While we might have found it revolutionary that we can listen to music on our phones, it turns out this is nowhere near a recent invention. 19th century Paris was jamming out to tunes over a handset with a fantastic device called the Theatrophone.
Scientific American found an article in their archives from 1892 describing a 2 year-old invention: the Theatrophone. The Theatrophone was a Paris-exclusive device that brought concerts to the masses. Not everyone could afford to put on their most expensive outfits and travel to the local concert hall, so the city came up with a device to enable music lovers everywhere to experience the joy of live performances from the comfort of their own home or even local cafes. To own a device in your home, one would have to pay for a subscription service after deciding which concerts they would like to virtually attend. The public Theatrophones had a charge of 50 centimes (French for, you guessed it, cents) for 5 minutes of music.
The whole set up was extremely well organized. All the Theatrophone lines ran to a central hub, which was set up very much like telephone operating centers of the day. This hub was connected to secondary stations, located within the theatres which captured the music via a series of microphones.
The Theatrophone itself was a ingeniously simple device. It was essentially a telephone without a microphone but with a built-in alarm. The alarm was set for 5 minute intervals and would shut the machine off after the user’s time had expired. But what if the concert ended too soon or went into an intermission? Don’t worry, the operator was listening and would switch you to another concert. And what happens in case there isn’t a single live concert happening anywhere in the city? You’ll get hooked up with some prerecorded piano tunes.
At one point there were over 100 Theatrophones in public places around the city of Paris and an undisclosed amount installed in private homes. Not much is known about their fate but I, for one, would gladly give this technology a loving home.