The Colossal Telharmonium—The World’s First Synthesizer

Weighing 200 tonnes, measuring 60 feet, and consisting of 144 alternators, 672 keys, and 336 sliders: the colossal history of a magnificent invention.

Thaddeus Cahill was born on April 18, 1867 in Iowa, was raised in Oberlin, Ohio, and studied law at Columbia University, now George Washington University (pictured), in Washington DC.

Das Telharmonium MkI (1897)Original Source:,_sharper).jpg

In 1895, Cahill registered his first patent for the telharmonium, which he himself described as a machine for producing and spreading electronic music. The telharmonium can in fact be considered the first significant electronic instrument.

He worked on developing the instrument, also called the Dynamophon, for 20 years. His ambitious goal was to construct the perfect instrument, no less, with perfect tones that were mechanically controlled with scientific precision. The telharmonium let players imitate different instruments: organ, piano, and violin.

Tel TelephoneLIFE Photo Collection

Cahill's plan to spread the music produced by the telharmonium through the telephone—which had only recently come about to great success and was considered modern communication technology—was yet another truly revolutionary innovation. Thus the name telharmonium: telegraphic harmony.

Like so many other musicians and music scientists at the time, Cahill was greatly influenced and inspired by a book by German physicist Hermann Helmholtz (1821–94), commercially released under the German title Tonempfindungen in 1862 and as an English translation On the Sensations of Tone in 1885.

Helmholtz, humorously called the Reich Chancellor of Physics after Bismarck, proposed the notion that each tone consisted of a base tone and many overtones in the higher frequency range and thereby had a unique, distinctive sound.

Telephone (Transmitter and Receiver), Philipp Reis (1863) by Philipp Reis, FriedrichsdorfDeutsches Museum

Cahill, who had designed mechanisms for pianos, organs, and typewriters up to this point, was now planning something big: the design of an electronic construction that could produce a multitude of different tones. An instrument that would stand in a central location, and its music would be simultaneously transmitted to thousands of telephones in apartments and houses. Cahill's vision was that music should no longer be reserved for the upper echelons of society who could afford to attend a performance. Instead, everyone should be able to enjoy a live concert. Dial-a-music.

Pictured here: the telephone by Philipp Reis of 1863 from the Deutsches Museum collection.

LIFE Photo Collection

There had already been attempts to transmit music via cables in 1851 when Edward Farrar, mayor of the Keene locality in New Hampshire, tried to transport tones and sounds via telegraph wires. Inventor Philipp Reis—the pioneer of the telephone—Elisha Gray, and Alexander Graham Bell (pictured) also tried out a form of musical telegraphy from 1860 to 1880 using cables between transmitters and receivers.

Erinnerungstafel Steinway Hall (1866)Original Source:

Gray created quite a stir with his Musical Telegraph in a telegraphic concert on April 2, 1877. A piano with 16 keys installed in a Western Union office in Philadelphia transmitted music to the Steinway Hall in New York. The sounds played in the auditorium were reproduced by 16 wooden pipes 90 miles away.

Poster für Theatrophon (1881)Original Source:

But there were also crafty inventors in Europe as well, such as Clément Ader in Paris. He developed the so-called Théâtrophone (theater phone), which he used to transmit musical pieces and theatrical productions via telephone.

Ein Plakat für Telefon Hirmondo (1893)Deutsches Museum

Then, in 1893, Hungarian inventor and engineer Tivadar Puskas created the Telefon Hírmondó or telephone herald. This was used to transmit music to receivers as well as news reports—a precursor to the radio as a source of information and entertainment. Puskas died the same year in 1893, just a month after it had been commissioned. Approximately 91,000 subscribers used the Telefon Hírmondó service before it was discontinued during the Second World War.

The Electrophone in London didn't have quite so many private subscribers, yet this innovation was also a resounding success. Some citizens gathered at the headquarters of the Electrophone Company in Pelican House on Gerrard Street to listen to opera broadcasts in suits and eveningwear. This new technology could even entertain in restaurants. At locals such as the Café Royal, people could put coins (sixpence coins at the time) into a slot—just like the later jukebox—and look for a transmission on the machine.

The problem at the time, however, was the rather poor quality of the transmission, especially Gray's Musical Telegraph with its awful acoustics. Spurred on by this, Cahill wanted to build an instrument that also had impressive, undistorted sound. In Washington he built an initial prototype—the Mk I—which weighed just 18 tonnes. A lightweight! As interest grew in the instrument, he then started on the construction of the Mk II, his life's work. With the support of one of his patrons, venture capitalist Oscar T. Crosby, Cahill financed a vast workshop on Cabot Street in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Die Titelseite von Scientific American zum Telharmonium (1900)Original Source: Scientific American, Vol. 96, No. 10, March 9th 1907

…where he began construction on the Mk II in 1902, supported by 50 engineers and craftsmen. This resulted in a colossal, never-before-seen monster for music creation. Its components: 8 metal pipes with 144 alternators with a power usage of almost 15,000 Watts. 10 contact panels with 2,000 switches. For musicians, 672 keys and 336 sliders. Length: 60 feet. Weight: 200 tonnes. Price: 200,000 dollars.

In contrast to Gray's instrument which could only create simple, hard, choppy tones, Cahill could use his generators to create electrical pulses and complex sound compositions from individual tones, including their accompanying, quietly resonating overtones. Just to make sure all of the above, with all of its timbres, was received by listeners on the other end of the line without loss, it needed a whole lot of power.

Broadway at 42nd Street, New York (1850–1900) by Charles Magnus & CompanyThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cahill transported the huge device to New York in 30 goods wagons and built it in his bizarre Telharmonic Hall on Broadway. Approximately 900 astounded visitors arrived on September 26, 1906 for a first look during its premier concert. Four concerts a day were held, but the real main attraction were the telephone transmissions. In an interview beforehand, Cahill announced that New Yorkers could listen in on the sounds of the telharmonium 24 hours a day for a subscription fee of 5 dollars a month. An early predecessor of the streaming service. It mostly played classics by Bach, Chopin, Grieg, and Rossini.

Hotels had to pay more. Namely 10 dollars a day. Restaurants 3 dollars. However, for many locals like the Waldorf-Astoria or Café Martin on the corner of 5th Avenue and 26th Street, which had previously booked whole orchestras with up to 30 musicians for light music to entertain guests, it was a great deal. For musicians, not so much.

LIFE Photo Collection

The Telharmonium was a huge sensation for a good three years. Cahill boldly advertised it in newspapers with the slogan The Music of the Year 2000. Even the great Italian composer Giacomo Puccini was highly interested and paid a visit to the Telharmonic Hall. Writer Mark Twain also wrote about it. "Every time I see or hear a new wonder like this I have to postpone my death right off," raved the author. "I couldn't possibly leave the world until I have heard this again and again." He even wanted streetlights connected to the telharmonium to play the funeral march during his funeral.

Dr.Lee De Forest Testimonial Dinner (1952-04) by Peter StackpoleLIFE Photo Collection

The boom soon subsided. This was down to the device itself, which increasingly went out of tune, as well as the performance. The musicians worked in harmony and hardly had time to practice. It was more quantity over quality, which could never end well.

There were also often unwanted disruptions during transmissions when the signal jumped over to a neighboring wire. New Yorkers who just wanted to phone somebody were suddenly subject to music. The complaints piled up, and the telephone company terminated the contract.
But Cahill never let himself be fazed by this. He gained a partner in the knowledgeable Lee De Forest, a pioneer in the area of radio technology.

Port Of New York (1946-05) by Andreas FeiningerLIFE Photo Collection

De Forest wanted to be able to transmit its "refined synthetic electrical music without cables across New York using my"—as he puts it—"radio telephone system." But there were some technical issues: the signal didn't reach the desired strength, and most importantly, it didn't always reach the right receiver. The US Navy submitted a complaint one day, asking why they heard William Tell's Overture or Ave Maria instead of secret morse code messages. The answer was simple: because the telharmonium had jammed the signal.

Carnegie Hall exterior (1894) by Carnegie Hall ArchivesCarnegie Hall

In 1908, Cahill finally closed the Telharmonic Hall. Even desperate PR stunts like musical streetcars or music from a street gully remained unsuccessful. But Cahill still didn't give up. With an additional 300,000 dollars, he built his third telharmonium: the Mk III. He built it in 1911 in his run-down office on 535–537 West 56th Street, laid cables to Carnegie Hall, and performed the first Mk III concert there on February 23, 1912. Criticisms were scathing—soundwise it fell far short of the technology of its predecessor, the Mk II.

By Hank WalkerLIFE Photo Collection

So, what happened next? Cahill continued to try out technical innovations, experimenting with devices such as typewriters. George, his younger brother by two years, achieved greater success after asking himself why games always had to be played during the day, and whether there was a way to illuminate playing fields and stadiums during the night as well. So he invented the floodlight, which he demonstrated for the first time in 1909 in Crosley Field, a baseball stadium in Cincinnati. It was still too weak to use during regular games, however. It took 26 years until May 24, 1935 for a Major League Baseball game to be played at night under floodlight.

Franklin D Roosevelt (1935-01-01) by Hulton ArchiveGetty Images

The one and only President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed the button to light up the stadium with 632 duplex lights from the White House in Washington, 500 miles further east. The fact that the Cincinnati Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies 2 to 1 before an audience of 20,000 is secondary.

By Cornell CapaLIFE Photo Collection

Cahill was not to live to see the floodlight premiere in 1935. In the 1920s, he had still sent his "Cahill Giant Duplex Generator" from his company at 519 West 45th Street in New York across the country to illuminate skating rinks and amusement parks, even parking lots, harbors, and gas stations. New York's legendary Yankee Stadium hosted a baseball game under floodlights for the first time in 1946.

Thaddeus, however, continued to experiment. At the start of the 1930s, another commercially viable idea came to him: audio synchronization for silent films. Subscribers would be sent film reels, and they could watch them while listening to the recorded track at the same time via radio signal. However, this wasn't that successful either. On April 12, 1934, Cahill, who most recently lived on 316 West 84th Street, unexpectedly died from sudden cardiac death. He was 66 years old.

Hammond M3 /S6 Spinet Chord Organ (1962/1966)Deutsches Museum

There are no existing tone recordings of the telharmonium, which in the end was most likely scrapped. However, this colossal machine is still considered the predecessor of an instrument that would triumphantly enter the stage decades later: the Hammond organ.

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