Meet the “Telharmonium,” the First Synthesizer (and Predecessor to Muzak), Invented in 1897

Before the New Year, we brought you footage of Russ­ian poly­math­ic inven­tor Léon Theremin demon­strat­ing the strange instru­ment that bears his sur­name, and we not­ed that the Theremin was the first elec­tron­ic instru­ment. This is not strict­ly true, though it is the first elec­tron­ic instru­ment to be mass pro­duced and wide­ly used in orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion and per­for­mance. But like bio­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion, the his­to­ry of musi­cal instru­ment devel­op­ment is lit­tered with dead ends, anom­alies, and for­got­ten ances­tors (such as the octo­bass). One such obscure odd­i­ty, the Tel­har­mo­ni­um, appeared almost 20 years before the Theremin, and it was patent­ed by its Amer­i­can inven­tor, Thad­deus Cahill, even ear­li­er, in 1897. (See some of the many dia­grams from the orig­i­nal patent below.)

Telharmonium 1

Cahill, a lawyer who had pre­vi­ous­ly invent­ed devices for pianos and type­writ­ers, cre­at­ed the Telharmonium—also called the Dynamaphone—to broad­cast music over the tele­phone, mak­ing it a pre­cur­sor not to the Theremin but to the lat­er scourge of tele­phone hold music. “In a large way,” writes Jay Willis­ton at, “Cahill invent­ed what we know of today as ‘Muzak.’” He built the first pro­to­type Tel­har­mo­ni­um, the Mark I, in 1901. It weighed sev­en tons. The final incar­na­tion of the instru­ment, the Mark III, took 50 peo­ple to build at the cost of $200,000 and was “60 feet long, weighed almost 200 tons and incor­po­rat­ed over 2000 elec­tric switch­es…. Music was usu­al­ly played by two peo­ple (4 hands) and con­sist­ed of most­ly clas­si­cal works by Bach, Chopin, Greig, Rossi­ni and oth­ers.” The work­ings of the gar­gan­tu­an machine resem­ble the boil­er room of an indus­tri­al facil­i­ty. (See sev­er­al pho­tographs here.)

Telharmonium 2

Need­less to say, this was a high­ly imprac­ti­cal instru­ment. Nev­er­the­less, Cahill not only found will­ing investors for the enor­mous con­trap­tion, but he also staged suc­cess­ful demon­stra­tions in Bal­ti­more, then—after dis­as­sem­bling and mov­ing the thing by train—in New York. By 1905, his New Eng­land Elec­tric Music Com­pa­ny “made a deal with the New York Tele­phone Com­pa­ny to lay spe­cial lines so that he could trans­mit the sig­nals from the Tel­har­mo­ni­um through­out the city.” Cahill used the term “syn­the­siz­ing” in his patent, which some say makes the Tel­har­mo­ni­um the first syn­the­siz­er, though its oper­a­tion was as much mechan­i­cal as elec­tron­ic, using a com­pli­cat­ed series of gears and cylin­ders to repli­cate the musi­cal range of a piano. (See the oper­a­tion explained in the video at the top.) “Raised bumps on cylin­ders helped cre­ate musi­cal con­tour notes,” writes Pop­u­lar Mechan­ics, “not unlike a music box, with the size of the cylin­der deter­min­ing the pitch.”

Telharmonium 3

The huge, very loud Tel­har­mo­ni­um Mark III end­ed up in the base­ment of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House for a time as Cahill worked on his scheme for pump­ing music through the tele­phone lines. But this plan did not come off smooth­ly. “The prob­lem was,” Pop­u­lar Mechan­ics points out,” all cables leak off radio waves. Send­ing a gigan­tic, ampli­fied sig­nal on turn-of-the-20th-cen­tu­ry phone lines was bound to cause trou­ble.” The Tel­har­mo­ni­um cre­at­ed inter­fer­ence on oth­er phone lines and even inter­rupt­ed Naval radio trans­mis­sions. “Rumor has it,” the Dou­glas Ander­son School of the Arts writes, “that a New York busi­ness­man, infu­ri­at­ed by the con­stant net­work inter­fer­ence, broke into the build­ing where the Tel­har­mo­ni­um was housed and destroyed it, throw­ing pieces of the machin­ery into the Hud­son riv­er below.”

The sto­ry seems unlike­ly, but it serves as a sym­bol for the instru­men­t’s col­lapse. Cahill’s com­pa­ny fold­ed in 1908, though the final Tel­har­mo­ni­um sup­pos­ed­ly remained oper­a­tional until 1916. No record­ings of the instru­ment have sur­vived, and Thad­deus Cahill’s broth­er Arthur even­tu­al­ly sold the last pro­to­type off for scrap in 1950 after fail­ing to find a buy­er. The entire ratio­nale for the instru­ment had been sup­plant­ed by radio broad­cast­ing. The Tel­har­mo­ni­um may have failed to catch on, but it still had a sig­nif­i­cant impact. Its unique design inspired anoth­er impor­tant elec­tron­ic instru­ment, the Ham­mond organ. And its very exis­tence gave musi­cal futur­ists a vision. The Dou­glas Ander­son School writes:

Despite its final demise, the Tel­har­mo­ni­um trig­gered the birth of elec­tron­ic music—The Ital­ian Com­pos­er and intel­lec­tu­al Fer­ruc­cio Busoni inspired by the machine at the height of its pop­u­lar­i­ty was moved to write his “Sketch of a New Aes­thet­ic of Music” (1907) which in turn became the clar­i­on call and inspi­ra­tion for the new gen­er­a­tion of elec­tron­ic com­posers such as Edgard Varèse and Lui­gi Rus­so­lo.

The instru­ment also made quite an impres­sion on anoth­er Amer­i­can inven­tor, Mark Twain, who enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly demon­strat­ed it through the tele­phone dur­ing a New Year’s gath­er­ing at his home, after giv­ing a speech about his own not incon­sid­er­able sta­tus as an inno­va­tor and ear­ly adopter of new tech­nolo­gies. “Unfor­tu­nate­ly for Thad­deus Cahill,” writes William Weir at The Hart­ford Courant, “Twain’s sup­port was­n’t enough to make a suc­cess of the Tel­har­mo­ni­um.” Learn more about the instru­men­t’s his­to­ry from this book.

via WFMU

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sovi­et Inven­tor Léon Theremin Shows Off the Theremin, the Ear­ly Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment That Could Be Played With­out Being Touched (1954)

Meet Delia Der­byshire, the Dr. Who Com­pos­er Who Almost Turned The Bea­t­les’ “Yes­ter­day” Into Ear­ly Elec­tron­i­ca

Rick Wake­man Tells the Sto­ry of the Mel­lotron, the Odd­ball Pro­to-Syn­the­siz­er Pio­neered by the Bea­t­les

Thomas Dol­by Explains How a Syn­the­siz­er Works on a Jim Hen­son Kids Show (1989)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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