|The Electrophone system was a
distributed audio system which operated in the UK between 1895 and
1926. This system relayed live theatre and music hall shows
and, on Sundays, live sermons from churches. This was a
subscription service and users would firstly ask the operator, by
using their normal phone line, to connect them to
Electrophone. The Electrophone switchboard operator
would ask them which theatre they wanted to connect to. For
opera, they would be connected to the Royal Opera House at Covent
The Electrophone Company was based at Pelican House in Gerrard Street at the heart of London's Soho - an ideal location close to to the heart of theatre land.
They would then use the supplied receivers to listen to the service. Users would invite friends around to listen and in one of the pictures below there is a stand with four receivers. There were 600 subscribers by 1908.
At £5 a year, the service was not cheap but you were provided with two receivers. Extra receivers would cost an extra £1 each.
You could also pay via a coin-in-the-slot machine but if they wanted the service at home they needed to pay a subscription.
The system operated with rows of microphones, installed in the theatres in front of the footlights. When installed in Churches the microphones were sometimes disguised as bibles (see picture to the right).
A special switching device was used to connect and disconnect the local batteries at the Theatre end. This device was operated from the central switchboard at the beginning and end of a performance.
To use the service the subscriber would call the local exchange and ask for the Electrophone Service. The operator would connect them to the Electrophone operator who would offer the caller a number of services. Once a service was chosen the subscriber would operate an "intermediate switch" which was installed on the subscribers line and this would switch the telephone line from the telephone to the Electrophone apparatus. During the service the subscriber could speak to the Electrophone operator by means of a microphone to change the service.
In 1906 the Queen requested an Electrophone service at Sandringham. The National Telephone Company was involved, along with the Post Office to supply a trunk line for testing purposes. The Trunk line went via Kings Lynn, Cambridge, Ware to TSX, where it was connected to Gerard trunk 23. In early 1907 the circuit was officially opened. The estimated line rental was £2 per annum.
The National Telephone Company trailed long distance performances in 1891 and this was between London and Birmingham. Further tests were completed from Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool to a room in the Crystal Palace. Visitors to the Crystal Palace were charged three pence (before 18.00) and six pence (after 18.00) for a 10 minute period. Within a six months period approximately 60,000 people used this service.
Because of the above successes the Electrophone Company was formed in 1894 and went into service in 1895. The national Telephone Company supplied the lines.
By 1908 Electrophone had around 600 subscribers and carried performances from 30 theatres and churches. During the First World War, recuperating servicemen were given free access to Electrophone services and there was a service in the Officers mess at the Knightsbridge barracks. Even 10 Downing Street had a service.
Other European countries also used similar systems.
Electrophone was paying very high line rentals to the Post Office, which had bought out the National Telephone Company. Faced with declining audiences in the face of free to air broadcasting, the Electrophone exchange closed on 30 June 1925, after more than 30 years of broadcasting.
The fore runners of radio, these systems became redundant after the introduction of radio.
The 1928 GPO Rate Book describes the following equipment:-
Tables, Electrophone, NT No. 10
Transmitters No. 16
From The Electrical Engineer, September 10th, 1897, pages 343-344
BY J. WRIGHT
This modern application of the telephonic principle as a means of establishing communication between a popular theatre or opera house and one's private drawing-room is only growing in public favour. By its means one can sit comfortably at home in all weathers and listen to the latest comedy, opera, or tragedy, as the case may be, by the payment of a purely nominal rental. Such being the case, a few words as to the apparatus employed, as well as the modus operandi, may prove of interest.
The electrophone in its simplest form is an application of that familiar and wonderful invention the telephone, and like it, has a system of transmitters and receivers, the one being stationed at the theatre and connected by a line (overhead or underground, as the case may be) with the other, which is situate in the subscriber's house.
I will primarily, therefore, proceed with a description of the transmitters. These are of the well-known Ader pattern, consisting of a series of carbon rods, A (Fig. 1), smaller in diameter at their extremities than at the centre, loosely supported in a horizontal position by the carbon blocks, B, which are provided with cavities in the sides for their reception. These carbon blocks are mounted by means of screws on the under side of a thin wooden diaphragm of pine or other resonant wood, C, and the whole is supported by a massive rectangular framework of cast lead, D. The connections to this transmitter are made by pieces of flexible cord, having thin copper tabs soldered to their extremities and clamped under the small nuts or screws which hold the carbon blocks, B, in position. These substantial transmitters are susceptible to the softest strains of an orchestra, and are equally as efficient when subjected to a full chorus. They are, therefore, admirably adapted to the purpose, and very seldom get out of order. They are as a rule arranged in what is known theatrically as the "float" i.e., the part of the stage just in front of or behind the footlights, and are, on an average, from 12 to 24 in number, but this, of course, depends a great deal on the size of the stage. They are mounted in cavities of such a size as to allow a certain amount of side and end play for freedom of vibration, and the upper surfaces of their diaphragms are flush with the stage. The mounting consists of a rubber ring suspension on stationary wire hooks, this form of fixing having been found advantageous as offering immunity from actual stage vibrations, and allowing them plenty of freedom on all sides for their own individual action, which is maintained uniform and steady by the weight of the leaden frame.
is necessary, in order prevent loss of battery power over the
transmitters while idle during the day, to have a means of cutting
them out of circuit until required. This is effected by a species
of automatic switch, a diagrammatic representation of which is
shown in Fig. 2, where A is the active electromagnet, B is a
species of horizontal pivoted lever, provided at one end with a
counterweight, and at the opposite, or working extremity, with a
loosely-hinged pawl, C. The latter when depressed by the
lever, B, under the influence of the armature of the electromagnet
to which it is attached, actuates a compound ratchet wheel, D,
composed of two discs - one of brass and the other of
ebonite. These two discs are clamped together in such a
relative position that their teeth alternate. Contact is thus made
and broken with a small vertical brass spring, E, which acts as a
contact brush. These switches are as a rule connected on the
first line - viz., that in connection with the first transmitter,
and are actuated by a current from a battery of E.C.C. dry cells,
situated at the central exchange or switch-room.
regards the switching arrangements.
Now as to that part of the apparatus situate at the subscriber's house, to wit, the receivers. These are also of the Ader pattern, and have double poles, being very similar, in fact, to the small receivers attached to the instruments of the National Telephone Company. There are two of these to each person, and they are conveniently arranged on a light metal frame, A (Fig. 3), semi-circular in form and of a convenient width to fit over the ears. The receivers are indicated in Fig. 3 by the letter B, and they are attached to the frame by the medium of a swivel joint behind, which allows of a certain lateral motion in order that they may be comfortably adjusted to the ears. A metal rod, C, attached to the frame ends in a leather-covered handle, D, by which the instrument is held when in use. The connections to the receivers are made by means of a flexible cord, which runs up through the centre of the handle and rod and subdivides to the receivers. A small flat table of polished wood is provided to carry the contact jacks. This can be stood on a convenient table and connected with the system by a wall socket and plug and a length of twin cord. The receivers are for an ordinary subscriber four in number, but extra ones can be fitted if desired. The connections from the receivers to the line are connected via a 4 wire cord. This divides the two receivers onto two loops supplying respectively the right or left receivers of each set, so as in the event of one failing, the other should still operate correctly.
I may here state that the Electrophone Company, whose chairman is Lord Loftus, are working in unison with the National Telephone Company, so that it is necessary for a subscriber to be connected with the telephone system in order that he may be able to communicate with the switch-room. The electrophone is generally fitted as an extension to the telephone apparatus, being put in circuit by means of a switch after having obtained a connection with the required theatre.
The invention has also been adapted to a system of automatic boxes for use in restaurants and places of amusement. This modification takes the form of clock-work mechanism, which controls the contacts by means of levers attached to the driven spindle. The action of the apparatus is as follows: On the insertion of a sixpenny piece in the slot provided for the purpose it slips down a shoot and forms a rigid link between a winding, spindle and the spring barrel. On turning a handle in front of the case, the clockwork is wound up, and the receivers, which are on separate handles, and are suspended on hooks at the side of the instrument when not in use, are brought into circuit, and remain in that condition until the mechanism has run down, which it does at the end of a few minutes; the hearing can then be prolonged by a repetition of the operation. Automatic boxes of this type are to be found at the Café Royal, Piccadilly Restaurant, and other similar resorts. A constant supply of popular music is maintained on these boxes during theatre hours, and is denoted by an indicating arrangement fixed over each box.
These indicators are a species of electromotor, consisting of armature and field magnets with a commutating device. The movable spindle carries an index finger, which indicates on a dial the particular entertainment that happens to be connected at the time. The indicators of several boxes are connected in one circuit, the remaining terminal of each one being earthed, and they are driven by a battery of some 50 accumulators from the central switch-room.
In conclusion, I may mention that the transmitters of this system have been fitted in popular churches so that subscribers may listen to their favourite preacher at home. In such cases they take the form of a dummy bible lying in a natural position on the pulpit desk, or a hassock under the lectern and are also fitted in the galleries at points where they will readily collect the sound of the preacher's voice.
The company have reception-rooms at the Victorian Era Exhibition, Earl's Court, and also at their headquarters at Pelican House, Gerrard Street, Soho, where this invention may be tested.
The original Ader transmitters were superseded by the Angelini Transmitter and until the closure of the service, the GPO was constantly on the look out for, and testing of, different types of transmitters that gave better quality transmission. The Angelini was superseded by the Transmitter, Insert, No. 9.
The Angelini transmitter is of a similar principle to the Ader transmitter. The principle feature of this transmitter is the microphone cell which is formed on the back of the carbon diaphragm A - A, by a round rim of paper, B - B, cemented to A - A. This cell is closed by a disc of Mica, C - C, which is clamped to the end of an insulated screw, D - D, between two metal discs, E - E, the front one of which is formed with a semicircular rim of platinum, F - F, the remaining part of the front being insulated, so that only this rim comes into conducting contact with the 3 grains weight of evenly sized carbon granules filled into the recess thus formed. The Mica disc allows of a very flexible connection and the pressure can be regulated at will by the screw, D.
The transmitter is fitted to the stand by means of a recessed sleeve, G, fitting into the collar, H, of a separate stand, connection being made to the two terminals, I and J, by the springs, K and L, the later being insulated and bearing on the end of the adjusting screw, D.
The base, M, of the stand is of thick metal and the weight of the upper part, N, and the transmitter is borne on three springs, S, S, S, the centres of which are fastened to N and the near ends clamped by screws to M, whilst the far ends are free to slide in recesses formed in M. The springs absorb vibrations from the stage.
ELECTROPHONE WORKING; OR, MUSIC BY TELEPHONE
The Telephone has been and is being applied to many purposes, though now mainly utilised for the transmission of speech; its first use, however, was for the transmission of music.
It was about the year 1861 that the first record of a telephone concert occurs; this was accomplished by Philip Reis, a German inventor, who invented an apparatus which by the aid of an electric current would transmit music, but not articulate speech.
Now with the hundreds of thousands of telephones in use at the present time, which have Become a business necessity, it has been a problem with the Traffic Department what to do with its plant, which becomes idle at certain periods of the clay while the cost of maintenance still goes on.
It was this question which led up to the introduction of what we call the "Electrophone" (to distinguish it from our ordinary telephone service), whereby the Junctions and subscribers' lines, lying almost idle after the traffic of the day is done might be utilised.
In addition to the regular telephone lines, private lines are
run direct into the ''Electrophone" exchange, also party lines
for non-telephone subscribers from which taps are taken to a
number of residences and to these places is transmitted from the
"Electrophone" exchange music, etc., from the various places of
Electrophone System wiring
It is about twelve years since the Company decided to introduce to its London subscribers the transmission of performances and music from the various theatres over its telephone lines.
During the first year there were only 47 subscribers to the special service, today the total number is about 600.
At present we have about 250 miles of church and theatre
lines, connected to no less than fifteen churches and the same
number of theatres and halls and others are now being added.
Sometime ago, with the assistance of the Post Office officials, we very successfully transmitted, in addition to vocal and instrumental music, political speeches over a distance of 220 miles, when every word was taken down verbatim and reported by the Press, and papers were on the streets for sale a few minutes after the meetings.
On these occasions special precautions were taken to guard against a breakdown of the transmitting apparatus. In front and at each side of the speaker were placed transmitters wired to induction coils, the secondary of which, together with one side of the primary, was connected to three-way plugs and cords, the other side of the primary being connected to a strip of multiple jacks, so that the primary and secondary were connected and disconnected at one and the same time.
Constant supervision was given these lines by an attendant whose listening apparatus was bridged across the circuit with three condensers on each side wired up in series, so that should any one of the transmitters become faulty the plugs could he withdrawn one at a time until the faulty transmitter was located and another substituted in its place.
Within the last few weeks Grand Opera at Covent Garden has been transmitted to their Majesties at Sandringham over 200 miles of wire, the hearings being most satisfactorily received. London Church Services were also listened to by Her Majesty on a Sunday when the sermons were received with perfect distinctness and without the loss of a word.
The first hearing given their Majesties was rather premature, for it was whilst we were making tests to see if satisfactory service could be given to Sandringham that Sir Dighton Probyn ordered the apparatus to be taken into the library for the King to hear Madame Melba singing in La Boheme. This was no easy task, for the distance the apparatus had to be taken was about 200 yards. But it was not a question of "can it be done?" but "do it, and do it well"; so the necessary wire was quickly run, the apparatus connected up, and his Majesty was listening to the famous opera in about three minutes after the command was received.
The delight expressed by His Majesty and his guests at the distinctness of the hearing settled the question as to whether or not a satisfactory service could be given.
On the following Sunday morning, as I was making further tests, you may imagine my surprise when certain members of the household, who were listening at the time, quickly laid down their receivers and retired, leaving me alone with Her Majesty the Queen and Princess Victoria who had just entered and desired to listen to some of the Church Services.
At the "Electrophone Central Office" there are employed about one dozen female operators whose duty it is to connect outlying exchanges and subscribers' lines working direct into the "Electrophone" exchange to theatre lines when desired. Constant supervision is given to these lines by the operators, so that should a breakdown occur at any time in any portion of the circuit, the line would he immediately changed before any inconvenience was experienced by the subscribers.
At outlying exchanges where we get more subscribers than we have junctions available for "Electrophone" working, distributing boards are fitted at which several subscribers' lines can be connected to one music junction.
At these exchanges the local operator attends direct to the subscribers' wants, tapping the line from time to time so that if one of the subscribers' lines goes out of order during the hearing, arrangements can be made to disconnect that line and thus avoid upsetting the hearing of other subscribers connected on the same distribution.
With regard to the service, we have limited and unlimited service for private residences connected to our system.
Special rates are charged for residential flats, clubs, cafés, hotels, and for temporary hearings. Party line service for non-telephone subscribers is now being given, whereby the use of condensers or a specially designed repeating coil enables twenty or more subscribers, working on one line with not less than two receivers each, to be served from one theatre line.
The condensers or repeating coils fitted at each subscriber's station permit transmission through the main circuit without interruption should trouble occur at any one station working on the circuit.
The equipment at the theatre for each line consists of one "Electrophone" transmitter, which is constructed with two carbon buttons supported on springs mounted on an ebonite button. The carbon buttons are surmounted and insulated from each other with soft wool to hold the granular carbon, which does not impede the movements of the diaphragm. The carbon buttons are made adjustable by means of the screw-threaded ebonite ring on which they are mounted. To prevent packing, the transmitter is mounted on a metal support having two springs at the back which make sliding contact on the metal rings projecting from the centre of the ebonite, by means of which the transmitter can be manually turned round, and the whole parts being rotated, the granular carbon is stirred up and falls into proper position in their containing chambers. Then we have an induction coil with a primary winding of 0.5 ohms resistance and a secondary winding of 150 ohms resistance, and a battery, consisting of two type T11 storage cells, from which several transmitters are worked.
Throwing the battery in and out of circuit is done from the exchange by sending momentarily over the switch-line a strong current. The induction coil on the first line is brought into use for this purpose, and acts both as an automatic switch and an induction coil. It is fitted with a specially constructed armature which upon a current being sent over the lines through the secondary of the coil is drawn smartly down, and striking between the teeth of the ratchet wheel, causes it to revolve at every stroke of the armature to an "on" or "off" position, every other tooth of the wheel being insulated.
The first transmitter used for "Electrophone" purposes was the "Blake"; then a multiple electrode transmitter, called the "Ader", with a thin piece of pinewood for its diaphragm. Whilst the quality of these transmitters was good, they lacked power, and trouble was experienced when they were subjected to loud music, as then they would rattle or entirely break the circuit.
It was therefore decided to use a granular carbon transmitter, and tests were made with transmitters manufactured by all the well-known makers, but not until we constructed one of our own did we get the satisfaction desired.
With this transmitter little trouble has been experienced, whilst others gave out quickly owing to the heat generated by the current (which is constantly on for about four hours each night) and the heat from the footlights, near which the transmitters are placed.
It might be mentioned that experiments have been made with a view to centralising the power, and removing the batteries from the theatres, thus saving cost of battery maintenance at these places, but this course was found unsatisfactory for "Electrophone" working.
The question of charging accumulators at the theatres direct from the electric light service was considered, but found to be more expensive than our present system of charging them at the exchange and carting them to the theatres as required. All theatre lines coming into the "Electrophone" exchange terminate on break jacks, and are multipled at every other panel throughout the switchboard. When it is necessary to connect several subscribers to one theatre line, connection is made from the theatre jack to a set of distributing jacks with a double flexible cord having plugs at each end (see picture below). The distributing jacks are connected up in multiple with a 2 microfarad condenser connected on the "A" and " B" side of each jack.
Switchboard Cross Connection
The theatre line, operator's cord and subscribers' circuits
are shown in Figs. 4, 6 and 7 and the mode of operating is as
Should he desire to change the hearing or use the telephone, he signals the operator from the electrophone table, or from the telephone; if from the table he presses the spring of the hand transmitter which closes the primary circuit and puts the "A" and "B" line to earth. A current then flows from the 22 Volt battery at the exchange through the winding of relay, through the grid indicator to the tubular drop-out on to the "A" and "B" line to subscriber's station, through the secondary of induction coil to earth back to battery. This operation causes the grid indicator to drop and the relay to dose, throwing in circuit the supervisory lamp worked on a 4 volt battery.
Switchboard Wiring Diagram
Should the subscriber signal from his telephone, be would alter turning his switch from point marked "Electrophone" to point marked "Exchange'', ring in the usual way, dropping the shutter of the tubular drop at the local switchboard.
Customer premises wiring
For an ideal electrophone service the following requirements
should be considered:-
In the operating promptness in answering is requisite - for a delay might mean a subscriber's missing a song which he particularly desired to hear.
So also is courtesy from operators, for a little more attention is expected by subscribers when using the electrophone than is desired when hustling for business on the telephone.
Freedom from mistakes in connecting the theatre desired is another requisite, as it must be very annoying for a subscriber after listening for some time to discover he has been connected to a Salvation Army meeting instead of the Gaiety.
There must be proper supervision of lines by the operator, to ascertain that no breakdown has occurred, that the lines and junctions are kept free from noise and that the hearing is satisfactory.
Inspectors should be quite familiar with the apparatus they have to handle and be able to repair any defect without delay.
Frequent inspections should be made, when both receivers and signalling apparatus should be carefully tested and apparatus kept in first class working order.
Before installing electrophone apparatus, lines should he carefully tested to sec that they are fit for electrophone working, and that no difficulty is experienced owing to their running through tress etc. No trouble is more detrimental to good electrophone working than the "earth" or "Escape"; whilst it helps us in its proper place, it becomes nuisance when it throws a little of its own in, where it is not wanted, and which we can very well do without.
And last but not least, a loud receiver or transmitter is to be desired that will enable us to throw out in a room the music and dialogue so that everyone might hear distinctly without having to place receivers to their ears; also an invention capable of transmitting scenes from the theatre to a distance. This as yet is only a dream, yet after what we have seen we cannot but regard it as something which will be realised sooner or later.
From The London Times, June 17th, 1925, page 18
LICENCE WITHDRAWN BY POSTMASTER-GENERAL
The Electrophone, Ltd., the company which for many years has run the Electrophone service last night issued the following notice to subscribers:-
"In consequence of a large number of our subscribers having given up the Electrophone in favour of wireless, the revenue has so largely decreased that the Postmaster-General has decided to withdraw the licence granted to this company, and has served notice that the Electrophone service is to be terminated on the 30th inst. We have, therefore, no option but to hereby notify you with extreme regret that after the 30th of this month we shall no longer be in a position to continue the Electrophone hearings."
Last revised: June 28, 2020