homes were not yet connected.) The Times reported that after the clock struck midnight, the first thing Twain did to usher in 1907 was “to glory in the fact that he would be able to rejoice over other dead people when he died in having been the first man to have telharmonium music turned on in his house–’like gas.’”

This idea of music as a service–as something available on tap, just like gas or water–was revolutionary. “Instead of bringing the people to the music the new method sends the music to the people,” marveled McClure’s. The people in question would pay 20 cents an hour to listen to as much opera, symphony, or rag time music as they liked, with the ability to switch their live entertainment on and off whenever they pleased. With home radio still over a decade away, this was huge. It heralded “the age of musical democracy,” Raymond Weidenaar writes in Magic Music from the Telharmonium.

After a successful run at hotels and restaurants, telharmonium service finally became available to the public in 1907. Cahill’s big plan was to expand geographic coverage beyond New York City, as well as the amount and variety of sonic entertainment on offer. “It is the dream of the inventor that, in the future, we may be awakened by appropriate music in the morning, and go to bed at night with lullabies,” noted McClure’s.

Thaddeus Cahill, telharmonium inventor. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, technological limitations and unfavorable economics thwarted these dreams. Due to the lack of electronic amplification, “everything that he did musically had to be generated at full power,” says Andy Cavatorta. “With those rotors he had to power perhaps hundreds or more of those little telephone earpieces.” It was “a very inefficient system that lost a lot of electricity along the way.” Subscribers would hear faint or distorted music. Phone conversations were regularly interrupted by the sounds of the telharmonium, which would filter into lines that ran from the same telephone poles. 

In April 1907, Hammond Hayes, head of AT&T’s engineering department, determined that “any investment in the telharmonium would be enormously expensive and unprofitable for many years,” according to Magic Music from the Telharmonium. Electric music, though marvelous in theory, was too disruptive and pricey in practice.

“If suddenly you thought you could get an extra 10,000 subscribers, you’d have to build a new power plant in order to accommodate them,” notes Cavatorta. That was not a sustainable business model. Despite attempts by Cahill to keep the service going, the telharmonium ultimately folded in 1916. By 1920, the 200 tons of whirring machinery had been removed from 39th and Broadway.

Though the telharmonium did not ultimately succeed, it had a profound impact on the development of electronically generated music. The Hammond organ, developed in the 1930s, operates according to technology first seen in Cahill’s ambitious invention. From the Hammond organ came the synthesizer, initially in the form of analog synths like the Moog, then in the form of electronic keyboards and digital pianos.

In addition to the innovative technology the telharmonium exhibited, there was also “something going on there with the emerging notion of virtuality that we now take for granted,” says Cavatorta. “The idea of things being there that aren’t there.”

In the early 20th century, the idea of music being piped into your living room from miles away via, in the words of the Times, the “magic of wonder-working electric forces” was astounding. Now, on-demand music, stored in a cloud and streamed to your phone, is ubiquitous.