These days synthesizers seem so common that we almost have forgotten how it all evolved. We have to go way back in time, to the 19th century. Back then, music was only played with notes on a paper that musicians then played on their instruments. Until "Thaddeus Cahill" emerged in 1893 with the idea for some kind of electric organ. This hyperactive kid, living in Washington, had an enormous talent for business. He discovered that tones generated from his electric dynamo could deliver the same quality as, for example, the tones of a violin or piano and could also remove any defects in this way. From then on we could talk about the “first electronic instrument”. He got his inspiration for this from the book of a German scientist “Hermann Von Helmholtz”. The book called “The Sensations Of Tone” was written in 1862 and translated into English in 1877.
From vision to machine...
In short, Helmholtz had discovered that music is more than just some musical notes on a sheet of paper. He had discovered that the different components, harmonic sounds and by having different instruments play the same note, that a certain “tone color” was created that makes it sound so beautiful. If you were to hear these instruments separately, it would not sound the same. Now this all sounds logical, but at that time people thought differently about certain matters. This was important to people like Cahill and to those who saw a market in designing machines that could generate these sounds. It also brought music into the world of scientists and technicians.
When “Alexander Graham Bell” invented “the telephone”, Cahill had the vision that his electronic instrument could have the power to replace entire orchestras and that he could broadcast it “over the phone lines” to bring classical music to the general public. Around this period there were no monitors or anything to send out sound, so people first tried this via the telephone line with cones attached to the receiver. In 1897 Cahill applies for and receives a patent. In his application for this he used the word “synthesizing”. Remarkable isn’t it?
As a result he came up with the name “Telharmonium”, several variations would eventually be made of this and you could get 3 types: “The Mark 1” weighed about 7 tons and “The Mark 2 as well as The Mark 3” about 200 tons. For those who cannot estimate how much this is, here are a few things to compare:
A blue whale weighs 140 tons, a Boeing 757-200 weighs 100 tons, and The Statue of Liberty weighs 204 tons. This machine only generated sound.
Furthermore, there were roughly 2000 electrical switches, 50 people were needed to build this and this was almost always played by 2 people who could do this via 153 keys or foot pedals. You also could change the sound by “tone wheels”, which were sent by electrical signals. This instrument also took up the entire space, not to mention the cables. For the cables, it was also decided to make holes in the floor to hide them because of this. It needed a tremendous amount of energy to work properly, roughly about 600 to 700 kilowatts. And all this at a bargain price of $200,000.
To the public!
Cahill and his partners knew that this was a considerable sum of money. So they decided to seek sponsors and presented the Telharmonium to a group of business people in Baltimore. He arranged a performance by the “Handel's Largo” to strengthen his presentation. Played in Washington, broadcasted over the telephone line and forwarded to a telephone receiver with an attached cone to play the music. The gamble turned out to be a success, and they decided to invest $100,000 and fund the licenses, as well as make a first commercial version of the instrument.
And finally, in 1905 the Telharmonium was ready and could be installed in New York. Where it would broadcast its sound in thousands of hotels, theaters and restaurants. A year later it finally happened, although this did not go entirely according to plan. Cahill made an arrangement with the New York Telephone Company to place special telephone lines so that it could be broadcasted over the lines, complaints were received from several people, hotels, bars and operators.
They said the broadcast signal mixed with the phone signal, giving you a mix of your conversation and a classical orchestra. Also, a lot of feedback started to appear, which is not exactly useful when you are trying to make a phone call with someone. It is even rumored that this put pressure on people's relationship from time to time, when they called their partner they thought the other was somewhere in a “nice place”. Can you imagine?
Musicians also found the chorus of the keyboard from the Telharmonium too complicated to play or participate in, for example. Others thought this machine sounded too synthetic and were not completely convinced yet. This discussion in music will probably last forever...
There were also plenty of people who were fans of the unusual sound this electronic instrument produced. At the time some even thought this was a real miracle and could continue to listen “forever”. The idea that this could be performed in a place and broadcasted from a distance also started to seem very interesting. The Telharmonium received a lot of praise for being able to produce or stimulate sounds such as the flute, clarinet and cello. Yet it remained a clumsy, too heavy and too big object to just put it down somewhere.
Times are hard!
The costs for the Telharmonium remained extremely high and the sales figures low, so that Cahill and Co did not get out of the costs. In the meantime, other technologies such as player pianos and Wurlitzers had also entered the market with its wireless radios. In the 1920s, the Theremin came onto the market, which brought a lot of changes. The company slowly went bankrupt around 1907 and the interest in this device began to disappear a few years later. In 1914 the company was finally declared "unsuccessful". The production probably continued until about 1916.
Unfortunately no recordings of the Telharmonium survived the time. Cahill himself died in 1934 and his younger brother tried to promote and sell The Mark 1 for a long time, but again without success. The last one was sold for scrap in the 1950s or 1960s.
Despite the fact that the future of this device didn’t look bright, this device meant a lot for the future that would follow. In order to improve things, things must first go wrong. Trial and error as they sometimes say.