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A century before Web simulcasts, there was Theatrophone

Humans have been bending their considerable ingenuity to the challenge of delivering music longer than you might think.

Humans have been bending their considerable ingenuity to the challenge of delivering music longer than you might think. Recently I came across one of history's most attractive pre-radio broadcasting solutions -- the Théâtrophone, a French system from more than a century ago that delivered stereo audio from opera houses and theatres via telephone wires.

The Théâtrophone (image courtesy of Denis Roques)

Devised by Clément Ader -- a French engineer who worked with Alexander Graham Bell to improve the sound quality of the telephone -- around 1880, the concept was commercialised a decade later by Compagnie du Théâtrophone. It worked by transmitting a sound picked up by about 80 stage-mounted microphones within theatres. The transmission was poorly amplified, but over a budding telephone network it was groundbreaking for the time -- the sick, the disabled and the bone idle could listen to music without shifting their position in bed.

But it was an expensive business for listeners, requiring the purchase of both the Théâtrophone and a subscription to the broadcasts. To tackle this, hotels and bars would buy several Théâtrophones and charge people for listening -- a forerunner of pubs showing sport on TV to attract drinkers. Short news broadcasts were also part of the subscription, and featured at regular intervals throughout the day.

It wasn't to last, however. The expensive Théâtrophone services were eventually superceded by cheaper radio broadcasting, which was being furiously refined at the start of the 20th century. Compagnie du Théâtrophone checked out in 1932, by which time radio broadcasts had advanced to the stage of being recorded in peoples' homes on to 7-inch records.

France wasn't the only country to attempt telephone-based broadcasting, though. Between 1895 and the mid-1920s, the copycat Electrophone of London operated in an almost identical manner to the Théâtrophone, but, alas, succumbed to the same tumultuous fate as radio began its dizzying ascent.

For more information on the history of the Théâtrophone, check out New Scientist's superb article here (subscription).