01 November 2006

Media on demand, 19th Century: the Electrophone

Picture this: Marcel Proust, in 1911, is in his cork-filled room in Paris, writing À la recherche du temps perdu.

And he's listening to a live opera broadcast through a set of headphones.

That would've sounded impossible, some kind of sci-fi time warp, until I heard the story of the Electrophone on BBC Radio 4's Archive Hour last week.

The Electrophone was a British subscription radio service that used a telephone connection. It was available from 1895, a couple of decades before wireless broadcasting, when Queen Victoria was still on the throne. Proust was a subscriber to the French equivalent, known as the théatrophone.

Electrophone programs were live feeds from theatres and music halls, featuring the stars of the day. They even transmitted services from a London church that concealed some of the electronics inside a hollowed-out Bible, for decorum's sake.

Subscribers would contact the Electrophone company in Soho by ringing up their regular telephone switchboard, then request a program from whatever was being transmitted at that time.

At the receiving end, several listeners could hook up using headsets kept hanging on a purpose-made wooden stand, a listening-post (as we still call such a set-up in classrooms). The photo, from the British Museum's Connected Earth website, shows a 1905 model.

In France, le théatrophone was launched in 1890. Marcel Proust was a fan, and would listen to live feeds of Wagner or Debussy while writing. Proust was enthusing about the service around 1911: the image of a writer, working to music from a headset, is mundanely familiar to us now, but it's startling to find it so long ago.

Carolyn Marvin, in When Old Technologies Were New, writes about experiments as early as 1880, when visitors to the Paris Exposition Internationale d'Electricite listened to opera and theatre transmissions through a théatrophone hook-up.
In England in 1889 a novel experiment permitted 'numbers of people' at Hastings to hear The Yeoman of the Guard nightly. Two years later theatrophones were installed at the elegant Savoy Hotel in London, on the Paris coin-in-the-slot principle. For the International Electrical Exhibition of 1892, musical performances were transmitted from London to the Crystal Palace, and long-distance to Liverpool and Manchester. In the hotels and public places of London, it was said, anyone might listen
to five minutes of theatre or music for the equivalent of five or ten cents. One of these places was the Earl's Court Exhibition, where for a few pence 'scraps of play, music-hall ditty, or opera could be heard fairly well by the curious.
(Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988; paperback, 1990. Excerpts posted to Dead Media Working Notes)
The United States Early Radio History website has a marvellous photo from 1917 of an Electrophone being enjoyed by a group of convalescing soldiers in London, listening to 'the Latest Music Direct from the Theatres and Music Halls'.

The Electrophone service held out until 1925 when the wireless began to take hold, and the writing had been on the wall by 1923: see the news report at the United State Early Radio History website.

(Sadly, the Electrophone story from Archive Hour is no longer online: they don't seem to be into archiving past programs at the BBC as much as they are at our ABC.)

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