Monday, September 20, 2010

Streaming music, 1910

[New York Times, May 31, 1910.]

In Wilmington, Delaware, a century ago, the Tel-musici Company was streaming recorded music by telephone:

From a central station at the telephone company’s building the music is transmitted over the regular telephone wires and “voiced” at the subscriber’s end through the customary horn.

The try-out in Wilmington has shown that there is an ever-growing demand for music among telephone subscribers. The music room at the exchange is a large chamber, around the sides of which is a switchboard. The room is equipped with a great number of phonographs and all of the phonograph records are on file.

When a subscriber wants music he calls the exchange and asks for this room. He tells the girl in charge what selection he wishes to hear, making his choice from a catalogue which is supplied by the company. Then the subscriber affixes the horn to the telephone receiver, the music operator puts the desired record on a phonograph which is plugged into the subscriber’s line, and starts the machine. At the conclusion of the music the connection is automatically cut off.

Arrangements may be made for an evening’s entertainment this way, the programme being made up in advance and submitted to the company by telephone, with orders to begin at a given time. Should two or more subscribers simultaneously want the same piece this can be done simply by connecting both lines to the same phonograph.

In Wilmington the company asks music subscribers to guaranteee $18 a year, the charge for records being from 3 cents for the regular records to 7 for those by the great operatic stars.

From “Music By Telephone. Experiment Has Proved Successful In Wilmington — May Be Tried Here,” New York Times, May 31, 1910.
For more information on the Tel-musici Company (unidentified by name in the Times article): “Distributing Music Over Telephone Lines,” Telephony: The American Telephone Journal, 18.25 (1909). Here are two photographs from Telephony, a partial view of the Wilmington Music Room (with phonographs lining the wall) and a home installation.

[Click for larger views.]

Elaine, could that be our Beckwith piano?

comments: 10

Adair said...

I never fail to be astonished by early 20th Century concepts, and how much was accomplished with very new and (by our standards) limited technology.

This reminds me of something that existed in the 60's in fancy apartment buildings. Each apartment would be equipped with a wall speaker and volume dial. The building would subscribe to the MUZAK system, and the exquisite sounds of the One Hundred and One Strings, or the Johnny Mann Singers, would be piped directly into every apartment. You activated the speaker by switching on the dial and adjusting to your preferred volume---it was especially useful for providing quiet,dinner-time music, over candlelight and wine.

Elaine Fine said...

This one seems to be a bit shorter than our piano.

Anyway, here's a Sextet from Lucia recording worth hearing and seeing.

Michael Leddy said...

Adair, I’d never heard of in-house music — what a wonderful thing. Jonathan Schwartz created something similar as an eleven-year-old in 1949.

Everyone, go watch and listen to the performance that Elaine found.

Unknown said...

This reminds me of Proust listening to the opera over his telephone. I like the idea of the music system installed in the house too. Cool things.

Michael Leddy said...

Mari, thanks for reminding me about Proust and the telephone. I just looked it up — it was called the Théâtrophone.

Adair said...

Oh, please, do tell us more about the Proust connection!

Gunther said...

Very exciting! Thank you for sharing this.

Adair, maybe the sound system you have described can be combined with Erik Satie's "musique d'ameublement" (sp?), furniture music, that was conceived to be consumed without actively listen to it. When it was performed for the first time Satie asked the audience to walk around, chat etc. and went mad because they didn't – they just remained seated and listened.

Michael Leddy said...

“Early in the year [1911] Proust had subscribed to a new device that brought opera, concerts, and plays into the home. For a fee of sixty francs a month, the subscriber received a theatrophone, a large black ear-trumpet connected through telephone lines to eight Paris theaters and concert halls, including the Opéra, the Opéra-Comique, the Concerts Colonne, and the Comédie-Française. Although the sound-quality was often poor, the instrument was a great boon to someone like Proust, who loved opera and the theater but who rarely felt well enough to attend performances. He often listened, even when the sound was so bad that he could barely hear the words.”

William C. Carter, Marcel Proust: A Life (2002)

There’s a Wikipedia article on this technology.

Adair said...


Yes, Gunther, furniture music. Satie wanted to explore, as he called it, the aesthetics of boredom, utterly "white" music. He was in some ways a precursor to the minimalists. MUZAK, for its part, was designed to control your heartbeat by combining diffferent musical beats---relaxed, then enlivened, then relaxed---and was meant originally to be used in offices to stimulate worker productivity and ease anxiety. It was used in department stores to create a sense of calm well-being, which lead to increased consumption. In the USA, it was often known derisively as "elevator music." But we are realizing today that there was a great deal of interesting music in this genre. I heard a musicologist rename it American Impressionist music. Some of the ensembles, such as the One Hundred and One Strings, were really members of the Berlin Philharmonic---it was cheaper in the 50's and 60's to record in Europe than in the US. Just think: "elevator music" performed by musicians who had played under Furtwangler, piped into your home, office, or emporium...It boggles the mind...but the recordings are often fantastic.

Gunther said...

Adair, thank you for these very exciting details!

I am great fan of the so-called "elevator music" and "library music". Countless albums of the latter genre have been released over the decades but unfortunately weren't available to the general public. Thanks to some small record labels many impressing CDs with cues from KPM, Bosworth, De Wolfe etc. have been re-released, and most of the tracks are just amazing.