Steampunk radio on the Victorian Internet

A remarkable story about Victorian media innovation

Radio is changing. The first digital radio platform – DAB – is in danger of being eclipsed before most of us have even bought one. The second wave is evolving fast, but widespread Internet radio is years away so radio stations are investing in web sites and apps. Meanwhile, audiences for radio everywhere are steady but looking fragile and everyone’s waiting for a persuasive mixture of content and convenience to justify the switch to digital. And billions of cheap-to-own FM radios are a huge impediment to switching.

130 years ago, nearly thirty years before the first public radio broadcast, at an international electrical exhibition in Paris, entrepreneur Clément Ader prototyped a package of content delivered on a new platform, the telephone. He called his prototype a ‘telephonic opera’ service because opera performances were the main content (just as they had been in Zurich in 1878, when a performance of Don Pasquale was relayed via telephone only months after its invention). The prototype became a commercial product later in the decade under the name Théâtrophone.

Subscribers to the service, including, I kid you not, Marcel Proust (in his cork-lined room at 102 Boulevard Hausmann), dialled in from their home telephones (a technology that was only a decade old itself) and asked to be put through to one of the participating theatres. They then listened to the evening’s performance live. In stereo. At the time of the original demonstration, Scientific American said:

The singers placed themselves in the mind of the listener, some to the right and others to the left. It’s easy to follow their movements and to indicate exactly, each time that they change their position, the imaginary distance at which they appear to be.

Two separate telephone lines delivered signals from two stage microphones: one right, one left (this Wikipedia entry suggests eighty microphones and, since they weren’t electronic microphones, just crude acoustic ones, that doesn’t sound unreasonable).

A subscriber to an equivalent service in London, Electrophone, described the process:

You lifted your ordinary telephone receiver and said ‘Electrophone please’ and in a moment you were asked which theatre you wanted and in another moment you were in your armchairs around the table listening to musical comedy at the Adelphi…

Theatres, music halls – and, later, places of worship, all over London were wired up to the Electrophone exchange at 34 – 35 Gerard Street in Soho and Electrophone attendants (we’d call them Studio Managers or OB engineers) were stationed in each to position mics and connect subscribers.

Electrophone listeners in 1901

If you’d lived in Budapest in the 1890s (and been a wealthy gadget freak) you’d have subscribed to a service called Telefon Hírmondó which, you’ve got to admit, was startlingly like a modern radio network, with content organised into ‘channels’, a daily schedule (including stock quotes, local press, finance, theatrical and sporting news) in addition to the usual operatic performances (what is it with the opera?). There were children’s concerts, acts of worship, folk music, recitals. Advertisements, inevitably, were inserted between juicy news items. The company employed 100 people, with job titles like ‘editor’ and ‘programme controller’ and, at its peak had 6,000 subscribers.

The Théâtrophone receiver
The Théâtrophone receiver

But what’s remarkable for me about these services (there were dozens worldwide) is how closely they resemble the ones we’re building now on The Internet. Clicking ‘play live’ for Radio 3’s nightly live concert is essentially the same as asking the Electrophone ‘attendant in charge’ to put you through to the Wigmore Hall – a personal, two-way circuit connecting you to a live event a long way from home. Nineteenth Century opera nuts were using two-way telepresence to enjoy remote performances that were significantly more immersive than what was to come from terrestrial radio decades later. The spatial separation and specially-designed in-home kit (the ‘Electrophone table’ and Théâtrophone’s special receiver) that came with these services must have made these experiences extraordinarily vivid. Vivid enough for Proust to listen to a performance of Pelléas and Mélisande all the way through in 1911.

They even had pretty sophisticated tiered business models – an extra £5 per season for Covent Garden, for instance (no freemium as far as I can tell, though). These pioneers built a highly immersive Victorian cyberspace on the first of the really big wired networks – and, let’s face it, mostly because they misunderstood what people would actually wind up using their telephones for. The implications for the services we’re designing and promoting now set the mind reeling.

  • Google ‘Théâtrophone‘, ‘Electrophone‘ or ‘Telefon Hírmondó‘: you’ll find plenty of web sites about these pre-radio experiments. Here’s a good technical overview of Electrophone, for instance. I owe the inspiration for this post to a terrific Sunday Feature from Radio 3 last year called The Pleasure Telephone, presented by Edward Seckerson. The programme is sadly unavailable. Hunt down a recording if you can find one.
  • The picture at the top shows a coin-operated Théâtrophone receiver of the kind that would have been installed in cafes and special listening rooms. All the pics are from the Wikimedia Commons.

The noise in Northants

Happy Finnish drag fans at Santa Pod

There are two sounds on this earth that can make me spontaneously cry. There’s the sound of a great operatic soprano mid-aria and there’s the sound of a top fuel dragster mid-quarter mile.

The thing is, they’re both big sounds and they both bypass the usual emotional circuitry to make people cry or laugh or stand and shout. They both work some kind of endocrinal magic and produce a physical reaction without going through all that boring build-up. Opera and drag racing both short-circuit the brain and go straight to the baser organs (the gut? The liver?): I suppose it’s fight or flight or something – certainly something hormonal.

Look around you at an opera audience or at a drag strip crowd and you’ll see the same thing: involuntary facial expressions, tears, smiles, something like ecstasy. At the end of a five-second quarter mile you’ll hear spontaneous laughter, swearing, clapping, whooping and shouting.

Like I said, at the drag strip it’s all about the noise. Trust me: this is the biggest, deepest, most physical noise you will ever hear: a wild, crackling, grunting, noise that sounds more animal than mechanical. You have to hear it to believe it. Hear it once and you’ll understand what brings all those other people out to the retired military airfields of the world to listen to it. It’s an auditory drug.

Quite mad. Quite decadent and backward (outsized internal combustion engines? Nitro-methane? Deep-fried food?) but also some kind of cultural apogee: standing on the grass bank watching it all go off, you feel you’re watching the final days of the blue collar gasoline cult. This is where the (big, dumb) car will come to die.

We were up at Santa Pod in sunny Northants yesterday for the qualifying rounds of what they call The Main Event. We heard the noise (and I made a pathetic attempt to record it). I took some photos, obviously. You should get up there this season if you get a chance: they make a big effort to welcome everyone: kids get in for nothing, you can get right in among the cars and their drivers (almost all of whom are amateurs), there are monster trucks and air displays and a Wall of Death and the people are unbelievably nice (and you’ll meet a lot of sunburnt Finns).

I found a lot of old photos of dragsters, some videos and some most amazing sound files that you ought to run through your home cinema for best effect. Also a predictably superb definition of the sport from Wikipedia.

A quiet City

Yesterday was my 40th birthday. Juliet and I went to the Coliseum to sob through the ENO‘s gorgeous Tosca (a City in turmoil, gripped by fear – torture, love, war and betrayal). We stayed at a hotel practically next door in St Martin’s Lane. The hotel was half empty and there were plenty of empty seats at the Opera (Americans staying at home, apparently).

Our cab driver this morning made an illegal u-turn by Trafalgar Square and jumpy, armed police practically arrested him (British police don’t usually carry guns). The streets of the West End are Sunday Morning quiet (and it’s not just the congestion charging). No panic, no bulk buying, no drama at all really ? just the barely tangible signs of a City’s building anxiety. It’s this kind of tiny shift in mood that slows an economy, trips up a recovery. Watching the rolling news in our hotel room, the empty streets of Baghdad echo and amplify London’s barely noticable slow-down.
(here’s an excellent Ten things you never knew about Tosca from the University of Chicago Press, by the way).

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