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Posts Tagged ‘Electrophone’

Photo: BT Archive
An advertisement for the London Electrophone Company.

This is where I trot out sayings like “There is no new thing under the sun” and “Everything old is new again.” They may be clichés, but they reflect my delight in learning about a 19th C. invention that foreshadowed the 21st.

Natasha Kitcher, a doctoral researcher in the department of communication and media at Loughborough University, UK, writes about this at the Conversation.

“The idea of streaming live theatre into people’s homes,” she notes, “goes back to the Victorian era. From 1893 to 1925 the London Electrophone Company streamed the sound of live theatre into the home using a telephone device known as an Electrophone.

“Inventors of the time, including Alexander Graham Bell, had looked at the telephone and seen something that could be used to reach large groups of people – they understood that telephone cables could be used to deliver information from one person to many, and not just for one-to-one conversations.

“Music concerts, scientific lectures, church services and theatre shows were ‘streamed’ into the homes of those that could afford it across the country. For those with a smaller budget, listening salons were created. For the first time, you could experience a show without being in the theatre. This was, of course, well before the first live radio broadcast in 1920.

“Made possible thanks to the work of Frenchman Ernest Mercadier (who first patented headphones), the Electrophone used primitive headsets, copied from the French Théâtrophone (although, unlike the Théâtrophone, the Electrophone did not use stereo technology). …

“The Electrophone worked by sending information through telephone wires into a central receiver in the home where one or more headsets could be installed (each additional headset came with an extra cost). The sound listeners heard would be from small microphones secreted behind the footlights at the front of the stage.

In church services the microphones were hidden in fake wooden Bibles.

“Each Electrophone performance was a genuine live show taking place somewhere in the country – most commonly the big London theatres, such as the Adelphi Theatre or Covent Garden Opera. In 1896, the Musical Standard reported users from the time saying they could hear audience members in the theatre ‘rustling like leaves’ during the performance, which was broadcast live as it happened.

“Streaming genuine live shows meant that the listener at home experienced the start, end and [intermission] of a show just as if they were there. If someone slipped up or forgot a line, this would be just as obvious to audience members listening on headphones as it was to those inside the theatre. And Electrophone listeners could enjoy the experience of finding out ‘whodunit’ at the same time as audience members sitting in the stalls.

“The Electrophone cost £5 [$6.60] a year when it was first available for subscription in the 1890s – equivalent to around £120 [$158] today – and the unobtrusive nature of the technology involved meant that there was no need to reduce the size of the theatre audience. The London Electrophone Company paid for the technology to be installed in the theatre, the National Telephone Company (later the Post Office) would pay for the upkeep of the telephone lines and the theatre would receive a share of the Electrophone Company’s profits – exact records of how profits were shared are yet to be uncovered.

“Subscribers could pay an additional fee to be connected to a theatre for the season, such as the Covent Garden winter season. The high cost of the Electrophone (much more than a Netflix subscription today) almost certainly meant it was mainly used by the wealthy, but sets installed in hotels, public gardens and exhibitions were operated by the use of coin slots and, for a smaller fee, people could listen to snippets of live theatre and musical broadcast.

“People unable to attend the theatre, for whatever reason, could listen at home – just as French novelist Marcel Proust did in the early 20th century when he was too sick to make it out of his house.”

More here.

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