Issue 9 Childhood Winter 2002/03

Thaddeus Cahill's "Music Plant"

Brian Dewan

The trouble about these beautiful, novel things is that they interfere so with one’s arrangements. Every time I see or hear a new wonder like this I have to postpone my death right off. I couldn’t possibly leave the world until I have heard this again and again.
—Mark Twain

The new wonder that Mark Twain described was the Telharmonium, a pioneering and immensely ambitious electrical musical instrument, the first to synthesize sounds from electrically generated waves. Conceived in the early 1890s by Thaddeus Cahill—whose original name for his invention was the Dynamophone—the instrument produced sound with dynamos that generated alternating currents. Because the sound was generated electrically, it was possible not only to synthesize sound but also to transmit it over telephone lines, making it possible to provide music to thousands of hotels, restaurants, and home subscribers.

Thaddeus Cahill was born in Iowa in 1867 and grew up in Oberlin, Ohio. In his early teens he was employed as a court stenographer, and he invented improved mechanisms for stenograph machines and typewriters, one of which he named a “synthesizer.” In addition he invented improved keyboard actions for pianos and organs. In his youth, Cahill had read Helmholtz’s On the Sensation of Tone, and the analysis of musical timbre as combinations of tones in the harmonic spectrum excited his imagination. He conceived of an ideal instrument that possessed the virtues of all musical instruments and none of their limitations or, as he wrote, “defects.”

Cahill patented the Telharmonium in 1897 and in 1902 he and his two business partners founded the New England Electric Music Company. The Telharmonium was first publicly demonstrated in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1906, and later that year he had it moved to New York City. It weighed 200 tons and required 30 boxcars to ship. Cahill installed it at Telharmonic Hall at 39th Street and Broadway, where visitors could sit on a plush circular sofa and listen to electrically generated renditions of classical music while the enormous dynamos whirred in the basement below. When Telharmonic Hall opened amidst much public excitement, one article declared, “In the new art of telharmony we have the latest gift of electricity to civilization, an art which, while abolishing every musical instrument, from the jew’s-harp to the cello, gives everybody cheaply, and everywhere, more music than they ever had before.”

On the main floor at Telharmonic Hall, two to four musicians seated at the control console operated the Telharmonium. The console had uniquely arranged keyboards, each manual having four banks of 84 keys each, with 48 keys per octave. This made it possible to play using just intonation. The pressure sensitive keyboard employed an evenly alternating pattern of white and black keys, unlike a conventional organ keyboard. Below the manuals there was a pedal keyboard to be played with the feet. Timbre was controlled by adding harmonics in varying combinations. A separate musician controlled the volume in discrete steps from a piano keyboard and had a set of timbre controls and four expression pedals. The entire floor below housed the electric power station that generated the instruments tones. Each generator rotor produced a pitch, and the 60-foot chassis held 145 rotors. Cahill described his instrument as a “Music Plant.”

Crowds were eager to hear the new instrument demonstrated. Inside Telharmonic Hall, eight telephone receivers fitted with paper horns were hidden behind ferns, Doric columns, and lobby furniture. One of the company’s electricians suggested connecting the Telharmonium’s current to the overhead arc lamps, knowing that the lamps would resonate with the instrument’s frequency and produce a “singing arc.” A spokesman for the Hall announced that trolley cars could have music piped into them using their overhead power wires. Cahill proposed that “telharmony” could even be used to relieve boredom in the workplace, and he advocated “electric sleep-music” in the home that could be switched on at any hour of the day or night to cure nervous disorders caused by modern life.

Though the Telharmonium enjoyed immediate success, it was mired in difficulties. The special intonation keyboards were difficult for most musicians to play, and Cahill struggled to overcome the problem of “robbing” (the decrease in volume as additional notes were played at once) and “diaphragm crack” (a distorted percussive attack from the telephone receivers). The current required to drive the speakers was much greater than that of a regular telephone signal; consequently, there were frequent complaints about interference as the Telharmonium’s music bled into telephone conversations through the wires.

AT&T’s head engineer, Hammond Hayes, though impressed with the instrument, decided that even with special circuits it would disturb regular phone service. In addition, because the technology was prohibitively expensive, investment in it would remain unprofitable. Hard economic times, and AT&T’s reluctance to allow The New England Electric Music Company to use its conduits and manholes, turned the popular modern wonder of the Telharmonium into an untouchable business enterprise. Cahill and his siblings financed the endeavor themselves even after Cahill’s partners fled the company. The advent of radio at the end of First World War spelled the end for the Telharmonium. Before 1920 it was removed from Telharmonic Hall and scrapped. No recordings of it are known to exist today.

In the mid-1930s, much to the Cahill family’s consternation, Lawrence Hammond patented the first electrically amplified organ, which was a simplified Telharmonium in miniature. Hammond did not acknowledge the influence of his predecessor (whose patent had not yet run out), but in the 1950s electronic music pioneers Hugh LeCaine and Robert Moog regarded Cahill’s invention not as a failed business venture but as a seminal acheivement: not only did he create the first significant electric instrument, he had created the unprecedented art of music synthesis.

For further information, see Reynold Weidenaar, Magic Music from the Telharmonium, (Metuchen, N.J., and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1995).

Brian Dewan makes filmstrips, parlor music and mini-architecture in Brooklyn, New York. He also makes electronic music and plays electric zither in the Raymond Scott Orchestrette.

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