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Victorian Era Theatrophone Live Streamed Opera Performances And News

Fashionable visitors arrived on a custom-built electric tram to the first International Exposition of Electricity in Paris. It was held near the Champs-Élysées, from August 15, 1881 through mid-November. An exhibition of eight apartments buzzed with new electric devices never imagined. Familiar rooms including a kitchen were filled with the unfamiliar. One of the biggest hits of the Expo was the Theatrophone.

Alexander Graham Bell had demonstrated the telephone at the American Centennial Exposition in 1876. An article in The Scientific American, 1892 showed the exuberance for the new device.

“Of all the inventions with which we have been endowed by that marvelous fairy that we name electricity, there is none that has found so many applications as the telephone.”

The author could not have been more accurate even though some people claimed it would never take off. New applications wowed spectators with the new telephone-inspired  gizmo. It live streamed performances including operas. Audiences could now listen remotely!

Theatrophone Debuted To Great Fanfare

Crowds at the Electricity Expo lined up for their turn. A bank of twenty telephones were connected to the Paris Opera. The inventor was Clement Ader. He had recently established the first telephone system in Paris. Ader placed dozens of microphones at the footlights of the stage of the Paris Opera. Cable running through sewers connected them to telephones at the Expo more than a mile away.

Photos of the device in use look like something from a time travel movie. Ader’s contraption consisted of what were essentially two “earbuds.” A dual-channel audio system allowed the world’s first broadcast of live binaural stereophonic sound.

The New Service Went Viral 

The new service was not available to everyone due to the high cost of subscription. Even so, it became hugely popular with phones available in public places.

The Electrical Engineer, August 30, 1889:

“Paris ever seeks new sensations, and a telephone by which one can have the soupcons of theatrical declamation of half a franc is the latest thing to catch their ears and their centimes. This instrument… is shortly to be placed on the Paris Boulevards. Anyone, on the payment of the modes sum of 5d., can be put into communication with a certain theatre and listen to the performance for five minutes.”

By 1925, the service was running smoothly, according to “How The Parisian Enjoys Opera At Home” in  Scientific American’s September issue.

“The operation of the theatrophonic central board is simple, and suggests a regular telephone exchange. The operators come in at 7:00 P. M., take their places before the switchboards, each board being connected to one or more telephone central stations. At the top of each board are the subscribers’ lines, with plugs. The board has jacks connected to the distributors, and all that is necessary is to plug in the jack of the subscribers with the plug or the particular theatre he wants.”

The service spread to other countries in Europe. In London, it became the Electrophone.

Some Fans Became Addicted

Perhaps the most famous addict of this new service was Marcel Proust.  He complained of excessive fatigue when he became enthralled with his new device. According to William C. Carter’s Biography:

“Proust kept the Theatrophone right beside his bed, and every evening when that opera was on (Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande) no matter how sick he was, he placed his ear next to the black trumpet and drank in Debussy’s music.”

The Popular Service Also Live Streamed News

Audiences could hear more than just opera.  Comedy performances and sermons broadcast from churches were also popular.  News clips became popular as well.

Electrical Review, July 5, 1890:

“The “new phone” will be in communication with the principal theaters and other places of amusement, and a novelty, which will, no doubt, prove very attractive, has been added to the usual program, in the shape of a spoken news letter. At stated intervals, five minutes will be devoted to a recital from one of the Press centers of the most important items of news collected up to, not the “hour of going to press,” but “the minute of going to phone.” 
We should imagine that a similar venture would meet with great success in New York, especially with the addition of the news message feature, as the craving of Americans for news is well known to be insatiable. This new device on Broadway, in the vicinity of Madison Square, would no doubt find plenty of patrons…”

R.I.P. Victorian Era Earbuds

The Victorian Era live streaming service was a huge hit until the widespread use of phonographs and radio broadcasting took its place. The company shut its doors in 1932.

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