Spotify in the 19th century: the theaterphone

There are inventors and inventors. History does not always treat all of them with the same justice. There are names that have reached our days and that will continue in the future, such as Johannes Gutenberg , Thomas Edison , Alexander Graham Bell or Steve Jobs . Others were not recognized at the time but their work is beginning to be recognized, such as Nikola Tesla . And there are some that are only remembered in certain areas.

This is what happens with French Clément Ader (1841 – 1925), whom we know to introduce in the French the words avion and aviation , which in Spanish hit hard like an airplane and aviation. But it would be unfair to leave it there, since this inventor and engineer must be one of the pioneers in aeronautics with several prototypes powered by steam. Hence the European company Airbus gave its name to one of its assembly centers in Toulouse, France.

But Clément Ader also dedicated his ingenuity to other areas, such as the manufacture of velocipede or a railway removable. And another area that gave it relevance was telephony. For starters, in 1878 Alexander Graham's phone improved Bell and was the one who started the Paris telephone network in 1880. And in relation to the phone, Ader also stood out for a curious invention that we know little about but enjoy almost daily. Of course, with other names. Ader's invention was called the theatrophone, théâtrophone in French, and thus also mentioned in English.

Clément Ader's stereo telephony

At the World Exposition of 1881 from Paris, the French engineer Clément Ader presented his invention. Specifically, it mounted 80 transmitters telephony scattered around the stage of the Paris Opera . These transmitters were connected by telephone cable to some rooms of the Paris Electricity Exhibition , several kilometers away. The result, a two-channel sound system, that is, stereo . Those who got on the phone could hear the sound that came from the Paris Opera with a quality never heard until then, neither live nor delayed.

Ader's demonstration diagram and lithograph of the result. Source: Wikipedia

It was not until 1890 that this invention would receive the name of théâtrophone , theatrical in Spanish. That year it became a regular service offered in Paris by the Compagnie du Théâtrophone or Theater Company . Curiously, Clément Ader was not linked to this project, at least not directly.

By then, the telephone system devised by Ader already had clients of the importance of King Luis I of Portugal , who in 1884 started using it so as not to personally attend the opera. By country, the system was introduced in Belgium (1884), Portugal (1885) and Sweden (1887) in a timely manner. Even in United States there was some attempt to implement its use, such as the concert of 1890 at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga.

Le Compagnie du Théâtrophone

We said that the name of the theatrophone arises with the first company dedicated to this invention. The Theater Company, Compagnie du Théâtrophone in French, was created in 1890 by engineers Belisaire Marinovitch and Geza Szarvady , who improved Ader's original invention by automating part of process.

The success of the theatrophone is immediate. It will soon be installed in public places such as cafes and hotels. For a coin of 50 cents you could listen 5 minutes and for one franc, 10 minutes. When going off-hook, a female voice warned of the ongoing events and the interludes, in which a recorded melody sounded. The central station or switchboard of the Paris theater system was on the street Louis-le-Grand . From there, a single operator connected the theaters with subscribers , just as in the telephone switchboards of the time.

Although it was a basically French invention, it spread to several European countries. In Spain , for example, the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office has the patent 1860, which corresponds to “a procedure to install a theatrical telephone network ” In France, the theatrophone patent would receive the number 144318. As well. Although Ader was not directly associated with the Compagnie du Théâtrophone or facilities in other countries, by patenting his invention in up to seven countries, it would “become famous and fabulous rich ”, says the Virtual Museum of the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office.

This invention also served him to receive the medal of Knight of the Legion of Honor and to rub shoulders with important figures in French society and politics, which opened the on the way to his future stage as an aeronautical engineer.

Who killed the theater phone?

If the theater was so well received and was successful in several European countries, why is it no longer among us? Obviously, today we have something similar. Services such as Spotify , Apple Music or YouTube offer music recorded by subscription. And if you want opera, there are specialized channels and recordings on Vimeo and YouTube . To which must be added cinema in a thousand and one platforms style Netflix .

So, Clément Ader's theatrophone launched inventions that we use naturally today. In the first place, promoted the use of the telephone beyond its usefulness as a tool to communicate. The same thing happens with current smartphones , which are used for everything, beyond phone calls.

Second, it allowed to attend a live event remotely, at least through sound. And, in addition, in stereo quality , unlike the classic phone which is monophonic, since it uses a single speaker.

The concept of pay-per-view also saw its origin here. Nowadays it is frequent to pay to see sporting events, theater or opera , the so-called pay to see or pay-per-view . System that evolved to the monthly subscriptions that are already a benchmark in sectors such as music and audiovisual, live or delayed.

Let us return, then, to the million dollar question. Why did the theater phone disappear? There is a reason that temporarily damaged it, such as copyright . In some countries, the broadcasting of the theatrophone was hampered by the reluctance of theaters and operas to allow its content to be broadcast over the phone.

But what really killed the theater phone were two similar inventions but easier to implement. And cheaper. The radio and the phonograph . The theatrophone was a device placed mainly in public places or in private clubs for the upper classes. Furthermore, its use depended on a constant payment . The arrival of the radio meant that for a small fee you could have a device at home that would give you access to music, information and fictional content for hours. And it was the same with the phonograph. It was expensive, but soon its use was democratizing.

So, in 1932, the Compagnie du Théâtrophone ceased its activities after more than 40 years of popularity and success. The European reign of the theatrephone was over. Now was the time for the radio and the phonograph .