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an idea before its time

by Bob Estreich

In the late 1800s life ran at a slow pace. With no radios, the spreading of news depended on the daily paper. This was being delivered by a growing network of fast, reliable trains. In an emergency there was the telegraph or telephone, but they could only go to one recipient at a time. Wireless transmission was still experimental. For mass entertainment there was the music hall or the new-fangled gramophone.

With the growth of telephone services it was logical to use them for mass distribution of entertainment. Inventor Tivadar Puskas in Budapest set up a system he called Telefon Hirmondo (Telephone Herald), which broadcast news and stock market information over telephone lines. Subscribers to the service could call into the telephone switchboard and be connected to the broadcast of their choice. The system was quite successful and was widely reported overseas. In Paris a system called Theatrephone was developed by which live entertainment was wired, via a switchboard, to any who wished to subscribe.

In London a similar service was commenced by Mr M S J Booth who formed the Electrophone Company in 1894, only three years after Puskas had set up. They "broadcast" their news and information over the lines of the National Telephone Company, from their own offices. These were laid out along the lines of a newspaper office, with special rooms from which the news or entertainment was read live into the microphones - in fact, the forerunner of the radio studio. Subscribers were issued with special headphones, and an optional megaphone attachment was available for "handsfree" listening. They were also issued with a special "answer-back" microphone so they could talk to the Central Office and request different programs. Electrophone wired micro-phones into many music halls, theatres and churches and conducted "outside broadcasts" from these. Their charges were fairly high and the standard of the broadcasts could be pretty low, given the level of technology in microphones and phone lines at the time. In spite of this many people found that the immediate reception of news like stock market results was very useful, and the service grew.

The main distribution centre for the operation was in the old Pelican Club, which was taken over in 1895 by the National Telephone Company for their new Gerrard Exchange. It consisted of a switchboard with specially wired cord circuits. On the multiple jacks were terminated outgoing junctions to various exchanges along with incoming lines from theatres, churches, etc.

To become connected to the Electrophone service it was necessary to ask the local exchange for Electrophone service. Connection was made via a special junction to Gerrard St where connection was made to the requested program. For those who did not subscribe to the service an Electrophone Saloon was provided in Gerrard Exchange where performances could be listened to in the comfort of an armchair by a fireplace.

By the end of the first year of operation there were some forty-seven subscribers to the system. One reason for its success was the slow recognition of the broadcast capability of radio. Although U.S. inventors were experimenting with public broadcasting, no such experiments seem to have taken place in Britain. Marconi's work on radio was still exploring the military and shipping communications possibilities, rather than public broadcasting. Some experimental broadcasts to ships at sea had been tried, but interest died out with the start of World War 1.

Electrophone subscribers had increased to around 600 by 1908 and covered performances and services from some 30 theatres and churches.

Recuperating servicemen in hospitals were given free access to the Electrophone service during the war, and so many people became aware of the potential of the system. In the U.S., however, this interest was directed to radio broadcasting rather than telephone lines.

In 1922 Western Electric opened its radio station WEAF in New York, and made time on the station available to customers for a fee. Thus the evil of advertising came to broadcasting. It worked, though, and the writing was on the wall for Electrophone.

In Britain resistance to radio broadcasting was especially high from the newspapers who saw their position and advertising revenue being challenged. Against them were companies who could see a lucrative market in radio transmitters and receivers, including the powerful Marconi and GEC companies.

When Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail began actively working with Marconi's 2MT Chelmsford experimental station it became obvious that radio would succeed. Obvious to all but the British Post Office, who denounced the use of the radio waves for entertainment as a frivolous use of a national asset.

In 1920 the Post Office ordered the closure of the Chelmsford station. By this time there were so many radio receivers in use that public outcry forced the Post Office to allow 2MT back on the air in 1922. They attached a strange condition to the license - the station must stop broadcasting for three minutes in every ten so the Post Office could "check that there was no interference with any official transmission". This was from a Post Office, which had no radio technology of its own whatever!

Electrophone was not affected by any of these problems, and actually gained new customers while 2MT was off the air.

Other "experimental" stations were opened by Western Electric and the Radio Communication Co., and it became obvious even to the Post Office that radio would not go away. They tried to avoid the congestion of public radio waves that was occurring in the U.S.A., and in 1922 they called a meeting of representatives of all the major radio companies to establish a single U.K. broadcasting company, which became the BBC. Electrophone was not invited to participate as it was not radio-based, even though its studios had been copied by the new radio stations and did exactly the same job. Strangely Electrophone, too, had ignored the popularity and lower cost of radio.

Matters moved with surprising speed and the first BBC station, 2LO London, was opened in November 1922. This was the death knell for Electrophone. They were already paying very high line rents to the British Post Office, who had taken over the National Telephone Company.

Faced with declining audiences in the face of the free-to-air broadcasts, they had no choice. On the 30th of June 1925, after more than thirty years of broadcasting, the Electrophone exchange closed.

Good ideas have a habit of being revived. In the 1990s the growth of computer data services and the Internet duplicated what Electrophone was doing a hundred years earlier. Pay TV is a development of the same idea.

In a final irony, the Electrophone name is now attached to a range of radio and satellite-based communications systems which have in their turn overtaken much of the technology which overtook Electrophone.


* SOS - The Story of Radio Communication - G E C Wedlake, 1973
* United States Early Radio History - Thomas H White

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