The Telharmonium (also known as the Dynamophone) was an early electronic musical instrument, developed by Thaddeus Cahill in 1897. The electrical signal from the Telharmonium was transmitted over wires; it was heard on the receiving end by means of ‘horn’ speakers. Like the later Hammond organ, the Telharmonium used tonewheels to generate musical sounds as electrical signals by additive synthesis.
Patent 580035 was filed by Cahill for the Telharmonium in 1896
Cahill built three versions: The Mark I version weighed 7 tons. The Mark II version weighed almost 200 tons. (as did the Mark III). Each was a considerable advancement over the features of its predecessor. A small number of performances in front of a live audience were given in addition to the telephone transmissions. Performances in New York (some at “Telharmonic Hall”, 39th and Broadway) were well received by the public in 1906, and the performer would sit at a console (see picture) to control the instrument. The actual mechanism of the instrument itself was so large it occupied an entire room — wires from the controlling console were fed discreetly through holes in the floor of an auditorium
into the instrument room itself, which was housed in the basement beneath the concert hall.
The Telharmonium foreshadowed modern electronic musical equipment in a number of ways. For instance, its sound output came in the form of connecting ordinary telephone receivers to large paper cones — a primitive form of loudspeaker. Indeed, Cahill was noted for saying that electromagnetic diaphragms were the most preferable means of outputting its distinctive sound.
Although no recordings exist of the Telharmonium, observers reported that its sound was very clear and pure — probably referring to the sine 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.
The Telharmonium’s demise came for a number of reasons. Its immense size, weight and power consumption (this being in an age before vacuum tubes had been invented) caused obvious problems. In addition, problems began to arise when telephone broadcasts of Telharmonium music were subject to crosstalk and unsuspecting telephone users would be interrupted by strange electronic music. By 1912, interest in this revolutionary instrument had changed, and Cahill’s company was later declared not successful in 1914.
Cahill died in 1934; his younger brother retained the Mark 1 for decades, but was unable to interest anyone in it. It was the last version to be scrapped, in 1962.