Thaddeus Cahill and His Telharmonium

The following is an article from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader

Do you like electronic music? Then raise your glass and drink a toast to Thaddeus Cahill.


In 1893 an inventor from Washington, D.C. named Thaddeus Cahill was experimenting with telephone transmissions when he had a novel idea: He noticed that when an electric generator, or dynamo, sent current down a phone line, it created a tone in the earpiece. And different frequencies of current created different tones. Cahill quickly realized that if he had 12 dynamos -each corresponding to a note on the scale- he could send music over phone lines. He spent the next four years perfecting the idea, and in 1897 received a patent for the telharmonium, not only the world’s first significant electric musical instrument -but the first one that could be potentially heard by thousands of people at once.

Think about it: At the time (and for all time before that) if you wanted to listen to live music, you had to be within hearing distance of the person playing the instrument. The phonograph was becoming popular -but that was recorded music. And the popularity of the radio was decades away. Cahill envisioned hiring serious musicians to play “respectable” music, such as Bach and Chopin, on his telharmonium, and sending it over phone lines to restaurants, hotels, and other paying subscribers -even individuals- miles away.


The telharmonium (or the dynamophone, as Cahill sometimes called it) was basically a giant electric organ. It had two keyboards -one on top of the other- and hundreds of wires running to generators, transformers, and various other electrical parts that sent current down the line. And to magnify the sound, he called for large paper cones that could be fixed to the earpieces of telephones (the precursor to the loudspeaker).

* When the telharmonium was turned on, an electric motor turned turned the shafts of the 12 dynamos, known as “tone shafts.”

* Each dynamo had a four-foot-long metal shaft packed with metal disks (picture a barbell packed with weights). The disks, or “tone wheels,”  had different numbers of differently-sized teeth on their edges. As they rotated past the coil, the teeth would produce varying frequencies of electricity, which would, in turn, produce different notes.

* Pressing a key moved a magnetic coil -the pickup- toward one of the tone wheels, creating an electrical charge -and a tone- that would then be sent down phone line.

* Those tone wheels, 145 of them on the 12 tones shafts, gave the telharmonium a five-octave range with 36 notes in each octave. But that’s not all they did.


A quick music lesson: When an oboe, a piano, and trumpet each play the same note, the fundamental note is the same, but the sound is very different. That’s because the physical nature of each instrument create different overtones, “harmonics,” along with the note, giving it a unique sound.  The telharmonium -using all those different tone wheels- was designed to add those harmonics to the fundamental notes in order to mimic different instruments, making it the world’s first synthesizer. (Cahill even used the word “synthesize” in his patent.) A row of draw bars above the keyboard could be pulled out to different “stops” affecting what harmonics would be added; for example, you could set it to play “oboe.” The result of all this was an incredibly flexible machine that could mimic woodwind, brass, and even stringed instruments. Two skilled players -it was meant to be played by two at once- could virtually play a symphony on the telharmonium.


Cahill built his first test model in Washington in 1901 and then got some investors to finance building a larger one. In those days, generators had to be big to create a lot of current, so Cahill’s machine was huge- more than 60 feet long and weighing over 200 tons. He had it shipped to “Telharmonic Hall” at Broadway and 39th Street in downtown Manhattan (it took 12 train cars to carry it), and started the New York Electric Music Company. He then got the New York City telephone company to agree to lay lines for the “telharmony” transmissions.

The telharmonium’s big debut came on September 29, 1906- and it was a huge success. Before long Cahill had sold subscriptions to such venues as Louis Sherry’s restaurant, the Casino Theater, and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. One of the best reviews came from the first private subscriber, Mark Twain. “Every time I see a new wonder like this,” he said, “I have to postpone my death. I couldn’t possibly leave this world until I have heard it again and again.”


But there were many problems with the newfangled instrument, and these would soon prove to be insurmountable. The most obvious one was cost. Cahill built a third telharmonium in 1911, for an unbelievable $200,000 (the equivalent of $4 million today) and his investors were unhappy with the rate of return.

Another problem was the sound quality. When it was good, witnesses said, it was pure and very beautiful, but inconsistent signals over the phone lines resulted in volume fluctuations and static. The New York telephone company wasn’t happy, either: The teleharmony lines were laid right next to the phone lines, and so much power was used to pump the music that it bled over, causing numerous complaints from telephone users.


The telharmonium played its last concert in 1916. There are no known surviving models of the device and no recordings are known to exist. But Cahill has ushered in the era of electronically produced music, and the world would never be the same. Decades later, a former watchmaker took Cahill’s design, miniaturized it with the help of new technology, and came up with his own electronic organ. Complete with tone wheels, draw stops, and food pedals for shaping sounds, the Hammond organ, invented in 1935 by Laurens Hammond, would become an American classic.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 19th book in this fan-favorite series contain such gems like The Greatest Plane that Never Was, Forgotten Robot Milestones, Ancient Beauty Secrets, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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