The Electrophone System
In the late 1800s life ran at a slower pace. With no radios, the spreading of news depended on the daily newspaper. This was being delivered by a growing network of fast, reliable trains. In an emergency there was the telegraph or telephone, but they could only go to one recipient at a time. Wireless transmission was still experimental. For mass entertainment there was the music hall or the new-fangled gramophone. With the growth of telephone services it was logical to use them for the mass distribution of entertainment. In 1881 Clement Ader in France demonstrated the transmission of music and other entertainment over a telephone line, using very sensitive microphones of his own invention and his own receivers. This system caught on. It was called the Theatrophone and various sites were wired into a switchboard which couild be accessed on a subscription basis.
Inventor Tivadar Puskas in Budapest set up a system he called Telefon Hirmondo (Telephone Herald) which broadcast news and stock market information over telephone lines. Subscribers to the service could call in to the telephone switchboard and be connected to the broadcast of their choice. The system was quite successful and was widely reported overseas.
In London a similar service was commenced by Mr M S J Booth who formed the Electrophone company in 1884, only three years after Puskas and Ader. They "broadcast" their news and entertainment over the lines of the National Telephone Company from their own offices. These were laid out along the lines of a newspaper office, with special rooms from which the news or entertainment was read live into the microphones - in fact, the forerunner of the radio studio. Subscribers were issued with special headphones and an optional megaphone attachment was available for "handsfree" listening. They were also issued with a special "answer back" microphone so they could talk to the Central Office and request different programs. The headphones used Ader's receivers, as shown.
Electrophone wired microphones into many music halls, theatres and churches, and conducted "outside broadcasts" from these. Their charges were fairly high and the standard of the broadcasts could be pretty low, given the level of technology of microphones and phone lines at the time. In spite of this, many people found that the immediate reception of news like stock market results was very useful, and the service grew.
The main distribution centre for Electrophone was in the old Pelican Club, which was taken over in 1895 by the National Telephone Company for their new Gerrard exchange. It consisted of a switchboard with specially wired cord circuits. On the multiple jacks, outgoing junctions to various exchanges were terminated, along with incoming lines from the outside broadcast sites.
To connect to the Electrophone service it was necessary to ask the local telephone operator for Electrophone. Connection was made by a special junction to Gerrard Street where the operator plugged into the requested program. For those who did not subscribe, an Electrophone Saloon was provided at Gerrard Street where performances could be listened to in the comfort of an armchair by a fireplace.
By the end of the first year, Electrophone had forty seven customers. One reason for its success was the slow recognition of the broadcast potential of radio in Britain. Although U.S. inventors were experimenting with public broadcasting, no such experiments seem to have taken place in Britain at this point. Marconi's work on radio was still exploring the military and shipping communications possibilities, rather than public broadcasting. Some experimental broadcasts to ships at sea had been tried but interest died out with the start of World War 1.
Electrophone subscribers had increased to around 600 by 1908 and the company covered performances from some 30 churches and theatres.
During the war, recuperating servicemen were given free access to Electrophone, and so many people became aware of the the potential of the system. In the U.S., however, this interest was directed to radio broadcasting rather than the telephone lines. In 1922 Western Electric opened its radio station WEAF in New York, and made time on the station available to customers for a fee. Thus the evil of advertising came to broadcasting. It worked, though, and the writing was on the wall for Electrophone.
In Britain resistance to broadcasting was especially high from the newspapers who saw their position and advertising revenue being challenged. Against them were the companies who could see a lucrative market in radio transmitters and receivers , including the powerful Marconi and GEC companies.
When Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail began actively working with Marconi's 2MT Chelmsford station, it became obvious that radio would succeed. Obvious to all but the British Post Office, who denounced the use of the radio waves for entertainment as a frivolous use of a national asset.
In 1920 the Post Office ordered the closure of the Chelmsford station. By this time there were so many radio receivers in use that public outcry forced the Post Office to allow 2MT back on the air in 1922. They attached a strange condition to the license - the station must stop broadcasting for three minutes in every ten so the Post Office could check that "there was no interference with any official transmitter". This was from an organisation that had no radio technology of its own whatever.
Electrophone was not affected by any of these problems, and actually gained customers while 2MT was off the air.
Other "experimental" stations were opened by Western Electric and the Radio Communication Co. and it became obvious even to the Post Office that radio would not go away. They tried to avoid the congestion of the public airwaves that was occurring in the United States and in 1922 they called a meeting of representatives of all of the major radio companies in Britain to establish a single U.K. broadcasting company , which became the BBC. Electrophone was not invited to the conference as it it was not radio-based, even though its studios had been copied by the new radio stations and did exactly the same job. Strangely, Electrophone too had ignored the popularity and lower cost of radio.
Matters moved with surprising speed and the first BBC station, 2LO London, was opened in November 1922. This was the death knell for Electrophone. They were already paying very high line rentals to the British Post Office, who had bought out the National Telephone Company.
Faced with declining audiences in the face of free to air broadcasting, they had no choice. On 30th of June 1925 , after more than thirty years of broadcasting, the Electrophone exchange closed.
Good ideas have a way of being revived. In the 1990s the growth of computer data services and the Internet duplicated what Electrophone was doing a hundred years earlier. Pay TV is just a development of the same idea by different means. In a final irony, the Electrophone name is now attached to a range of radio and satellite-based communications systems that in turn have overtaken much of the radio technology that made Electrophone redundant.
Wedlake G E C "SOS The Story of Radio Communication" Melbourne 1973
Poole J "The Practical Telephone Handbook" London 1912
H White's United States Early Radio History Website at