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Dead medium: The Theatrophone, the electrophone
From: (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): RADIO ART by Robert Hawes, photography by Paul Straker-Welds

Green Wood Publishing Company Ltd, London 1991
ISBN 1-872532-29-2

page 24

"At about the same time as the telephone and gramophone

were beginning to be domesticated, a near precursor of the

radio was going through a similar process. It was a home-

entertainment invention of about 1893 known as the

'Theatrophone,' a device which grew out of the invention

of the telephone and was demonstrated at the World

Exhibition of Electricity in 1881.

"For just a few years at the start of the century,

Parisians could have Theatrophone instruments installed

which actually provided home entertainment, rather than

mere telephone communication, by relaying live

performances from theatres. However, unlike the wireless,

the Theatrophone needed wires between the transmission

apparatus and the receivers, rather than broadcasting via

air waves. Microphones installed on the stages of such

theatres as the Paris Opera picked up the sounds of live

performances and relayed them by wire to the telephone

exchange, where an operator was on hand to offer a

selection of programmes to subscribers renting

Theatrophone receivers.

"Several different programs, related from various

theatres, were available to subscribers who could make

their own selection by revolving a switch and inserting

coins into their machines to buy a fixed amount of

listening time. The Theatrophone receivers, ornamental

boxes with telephone earpieces attached on trailing wires,

even offered stereophonic listening by the use of a pair

of microphones left and right on the stage, connected by

twin lines to the home receivers. These were also

installed in hotel lounges and in restaurants;

furthermore, programmes could be relayed to London and

Brussels via normal international telephone distribution


"By 1895, Britain had its own equivalent of the French

Theatrophone. It was called the 'Electrophone' and it

offered subscribers a similar service via their telephone

lines and as well as receiving 'local' relays from

theatres, churches and London's Royal Opera House, they

could also switch to exchange programmes from Europe via a

link-up with the French company. The Theatrophone idea

might have proved a great success as an entertainment and

news broadcasting medium if it had not been for the

appearance of the wireless which nipped it in the bud."