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Thaddeus Cahill's Teleharmonium

by Jay Williston
(illustrations from U.S. patents
580,035 and 1,213,804
courtesy of the U.S. Patent Office)

The Idea
In 1890's, Thaddeus Cahill was a lawyer and an inventor living in Washington DC. Before inventing the Telharmonium, he mostly invented devices for Pianos and Typewriters. In 1893, after fooling around with his telephone, trying to broadcast music through the phone lines, Cahill had the idea for the Telharmonium. Before the 1920's there was no way to amplify electrical signals. So in order to hear sounds through the telephone, you had to put the receiver up to your ear. Cahill knew that if he could generate a large enough of an electrical signal, and if he stuck a cone on the telephone receiver (much like a gramophone cone) he could transmit music through the telephone that could be heard by an audience. He figured that if he could send music through the telephone at the proper volume, he could set up a tidy business providing music to hotels, restaurants, and even private homes. So, in a large way, Cahill invented what we know of today as "Muzak". By 1896 he had his invention worked out and applied for a patent. In 1898 he was granted, patent #580,035 for the "Art of and Apparatus for Generating and Distributing Music Electrically." In his patent, Cahill used the term "synthesizing." This proves, some say, that the Telharmonium was truly the world's first Synthesizer.

The Telharmonium had to create a loud signal. Therefore it had to create a large amount of electricity. Cahill had observed that when an electric motor, or dynamo, was used to create an alternating current (as opposed to a direct current) the output could be heard through a telephone receiver as a steady pitch. The volume of this signal depended on the size of generator. A larger generator created more electricity, and, therefore, more sound. His idea was that if he had enough generators of a sufficient size, one for each note in the scale, he could switch on and off their outputs (or combine them, even) to create music.

The First Telharmonium
Cahill's began working on his instrument in 1898 and by 1901 he had his first model. It was a very simple version of his master plan, however, it weighed about 7 tons in all! The process was simple. The generators consisted of 35 long cylinders tone wheels, or rheotomes (although his patent called for 408! This was just a prototype). Around the circumference of the rheotome were raised bumps. When the cylinder rotated, a magnetic coil was held close to the bumps as they spun around. The closer the bumps were to the coil, the more electricity was generated. In between the bumps very little electricity was generated. This alternating current of electricity is what created the sounds. The rheotome cylinder was divided into many sections. Each section had a different amount of bumps around its circumference, and therefore created different pitches. For instance, if the cylinder was rotating at 110 Hz, the section with only one bump would create a pitch of "A" two octaves below A (440 Hz). The section of the cylinder which contained two bumps would play A (220 Hz), and the section which contained four bumps would play A (440 Hz), eight bumps would play A (880 Hz), and so on. Seven of these sections created seven octaves of the same note on one rheotome cylinder. Each cylinder was geared to spin at a different frequency. 12 cylinders created the chromatic scale 7 octaves wide. Dynamics could be created by moving the coils closer and further away from the rheotome. Cahill designed this feature into his keyboard, creating a touch sensitive keyboard.

With this instrument, he was able to secure financing from Oscar T. Crosby, who then enlisted his friend, Frederick C. Todd as a business partner. Crosby and Todd then set about the task of getting more financial support for the Telharmonium. They demonstrated the Telharmonium at a fundraising dinner at the Maryland Club in Baltimore. The attendees to the event, mostly bankers and businessmen, were quite impressed as they heard Handel's Largo emanate through a large cone attached to the telephone receiver. They were even more impressed that the sound was being broadcasted through the phone lines, from Cahill's factory in Washington, many miles away.

The demonstration in Baltimore was a great success, Crosby was able to get enough money to finance the building of the second and more elaborate Telharmonium. In the summer of 1902, Crosby formed the New England Electric Music Company and set Cahill up in a large rented workshop space at the Cabot Street Mill, in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Cahill, along with his brothers George and Arthur, began working building the new and improved Telharmonium.

The New York Electric Music Company and The Second Telharmonium (or Dynamophone)
The first performances of this Telharmonium (or as Cahill called it the Dynamophone) were made from the Cabot Street Mill workshop and were transmitted to the Hotel Hamilton about a half-mile away. Later, in 1904, Cahill made a transmission from Holyoke to New Haven Connecticut. In 1905 Crosby established another corporation, this one in New York City (the New England Electric Music Company was established in New Jersey). He 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.

By 1906 the new Telharmonium was beginning to take shape. 50 people were now working in Holyoke to build this massive machine. Four years and $200,000 later, it was now 60 feet long, weighed almost 200 tons and incorporated over 2000 electric switches. The newer model featured 145 gear driven alternators (or dynamos). These provided more accurate intonation than the previous design and produced 36 notes per octave with frequencies between 40 - 4000 Hz. Also, the custom receivers were improved to eliminate some of the inconsistencies of the earlier models, which tended to "shout" some notes out more than others.

In the summer of 1906 the Telharmonium was dismantled and loaded onto thirty railroad cars, and moved to New York City. It was assembled in the Broadway building at Broadway and 39th Street, in New York's theater district, across the street from the Metropolitan Opera House and the Casino Theatre. The machinery, the dynamoes and switching system, were very noisy. They were installed in the basement, while the performance console was installed in the newly built Music Hall at street level. Not only could the music be piped throughout New York, but there were also speakers installed at Music Hall for the public to hear. The New York debut of the Telharmonium (or Dynamophone as it was sometimes called) was on September 26th, 1906. Oscar T. Crosby gave a speech and a concert was performed for the public and potential customers.

Music was usually played by two people (4 hands) and consisted of mostly classical works by Bach, Chopin, Greig, Rossini and others. The company had boasted that the Telharmonium had enough power to supply "fifteen or twenty thousand subscribers" and that they had plans to have four separate circuits with different music on each line.

A few weeks later, on November 9th, the first subscriber to the piped in music was the CafŽ Martin, a large restaurant on 26th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. But trouble soon erupted when patrons of the New York Telephone Company complained of music bleeding into their telephone conversations. Although the Telharmonium had separate cables, they were laid right next the phone company cables and, due to the strength of the Telharmonium's signal, there was significant crosstalk. The telephone company notified Crosby that they intended to terminate their agreement to supply cables for the Telharmonium. Crosby scrambled to find a way to lay their own cables.

The winter of 1907 proved promising for the New York Electric Music Company. New subscribers included the very well know restaurant, Louis Sherry's, the Casino Theatre (which was across the street), the Museum of Natural History on 81st Street, the Normandie Hotel and the prestigious the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. They even had a few wealthy subscribers who had the music piped into their private homes. A series of public performances (eventually, 4 a day!) were also given on location, at what was now called Telharmonic Hall. The music was piped out into the streets for passers-by to hear. They secured glowing testimonials from celebrities who came to hear, including Walter Damrosch and Giacomo Puccini. The Telharmonium was even transmitted through the air using Lee De Forest's new audion wireless transmitter. However the static and the interference from wireless telegraphs made the signal less than desirable. Not to mention, the Navy complained that their wireless transmissions were being interrupted by the sounds of Rossini Overtures.

Crosby, meanwhile had secured a franchise to lay their own cables for the Telharmonium. This involved going as far as Albany, the state capital, to get a bill through the legislature permitting a New York State corporation to "be formed for transmitting music."

Although these and many other hurdles were overcome, the New York Electric Music Company still didn't have enough subscribers to make their business profitable. When Crosby could not get support for the project (even AT&T had declined) he left the company. It was now in the hands of Frederick C. Todd. But the general financial troubles of the time (including the "Panic of 1907") drove away investors, as well as subscribers. By February, 1908, the public concerts stopped. And in May the New York Electric Music Company collapsed. The Telharmonium was shut down and the doors to Telharmonic Hall were locked.

The Third Telharmonic
Cahill dismantled the Telharmonium and shipped it back to the workshop in Holyoke. He then began working on a third Teleharmonic. Of course, this instrument was even bigger than the previous two, with newer and more powerful alternators which eliminated some of the bass and volume issues of the previous model.

In 1910, Cahill demonstrated the new Telharmonium in Holyoke, Massachusetts to 200 interested people from New York, Boston, and other Cities. Cahill, along with his brothers, George and Arthur, reformed the company as The New York Cahil Telharmonic Company, renegotiated a franchise with the city of New York, and, in August 1911, installed the new Telharmonium in a building at 535 West 56th Street, New York City.

In February 1912, the new Telharmonium was demonstrated at Caregie Hall. However, the public had grown tired of it. The novelty had worn off. The press were unimpressed. The new Wurlitzer organ had stolen much attention away from the Telharmonium, as did the growing popularity of wireless transmissions. The company fell into debt and in December 1914 the New York Cahill Telharmonic Company declared bankruptcy.

No recordings of the Telharmonium have survived. In 1950 Arthur T. Cahill, Thaddeus's brother, tried to find a home for the only remaining instrument, the first prototype. But nobody was interested so he sold it for scrap.

But the technology, the ideas of tonewheels that Cahill originated, still lives on. Many of the concepts from the Telharmonium were later incorporated into the Hammond Organ. But by the time Hammond was developed, electrical amplification was a fact of life, so the tonewheels could be much smaller, making the Hammond at least a little bit more portable.

Information from:
Chadabe, Joel, Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997
Weidenaar, Reynold, Magic Music from the Telharmonium, Video, Magnetic Music Publishing, 1998
Paradiso, Joe, "Electronic Music Interfaces," http://www.media.mit.edu/~joep/SpectrumWeb/SpectrumX.html

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