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Classical 101

Smartphone Technology...Not New, Just Lighter

University of Michigan Archives
A Telharmonium, also known as a Dynamophone, as pictured in McClure's Magazine in 1906

It's easy to look at modern technology and think, "How did people make it through life a hundred years ago? In 1906, if you were at your desk and needed some music to get you through the day, you just grabbed your phone.

Well, OK, it wasn't QUITE that easy. You called the operator and asked to be connected to what amounted to a Victorian-era Spotify or Pandora...The Teleharmonium. It was the brainchild of Dr. Thaddeus Cahill.


Instead of a building full of multi-terrabyte drives sending music through broadband connections and wifi, you had buildings full of relays, switches, and transformers. At the center of it all was a pair of keyboards operated 24/7/365. Each was run in shifts by two musicians who fed the tunes into 200 tons of machinery, which then sent it down the phone lines to subscribers. Listening on a mobile device would have meant wire...lots and lots of wire!

Just like today, musicians were upset because new technology threatened their livlihood. In this case, restaurant owners wanted to use the service for their patrons and cut back on the number of live musicians they had to employ.

As you can imagine, portability was NOT a feature. Just like where you had your phone conversations was based on how long the wire was, the same thing applied to the Teleharmonium. Music could be electronically piped to wherever a phone was located. Since amplifiers did not exist, volume was also an issue. It was new, however, so people flocked to hear this new musical wonder.

So the next time you complain that you are forced to carry your phone AND a laptop, or that you've run out of storage space for your music, count your blessings. Your phone, like the Teleharmonium, could weigh 200 tons.