In electro-spect…

telharmoniumA retrospective on the Telharmonium

The range of music choice might not have been as extensive back then, but this really happened.

Imagine listening to Scott Joplin or Rachmaninoff through your recently acquired telephone in 1906. A device marvelous for its innovation (if not its compactness) was created that year by lawyer Thaddeus Cahill to do just that: “Dr. Cahill’s electrical machine creates musical sound without an instrument and puts opera, symphony, and ragtime on tap at the telephone” reads the description from an article in the New York Times from the era. It was called the Telharmonium.

And it’s truly interesting, especially for engineers and technical workers, to take a look at how it functioned.

Originally called the dynamophone, the apparatus used telephone wires as a method of musical dispersion, at a time when this was not yet supremely popular. The radio was similarly just being invented, and neither broadcasting nor music were fully developed industries yet. The wires of the phone line were linked with those from the telharmonium station. The device used tonewheels to generate musical sounds as electrical signals by additive synthesis. Tonewheels are comprised of a synchronous AC motor and a connector gearbox that drives a series of rotating disks. The disks have grooves on them that produce frequencies, and they rotate close to a pickup assembly that consists of a magnet and an electromagnetic coil.

The remainder of the process is essentially the same electromagnetic induction that powered other early electromechanical instruments such as the Hammond organ. The telharmonium is considered by many to be the first synthetic instrument due to its ability to generate sounds electromechanically, because the sound is produced by moving parts rather than electronic oscillators.

Ella Morton of Atlas Obscura reported the baseline for the historical parts of this article.


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