Electrophone: Broadcasting Over Telephones

By George R. Sims (1847-1922), Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

The earliest form of broadcasting in the world was not by radio, but on the telephone. Spotlight examines the Electrophone as a way of broadcasting entertainment and religion to the public.

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Voice 1

Welcome to Spotlight. I'm Liz Waid

Voice 2

And I'm Katy Blake. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1

When did broadcasting begin? You may have heard that it was Marconi in 1920. He broadcast a concert by the singer Nelli Melba from Chelmsford in England. You may have heard about an American company, Martin. It had a radio station in Cleveland, Ohio a year earlier. There was also an experimental radio station in Washington called WWV. But the truth is that we have to go right back to 1881 for the real start of broadcasting.

Voice 2

Yes it really was 1881. At that time, Marconi was only seven years old! So it was not radio broadcasting, but broadcasting over wires. The first broadcast was in Paris at a public meeting devoted to the wonderful new discovery of electricity. People came in their thousands to try out the new technology. At the meeting, the people put some sound equipment to their ears and listened. They heard music coming from a theatre in another part of Paris. The president of France liked the system very much. He had one installed in his home. He supported the new technology. A few years later, in 1890, there was a full service for the people of Paris. It was called the Theatrophone, because it brought the sounds of the theatre into people’s homes by over the telephone wire.

Voice 1

Soon, other countries in Europe had the same technology. In Hungary there was a talking newspaper on the telephone. The Telefon Hirmondo operation in 1893. Here is a description of the service written by a person who visited Budapest two years later, in 1895.

Voice 3

“While I was putting on my clothes in the morning, a hotel official came to my door and asked if I wanted the ‘telephone news-paper’. He then gave me two receivers. They were small enough to hold in my hand. They were attached to long wires, which can be linked to electrical connections near the bed. He told me that the hotel does not ask visitors for any money for the service. It only costs the hotel a penny a day.”

Voice 1

The telephone service carried news reports from foreign countries. It also had market prices and speeches from the Hungarian parliament. There was church news and talks by well-known writers. The service needed ten men with strong and clear voices. They took turns to read the news from nine o’ clock in the morning until nine at night. In Budapest, there were 6,000 people paying to listen. They were served by one wire. The wire was more than 250 kilometres long.

Voice 2

In London, rich and famous people were first to make use of telephone broadcasting. A service called the Electrophone started in 1895. It became very popular. It offered broadcasts from theatres and churches in the centre of London.

Voice 1

The ruler of Great Britain in those days, Queen Victoria, was a listener. She listened at her royal home, Windsor Castle. There is a report of her listening to boys from several military schools singing “God Save the Queen”. The boys were singing at Her Majesty’s Theatre, in the middle of London. The queen was listening 40 kilometres away at Windsor Castle.

Voice 2

The church of St Martin in the Fields was one of the places of worship using the Electrophone. St Martin in the Fields is a well-known church. It is in the middle of London, close to Trafalgar Square. Ralph Smith, who is a church official, told Spotlight:

Voice 4

“Yes, the Electrophone company often broadcast from the church. In 1888 electricity was brought into the church. A few years later the Electrophone was put in. This made it possible for those unable to attend church to hear the service in their own homes.”

Voice 2

This earliest form of Christian broadcasting did cause some worries. The equipment to get the sound from the church was big and not very nice to look at. The wires and microphones did not look very good among the beautiful things in the church. The Electrical Engineer magazine of 1889, reported on this problem;

Voice 5

“The transmitters of this system can be put into a wooden model of a bible. This looks like a real book. It can be left lying in a natural position close to where the minister is standing. This is how the sound of his voice can be heard.”

Voice 1

There was once an emergency telephone broadcast from a church in America. A serious disease - influenza - was spreading through the country. The authorities banned people from meeting in public. This included church meetings. A trade magazine from that time reported what happened in Muncie, Indiana in 1918.

Voice 6

“At 10:30 on the morning of December the 22nd, through the help of the local telephone company, the telephones of all who wished were connected with the church. A special sounder was attached to a telephone in the church so they could hear the Reverend Smith speaking. The church organist also played a few songs.”

Voice 1

By the year 1901, the Electrophone was well established in London. The company started using loud speakers, instead of equipment that you had to hold up to your ear. A loud speaker made it possible for everyone in a room to hear the music. It was almost the same as radio is today.

Voice 2

But two new things came along in the 1920s which took away the market for Electrophones. One was the phonograph. This was a machine that could record and play back music. And the other was radio broadcasting. Radio was a much less costly way of sending sound to thousands of listeners. When radio started it was called ‘wire-less’. The miracle of radio was that you did not need a wire to receive the sound. But in all other ways, radio already existed. The music, the church services, the news, the market prices - all these things had already been broadcast over telephone wires.

Voice 1

It is strange to think about, but in one sense we have gone right back to broadcasting over the telephone. Radio became the main form of mass communication in the middle of the 20th century. Then came television. And then the internet. And now, people can use the internet on their telephones, just as people listened to the Electrophone in 1895.

Voice 2

The writer of today’s programme was Peter Laverock. The producer was Mike Holmes. The voices you heard were from the United Kingdom and the United States. All quotes were adapted and voiced by Spotlight. You can find our programs on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called ‘Electrophone: Broadcasting over Telephones.’

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

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Do you listen to the radio?


Avatar Spotlight
said on January 23, 2014

very interesting, l like this program so much thank you spolight.

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 30, 2014

I like so much!!!!

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 23, 2016

a interesting story. I love spotlight.

Avatar Spotlight
said on February 04, 2016

Yes, I listen to the english radio very often because the fundamental order to learn a foreign language begins with listening and speaking that is the way a child learns his mother tongue.

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on October 22, 2019

From .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To spotlight program
Subject to answer the question below
Location São Paulo city SP Brazil
Tuesday 22, October 2019

Dear Peter Loverock, Mike Holmes, Liz Waid, and Kate Blake

I want to thank you for writing and producing more one great article for us brazilian people and others around the World.
Question 1 - Do you listen to the radio?
Answer 1 - Yes, I do. Everyday I listen to the radio on my favorite radio station Antena 1, a número 1 em musica. (translating in English Antenna 1 the number one in music) That is the best radio station here in Brazil. It shows us only American musics. Also, that radio station there are other branches in another countries like Rome, Argentine, and others.
Your regards,
God bless you
Severino Ramos

Avatar Spotlight
said on October 23, 2019

Yes! I’m addicted to the radio. When I start my car engine, the radio is started at the same time, and it only stops when I get the end of my trip. At night, in my bedroom, the radio plays classic music for a piece of time till I get sleeping. Radio is all of good thing.