Old, Weird Tech: Telharmonium Edition


The restaurant wars of early twentieth-century New York revolved not around which establishment had the best consommé or Beef Wellington, but instead which restaurant had the biggest, best, most Wagnerian orchestras. By 1908, the cost for hiring musicians to play in restaurants -- sometimes up to three or four orchestras a night at the Waldorf-Astoria -- cost a yearly sum of more than one million dollars. Orchestras would play from noon until midnight, sometimes longer as the restaurant cycled through its luncheon, tea, dinner, and after-theater crowds, each with their own musical needs.

The desire to eat to music trickled down to cafés and bars in the city, which hired mandolins, German bands and duos in blackface to entertain with a mish-mash of cultural flavors: "Here in an uptown place, you find Irish waiters serving German beer to American diners-out, while a polyglot orchestra, dressed in Spanish costume, plays negro ragtime..." complained the Music Trade Review in 1907.

In the pleasantly didactic utopia of Edward Bellamy's smash hit 1887 novel Looking Backward, music flowed into a room at the touch of a button. But the phonograph and the telephone had split the future of sound into two as yet unjoined factions. Which represented the future of musical entertainment?

Music could be had on the receiving end of both. London hotels offered telephone concerts to guests. You spent ten minutes on the end of a receiver while an orchestra played on the other end of town, seemingly just for you and for only a shilling per listen, or about forty dollars today. The various iterations of the phonograph had changed forever our ability to capture and enjoy music, but its quality was poor and scratchy, and in 1906 John Philip Sousa called this mechanical music a "menace": "Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul."

There had to be some way to get music cheaply, and efficiently, and beautifully, to the eating public. Perhaps the instrument itself could be electrified, as Elisha Gray had done in 1876 with the synthesizer (after loosing the telephone patent to Bell). The synthesizer was potentially capable of mimicking any instrument, but doing it better, more in tune, more harmoniously. Now take this instrument, hook it into the phone system, and you have a sound system built for the masses -- the Telharmonium.

The Telharmonium, its inventor Thaddeus Cahill explained in 1907, wasn't canned music -- a derogatory phrase describing the mechanical muzak of the phonograph, which ran on cylinders plastered with the patent-approved face of Thomas Edison. No, this music would be live, clear and as full as an orchestra, if not four. It was "a machine that could produce scientifically perfect tone," explained Cahill. "The instrument must retain the chord capacity of the piano or organ. Thus could the defects of the great domesticated musical instruments -- piano, organ, and violin -- be consigned to oblivion."

Telharmonic Hall in Times Square was the cathedral of the instrument, with wires running out to restaurants that subscribed to the service for an annual fee. The musician, or usually two, would sit at an organ bay with four banks of 84 keys, perched above several floors of switchboards and tone transformers, the whole works powered by a huge dynamo, which ran the music out to those hungry for both gustatory and musical edification.

Unfortunately, it was also an almost impossible contraption to play and just as hard to listen to. The inventor claimed that the discerning ear could distinguish the flute, fife, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, cornet, French horn, tuba, snare drum and violin in his instrument. He billed it as 100 instruments in one. But what it sounded like to most people was an organ.

And while the music could be amplified and broadcast in restaurants, salons, hotels, schools, hospitals, theaters, boarding houses, dentists, barbers and waiting rooms all over New York -- the Telharmonium turned every room into a church, and all music into a indistinguishable hum. It wasn't technically canned, but all those missing human tics -- the plink of the piano, the whine of the out-of-tune violin -- made this "perfect" instrument an imperfect mechanical menace.

The Telharmonium was an in-between technology, able to hook itself into a growing infrastructure -- the phone system -- but not quite transform it. The men who made early synthesizers dreamed of a synaesthesic overhaul of the senses, with some keyboards incorporating light and other color. The Telharmonium was one of the largest of these machines, but its idea was the simplest: the waiting world had been too quiet, the pauses at dinner too long, the doctors office too sickeningly silent. It made its audience want what it had never wanted before: our daily lives, set to music.

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