The First Music Streaming Service Was Invented in 1881: Discover the Théâtrophone

Every liv­ing adult has wit­nessed enough tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment in their life­time to mar­vel at just how much has changed, and dig­i­tal stream­ing and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions hap­pen to be areas where the most rev­o­lu­tion­ary change seems to have tak­en place. We take for grant­ed that the present resem­bles the past not at all, and that the future will look unimag­in­ably dif­fer­ent. So the nar­ra­tive of lin­ear progress tells us. But that sto­ry is nev­er as tri­umphant­ly sim­ple as it seems.

In one salient coun­terex­am­ple, we find that not only did livestream­ing music and news exist in the­o­ry long before the inter­net, but it exist­ed in actu­al practice—at the very dawn of record­ing tech­nol­o­gy, tele­pho­ny, and gen­er­al elec­tri­fi­ca­tion. First devel­oped in France in 1881 by inven­tor Clement Ader, who called his sys­tem the Théâtro­phone, the device allowed users to expe­ri­ence “the trans­mis­sion of music and oth­er enter­tain­ment over a tele­phone line,” notes the site Bob’s Old Phones, “using very sen­si­tive micro­phones of [Ader’s] own inven­tion and his own receivers.”

The pre-radio tech­nol­o­gy was ahead of its time in many ways, as Michael Der­van explains at The Irish Times. The Théâtro­phone “could trans­mit two-chan­nel, mul­ti-micro­phone relays of the­atre and opera over phone lines for lis­ten­ing on head­phones. The use of dif­fer­ent sig­nals for the two ears cre­at­ed a stereo effect.” Users sub­scribed to the ser­vice, and it proved pop­u­lar enough to receive an entry in the 1889 edi­tion of The Elec­tri­cal Engi­neer ref­er­ence guide, which defined it as “a tele­phone by which one can have soupçons of the­atri­cal decla­ma­tion for half a franc.”

In 1896 “the Belle Epoque pop artist Jules Cheret immor­tal­ized the the­at­ro­phone,” writes Tanya Basu at Men­tal Floss, “in a lith­o­graph fea­tur­ing a woman in a yel­low dress, grin­ning as she pre­sum­ably lis­tened to an opera feed.” Vic­tor Hugo got to try it out. “It’s very strange,” he wrote. “It starts with two ear muffs on the wall, and we hear the opera; we change ear­muffs and hear the French The­atre, Coquelin. And we change again and hear the Opera Comique. The chil­dren and I were delight­ed.”

Though The Elec­tri­cal Engi­neer also called it “the lat­est thing to catch [Parisians’] ears and their cen­times,” the inno­va­tion had already by that time spread else­where in Europe. Inven­tor Tivador Puskas cre­at­ed a “stream­ing” sys­tem in Budapest called Tele­fon Her­mon­do (Tele­phone Her­ald), Bob’s Old Phones points out, “which broad­cast news and stock mar­ket infor­ma­tion over tele­phone lines.” Unlike Ader’s sys­tem, sub­scribers 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.”

The mech­a­nism was, of course, quite dif­fer­ent from dig­i­tal stream­ing, and quite lim­it­ed by our stan­dards, but the basic deliv­ery sys­tem was sim­i­lar enough. A third such ser­vice worked a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly. The Elec­tro­phone sys­tem, formed in Lon­don in 1884, com­bined its pre­de­ces­sors’ ideas: broad­cast­ing both news and musi­cal enter­tain­ment. Play­back options were expand­ed, with both head­phones and a speak­er-like mega­phone attach­ment.

Addi­tion­al­ly, users had a micro­phone so that they could “talk to the Cen­tral Office and request dif­fer­ent pro­grams.” The addi­tion of inter­ac­tiv­i­ty came at a pre­mi­um. “The Elec­tro­phone ser­vice was expen­sive,” writes Der­van, “£5 a year at a time when that sum would have cov­ered a cou­ple months rent.” Addi­tion­al­ly, “the expe­ri­ence was com­mu­nal rather than soli­tary.” Sub­scribers would gath­er in groups to lis­ten, and “some of the pho­tographs” of these ses­sions resem­ble “images of addicts in an old-style opi­um den”—or of Vic­to­ri­ans gath­ered at a séance.

The com­pa­ny lat­er gave recu­per­at­ing WWI ser­vice­men access to the ser­vice, which height­ened its pro­file. But these ear­ly livestream­ing services—if we may so call them—were not com­mer­cial­ly viable, and “radio killed the ven­ture off in the 1920s” with its uni­ver­sal acces­si­bil­i­ty and appeal to adver­tis­ers and gov­ern­ments. This seem­ing evo­lu­tion­ary dead end might have been a dis­tant ances­tor of stream­ing live con­certs and events, though no one could have fore­seen it at the time. No one save sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers.

Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopi­an nov­el Look­ing Back­ward imag­ined a device very like the Théâtro­phone in his vision of the year 2000. And in 1909, E.M. Forster drew on ear­ly stream­ing ser­vices and oth­er ear­ly telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions advances for his vision­ary short sto­ry “The Machine Stops,” which extrap­o­lat­ed the more iso­lat­ing ten­den­cies of the tech­nol­o­gy to pre­dict, as play­wright Neil Duffield remarks, “the inter­net in the days before even radio was a mass medi­um.”

via Ted Gioia/The Irish Times

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of the Inter­net in 8 Min­utes

Hear the First Record­ing of the Human Voice (1860)

How an 18th-Cen­tu­ry Monk Invent­ed the First Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment

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

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