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Dead medium: Cahill's Telharmonium
From: (Richard Kadrey)
Source(s): from a review of "The Telharmonium: A History of the First Music Synthesizer," review by Thomas L Rhea. Computer Music Journal, vol. 12 #3, 1988

(((Until I can get a copy of the definitive work on the Telharmonium (The Telharmonium: A History of the First Music Synthesizer by Reynold Weidenaar, NYU, 1988), here are notes from various sources.)))

From the review of Weidenaar's paper published in CMJ. The review contains some interesting basic info about the Telharmonium:

Reynold Weidenaar tells the story of Thaddeus Cahill and his siblings, who constructed the Telharmonium, a mammoth electrical generating plant and distribution system designed to provide music for millions over telephone lines. It is the hopeful tale of a vestige of the Industrial Age: five U.S. patents, begun in 1895; three completed instruments, including the commercial models in 1906 and 1911; multimillion-dollar investments in Telharmonic Music by otherwise astute capitalists; the euphoria of inaugural triumphs in 1907 at Telharmonic Hall in New York City; and the very early success at piping music into the very correct Manhattan restaurants and other venues.

It is a sad tale, involving the construction of massive alternator tone wheels that tantalizingly predated amplification technology; a business marriage with the New York Telephone Company that soured when Telharmonic Music proved to interfere with phone service (note: according to another source, the Telharmonium's signal was too much for the old switching systems, and tended to blow them out); Thaddeus Cahill's fixed ideas about Just Intonation, and the problems his 36-note-per-octave keyboard caused Telharmonium performers; Lee DeForest's early radio transmissions of the Telharmonium, and Cahill's inability to perceive the implications; an ill-fated second season at Telharmonic Hall, that was exacerbated by the financial panic of 1907; the deterioration of the Telharmonium into a musical freak show, and the failure of the licensee companies in 1908; and an abortive comeback in 1911 that struggled all the way into 1918.

It is a poignant tale of the wooden refusal of the Cahills to realize that a (200-ton) musical instrument chipped from iron was an anachronism even in the early 20th century; Arthur T. Cahill's crusade to carry forward the ideas of brothers Thaddeus and George following their deaths; and Arthur's circulation of a letter as late as 1951 trying to find a refuge for the first Telharmonium.

Arthur had been keeping the historic 14,000 lb Telharmonium prototype in storage at his own expense for almost 50 years, and finally sought "a permanent and a public home for this priceless monument to man's genius." There were no takers, and not even a small part of this incredible music machine is now available to wonder at.

(((From SINGING THE BODY ELECTRIC, by Mark Sinker. The Wire, September 1995, issue 139. An article looking at various early electronic instruments:)))

"The first and most fabulous monster is Thaddeus Cahill's Telharmonium: 200 tons, 60 feet across, taking up a whole floor and the basement below. It looked, surviving pictures tell us, like a church organ mated with a weaving loom. Cahill, a Canadian, built it in Holyoke, MA.; partially funded by the New England Electric Music cost a then-phenomenal $200,000, and was moved in 1906 to Telharmonic Hall in New York. The idea was to transmit 'Telharmony' across America, to hotels, restaurants, theaters and private homes, via local telephone exchanges. The Telharmonium itself was a kind of keyboard-operated dynamo organ; the bulk of the machine consisted of vast teethed gears on engine-driven spinning shafts which caused alternating currents in batteries and magnets. There were no loudspeakers in those days; radio was only five years old, and Lee DeForest's audion tube, which amplified signals many thousand-fold, wouldn't exist for at least another decade- so it fed straight into the telephone system. Unfortunately, it needed huge voltages and caused interference over the rest of the telephone network, such as it then was- so that one day an enraged businessman burst in, broke it up and threw the machinery into the Hudson river, or so the story goes.

"Actually, there were no less than three Telharmoniums, spread over some 20 years: the first Cahill had started in 1895 in Washington, DC, patented in 1897, finished in 1900; the Holyoke-NYC model was the second; a third begun in 1908, was finished in 1911 and certainly still in use in 1916. But the mid-teens radio broadcasts into the home were the coming thing, and the project went broke for lack of subscribers.

"For a short while, however, the Telharmonium was big news. A story in McClure's Magazine, 'New Music for an Old World,' brought it to the attention of Ferruccio Busoni, a virtuoso classical pianist and critical intellectual, Italian by birth, German by temperament, respected all across Europe. Busoni (whose pupils included Edgard Varese) cited the Telharmonium in a polemic he was then writing (for some reason he calls it the 'dynaphone'). His 1907 'Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music' proposed that music pass beyond its 19th century framings- harmony as the possible combination of a mere 12 notes, a highly selective and conventional instrumentation- the embrace the 'infinite' gradations within the octave structures: 'The question is important and imperious, how and on what are these tones are to be produced. Fortunately, while busied with this essay, I received from American direct and authentic intelligence which solves the problem in a simple manner. I refer to an invention by Dr. Thaddeus Cahill. He has constructed a comprehensive apparatus which makes it possible to transform an electric current into fixed and mathematically exact number of variations.'

"At which point Busoni hurtles intoxicatingly into an airborne rhetoric that flatters Cahill's 200 ton apparatus: 'Who has not dreamt that he could not float on air? And firmly believed his dream to be reality? Let us take thought, how music may be restored to its primitive, natural essence; let us free it from archectonic, acoustic and aesthetic dogmas; let it be pure invention and sentiment, in harmonies, in forms, in tone-colours (for invention and sentiment are not the prerogative of melody alone); let it follow the line of the rainbow and vie with the clouds in breaking sunbeams; let Music be naught else than Nature mirrored by and reflected from the human breast; for it is sounding air and floats above and beyond the air; within Man himself as universally and absolutely as in Creation entire...'"

Richard Kadrey