Where Electronic Music Began
The Telharmonium in action

Where Electronic Music Began

Mark Brend explains how the appearance of the first electronic musical instrument in 1906 set the tone for discussions about electronic music that continued through much the twentieth century.

In this excerpt from The Sound of Tomorrow: How Electronic Music Was Smuggled Into The Mainstream, Mark Brend explains how the appearance of the first electronic musical instrument in 1906 set the tone for discussions about electronic music that continued through much the twentieth century.

‘Be it known that I … have invented a new and useful Art of and Apparatus for Distributing Music Electrically.’ So began an application submitted by Thaddeus Cahill to the United States Patent Office in April 1897. Cahill, born in Iowa in 1867, had graduated from the Columbian Law School in 1892 and was admitted to the bar in 1894, but his true love was electronics. Through the 1890s he worked on several schemes, producing an electric typewriter, and nurturing a dream of making and distributing music electrically. The 1897 patent application was actually the second he submitted for his electric music, coming nearly two years after the first. The apparatus, both applications describe, would, when constructed, become known as the Telharmonium, the first publicly performing electronic musical instrument.

‘The apparatus,’ Cahill said, ‘is wholly electrical and bears little, if any, real likeness to the instruments now known as … pianofortes and organs.’ It was a fair claim. Although the Telharmonium was controlled by an organ-style multiple manual keyboard, the resemblance ended there. Rather, Cahill’s invention realized a new concept in music: harnessing the power of electrical circuits to generate and distribute a type of musical sound that had never been heard before.

By the time Cahill submitted his patent applications, electricity was a part of life in the great urban centres of America. The first street mains were installed in New York in 1881, the same year that the world’s first public electricity supply lit the streets of Godalming, Surrey, in England. In September of the following year Thomas Edison’s Edison Electric Company opened a generating station in Pearl Street, Lower Manhattan, and within a year had more than 500 customers. In May 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge opened, illuminated by seventy arc lamps operated by the United States Illuminating Company, one of many new traders in power springing up in New York. By 1900, there were over thirty companies generating and distributing electricity throughout the boroughs of New York City and in Westchester County.

A Coincidence of Technologies

Running parallel to the emergence of electricity as a force to power not just light, but also transport, domestic conveniences and industry, was the introduction of the telephone. The first telephone exchange opened in Hartford, Connecticut in 1877. The first exchange outside of the United States was built in London in 1879. The history of the telephone is complex and much disputed, with several inventors – Antonio Meucci, Philip Reis, Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell – having what appear to be legitimate grounds for claiming the idea as their own. 

What happened is what often happens, which is that several people had similar ideas at more or less the same time — a phenomenon that surfaces often throughout the history of electronic music. Another phenomenon is the creative use of technological advances to change the way music is made. Indeed, the Telharmonium, the first major event in electronic music, the first performing electronic instrument, fused the then-novel power of electricity and the voice of the telephone.

Cahill’s technology started with the observation that dynamos generating alternating current create a steady pitch. He imagined a whole series of dynamos, each creating different notes, that could be switched on and off in selected orders, thus creating predetermined combinations of pitches – or in other words, music. There was another aspect to Cahill’s prescient dream. The sounds, he found, could be transmitted down a telephone line and heard through the receiver at the other end, wherever it was. Not only would the notes be created by electrical means, they would be broadcast down the telephone lines. This is where the commercial possibilities became apparent. If you wanted to avail yourself of this miraculous new service you would have to become a paying subscriber. Cahill planned to stream live electronic music into restaurants, theatres and private homes.

The First Machine

After his patent was granted in 1898, Cahill spent several years creating a prototype instrument and seeking backers. Once sufficient funds had been raised he constructed a more complex and much larger version of the Telharmonium, which weighed in at 200 tons. In 1906 this was dismantled, packed into crates and transported to New York City. It was installed in the Broadway building at Broadway and Thirty-Ninth Street, with the control console at ground level, and the monstrous machinery hidden in the basement. The New York Telephone Company laid special lines throughout the city, a network of underground channels to spread the machine’s voice, while speakers were installed in the building itself.

On 26 September 1906 the first Telharmonium concert took place and very soon, the magic music of the Telharmonium was the talk of New York. In December that year The New York Times ran an illustrated feature, the first of several, describing Cahill’s invention in some detail. Telharmonium music was being broadcast to select subscribers – at that stage, a few local restaurants – at the ‘luncheon hour’ (12.30pm to 2pm) and at dinner (6pm to 8pm). Within a month private customers would have special telephone lines installed that would be a conduit for electronic music at 20 cents an hour, opened or closed with a flick of a switch, as simple as turning on electric light.

For public spaces, several strategically placed receivers with speaker cones were used to generate sufficient volume to be heard above the chatter of diners and the clink of cutlery and glasses. Alternatively, listeners could go to the Telharmonium music room at Broadway House, decked out like a hotel lounge with chairs and potted plants, to hear the music at source. Here you could see performers seated at what looked like a massive organ console, depressing keys that gave off a faint click and the occasional blue spark, while the sound itself emerged from a concealed horn in an artfully arranged flower display. Beneath that public space, buried in the basement, was the Telharmonium’ s beating heart – all 200 hundred tons of cables and dynamos. These inner workings had to be kept apart from the performance room not only on account of their size, but also because they made as much noise as the machine room of a factory, and would have drowned out the music they were generating.

Among the visitors was an aged Mark Twain. He was bewitched, declaring that he would have to postpone his death until he had the chance to hear the new wonder again and again. Twain was a technology enthusiast, an early adopter in today’s language, who had a telephone installed in 1877 when he lived in Hartford. Within days he became the first domestic Telharmonium subscriber. And as 1906 drew to a close he greeted the New Year with a few friends at his home, grouped around a cone speaker attached to a telephone receiver. The assembly listened to what Twain called his ‘electric music factory’, the Telharmonium, play Auld Lang Syne. One account reported that Twain boasted about having been ‘the first man to have Telharmonium music turned on in his house – “like gas”’.

News of this episode crossed the Atlantic, with the Guardian reporting a day later that ‘the room vibrated with chiming bells’.

Early Prejudices

In January 1907 another New York Times story contained what might well be the first printed expression of an enduring prejudice about electronic music. In this story – which does not have the ring of strictly factual reporting – a pair of Sicilian buskers with a hurdy-gurdy pitch their stall near the Broadway home of the Telharmonium, only to be drowned out by the rumblings of what sounded like ‘a great cathedral organ’. The buskers realised that they had no hope of competing with this music, ‘although theirs had the merit of being real.’ 

The piece goes on to describe listeners’ ‘wonderment’ at the ‘electric music’ conveyed by the ‘air itself’. It also remarks on the instrument’s ability to replicate flute, piccolo, bassoon, clarinet and saxophone sounds, combining them into a ‘melodious organ effect’. This echoed another report published earlier that same year, which breathlessly announced that the Telharmonium was ‘the latest gift of electricity to civilization, an art which, while abolishing every musical instrument, from the jew’s-harp to the cello, gives everybody cheaply, and everywhere, more music than they ever had before.’

These claims have a familiar ring. Indeed, many recurring themes of electronic music history start with the Telharmonium story. The idea that electronics could replace traditional instruments is a refrain that repeats to this day. It marks a divide between conservatives who think this is a bad thing – that electronic music isn’t real music, and real musicians will be out of their jobs – and enthusiasts, often of a radical bent, who relish the overturning of old orthodoxies, and see in electronic music the possibility of democratisation of the artistic process. The phrase ‘gives everybody cheaply, and everywhere, more music than they ever had before’ has something of the socialist rallying cry about it.

There are also, in many of these early reports, strains of a sort of quasi-mysticism. This is curious and paradoxical, the juxtaposition of the music of technological advance with the otherworldly and the unknown. All the talk of wonderment, of gifts to civilisation, and sounds being conjured out of thin air is redolent of the language of spiritualism, then at a peak of popularity and attempting to shape itself as a formal religion. This sort of language is often heard in the early decades of electronic music, not only from commentators, but inventors, composers and musicians too. Indeed, many figures in early electronic music, inventors and performers, had occult leanings.

And then, going right back to Cahill’s patent application, there is the symbiotic relationship between creativity and technology – the art and the apparatus. Electronic music is only a dream or a theory until the apparatus exists to make it real. It evolves through interaction between technology and creativity, to the extent that any understanding of it must include the contributions not only of composers and performers, but also of inventors and technicians. This was particularly true in the first half of the twentieth century, and explains why many of the most influential figures in early electronic music – Leon Theremin and Maurice Martenot, for example – were both musicians and inventors. Inventors made instruments that created entirely novel sounds, which then suggested possibilities to composers and musicians. Meanwhile, composers and musicians influenced the inventors to make instruments both practical and useful.

There is a tantalising poignancy about the accounts of the Telharmonium, because they describe something irretrievably lost. We can never hear this electric music, never share the wonderment. The great Telharmonium experiment failed to transcend novelty status, and was beset by difficulties. The broadcasts from Broadway House stopped in February 1908, and although Cahill pressed on, building a third Telharmonium that played from another building for a short while in 1910, the venture was soon mired in debt.

The visionary scheme was years ahead of the available technology. Cahill’s monster was greedy for electricity, and when it played there were power surges and interference on the telephone network, with telephone conversations interrupted by the beast’s incongruously sweet and ghostly murmurs. Cahill’s company was bankrupt by the end of 1914, and eventually his instruments were broken up and sold for scrap. Today, all that is left of the Telharmonium are a few grainy photos and those contemporaneous accounts. After the Telharmonium failed Cahill drifted into obscurity. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1934 at the age of sixty-six.

With hindsight it is clear that the Telharmonium was a grand but doomed scheme from the start. The instrument was too big and too expensive; it did not lend itself to duplication, let alone commercial production. If electronic music were to develop there had to be instruments that were affordable, portable and easily reproducible — the first of these came a few years after the demise of the Telharmonium, when Leon Theremin invented the instrument that bears his name. 

Published on 25 January 2013

Mark Brend is an author and musician who lives in Exeter, Devon. His books include Strange Sounds and American Troubadours, and his journalism has appeared in Record CollectorMojoArt & Music and many other publications.

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