For several years now I have been interested in electronic music, so I have decided to publish a series of brief articles in which I try to describe what in my view are decisive steps in the evolution of this kind of music, a story of entrepreneurial inventions and artistic imagination.

The Telharmonium

The first major electronic musical instrument was the TELHARMONIUM patented in 1897 by American lawyer, entrepreneur and inventor Thaddeus Cahill.

The idea was to broadcast music in homes and public places via telephone lines to listen using specific audio adapter connected to telephone devices.

Console for the Telharmonium in the Cabot St Music Plant of the New England Electric Music Company, Holyoke, Massachusetts

Cahill managed to find investors to finance his idea, built this giant weighing 200 tons and convinced the New York telephone company to sign a contract for the provision of this service.

However due several problems, not least that of interference with telephone lines, the company went bankrupt in 1908.

The sound?

The Telharmonium used tonewheels to generate musical sounds as electrical signals by additive synthesis. Telharmonium tones were described as “clear and pure”, referring to the electronic sine wave tones it was capable of producing. However, it was not restricted to such simple sounds.

Each tonewheel of the instrument corresponded to a single note, and, to broaden its possibilities, Cahill added several extra tonewheels to add harmonics to each note.

This, combined with organ-like stops and multiple keyboards (the Telharmonium was polyphonic), as well as a number of foot pedals, meant that every sound could be sculpted and reshaped: the instrument was noted for its ability to reproduce the sounds of common orchestral woodwind instruments such as the flute, bassoon, clarinet, and also the cello.

A sound sample?

Unfortunately, no recordings of Telharmonium music are known to exist, and no Telharmonium survived after about 1920.