Monday 29 November 2010


The 'electrophone' is a forgotten broadcast medium (the first commercial broadcast medium?) - which delivered concerts &c. over telephone lines - you dialled a number and were connected to the broadcast. Here's George Sims in 1902:

The most picturesque and entertaining adjunct of Telephone London is the electrophone. There is not a leading theatre, concert-room, or music-hall but has the electrophone transmitters - in shape like cigar-boxes - installed before the footlights, out of sight of the audience. They are at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden; and in many of the principal places of worship a wooden dummy Bible in the pulpit bears the preacher's words, by means of the N.T.C. telephone lines, to thousands of invalid or crippled listeners in bed or chair in their homes or hospitals. It was thus that Queen Victoria, seated at Windsor Castle, heard 2,000 school children in Her Majesty's Theatre, in the Haymarket, cheer her and sing "God Save the Queen" on her last birthday. King Edward was likewise relieved from ennui at Buckingham Palace during his illness, for the brightest music, mirth, and song of London were ever on tap at his side. Queen Alexandra is also a devotee of the electrophone, more especially throughout the opera season. On the other hand, the cruel lot of certain hospital patients, of the blind, and even the deaf - for the micro-phonic capacity of the electrophone enables all but the stone-deaf to hear - is thus greatly brightened by science. The sadness of the bedridden, the incurable, or the sufferer from contagious disease is enlivened by sacred or secular song and story, and, as a much-to-be-welcomed addition to the alleviations of London's strenuous life, the benefits of the electrophone are innumerable. It may be added that in the imposingly decorated salon in Gerrard Street from time to time fashionable parties assemble and "taste" the whole of London's entertainments in one evening. Thus, over mammoth aerial and subterranean wire-webs does London, annihilating distance, work and play by the aid of Science.

George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902
One commentator from 1895 noted that 'The only fault to be found with the electrophone is that while using it you cannot keep your dignity.' An 'electrophone salon' in Gerrard street (which further research suggests was 'Pelican House', headquarters of the Electrophone Co.) perhaps shows us why ... [click picture to zoom]

Quality was a little variable: a report on a connection to the Paris opera in 1896 says that the female voices were less distinct than the male, and that the applause resembled 'the rustling of leaves'.


The BBC has a nice piece on the Electrophone, including costs:


  1. Presumably, the technology of the day did not permit the production of light headsets, let alone ear-plugs, that could be worn, rather than held in place.

    Nonetheless, I think that creating such a wired network was quite an achievement and though it may seem primitive to us would have been considered "leading-edge" technology in its day. I think its creators deserve praise for thinking up the idea and for carrying it through.

    There is no word in the quoted passage about the cost of subscribing to the electrophone service.

  2. Cost is a very good question - I've yet to find anything (or, indeed, on the cost of owning a telephone) ... must look into it!