Monday, June 5

Five pounds a year and a telephone line: how the Electrophone worked, the “Spotify” of the 19th century

It may sound strange in 2022, with Netflix, HBO, Ororo, Spotify and a vast offer of TV channels and stations —in addition to websites and networks—, but not even a century and a half ago boredom was an enemy always on the prowl. Without a good book, without someone to chat with and without money to buy a ticket to the theater, spending a rainy winter evening at home could be a jerk. In the late 19th century, MSJ Booth he realized that many of his neighbors in London were bored as oysters and decided to solve it by setting up a business, a unique one and with the latest technical advances: he launched, more or less, and bridging the gap, a “Victorian Spotify”.

Electrophone, as Booth’s business was called, consisted of a music and theater retransmission service by telephone line. It was not a novelty in the strict sense —it was in line with similar initiatives in other European countries and the firm Moseley & Sons had already done something similar in Manchester—, but it did manage to become popular and become a benchmark.

Its operation was quite simple. The client paid a fee to the London Electrophone Company and every time he wanted to listen to a concert or a play, lying comfortably on his sofa, he would pick up the telephone at home and connect via operator with Electrophone switchboard. From there one of his employees enumerated the list of auditoriums, theaters and churches in which they had receivers installed. The client only had to choose to be connected.

Direct line with the theaters

In order to make the experience as comfortable as possible, Eletrophone Company installed a small table provided with hooks and headphones. In the rooms where he captured the sound, he set up rows of microphones with a clear philosophy: as far as possible, they should go unnoticed. If they were theaters, he hid them in front of the footlights and in the churches he even made use of wooden bibles. His switchboard was linked to the Royal Opera House, the Palace Theatre, Apollo, Pavilion or Tivoli, among a long list of venues scattered around the City. Throughout the retransmission, the client could ask the operator to change the service.

The Electrophone Company was formed in 1894 and entered service in 1895. Its lines were supplied by the National Telephone Company. Only a few years later, in 1906, it claimed to be connected to 14 theaters and 15 churches. Its headquarters were located in Pelican House, in the heart of London’s Soho, an ideal location due to its proximity to the theaters. The service, however, was not cheap. As detailed by British Telephones, in 1895 the fee for the first year was established at 15 pounds, a price that was later reduced to 10 with the right to four receivers and ended at 5 with the option of two headphones —if they wanted more they paid a plus—, quantities, in any case , which were not within the reach of all pockets in Great Britain at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

The area covered by the company in London was more or less extensive, enough to even serve customers in Stratford and Sidcup, almost 20 kilometers from the central almond of the City, with the 5 pound rate. In its first year the Electrophone had only 47 customers, but by 1908 the subscriber base it was already around 600. Those who could not afford the fee had other options, like the Electrophone Saloon, a room from which they could listen to the broadcasts, and machines for public use that worked by inserting coins.

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The quality of the sound, in general, convinced the clients, which does not mean that from time to time there were complaints about the noise that the microphones picked up or the weakness with which the signal reached long distances. Good or bad, the service was successful enough that in 1906 the queen herself addressed Electrophone to install it at Sandringham.

MSJ Booth wasn’t the only one who took advantage of the possibilities offered by telephone lines at the end of the 19th century. Not even the first. In the exhibition that Paris dedicated to electricity in 1881, coin-operated machines had already been installed so that users could listen to live performances. In Budapest, for example, the inventor Tivadar Puskas he installed a service he called Telefon Hirmondo. Those who understood its potential also took advantage of it to broadcast other content, such as news or relevant information on the stock market. Even Electrophone broadcast sermons on sundays.


There is no triumph that lasts a thousand years, however, and for all its popularity the Electrophone soon succumbed to a new technology, much more powerful and affordable: the radio. After several successful experiences, in 1899 Guglielmo Marconi managed to radio communication between England and France across the English Channel and in June 1920 broadcast a song recital by Dame Nellie Melba through a telephone transmitter that was heard in several countries.

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Despite resistance from traditional newspapers and the Post Office, the new service gradually found its way into British society. In late 1922 the BBC began its daily radio broadcasts. with 2LO London, and threw the final shovelful of dirt on the ancient Electrohone, suffocated by the costs it paid to maintain its service. It closed in 1925.

Images | Central News Photo Service (Wikipedia) Y Midnight Believer (Flickr)