Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Giraffes for dinner

Electrophone Girl

When I first saw this image of a winsome, euphoric young woman with what looked like earphones on her head, I thought, what the hell year was this taken? I immediately wondered if she was about to be therapeutically electrocuted, as was the fashion back then. Electricity was thought to be a panacea, a cure from everything from sexual desire to neurasthenia (whatever that is).

I was to learn - and thank Wikipedia for this! - that, in fact, she was listening to the radio. In 1895! There was a kind of radio in the 19th century, and people could listen to broadcasts of plays and concerts from the comfort of their own home. 

Radio 30 years before radio. Who knew?

If you look more closely at this image, now doing the rounds of the internet, you will notice it has been defaced by "somebody" (not me!) to give the beautiful young lady crude-looking rings, a necklace, a nose ring and wristwatch (which I am sure she never had, wristwatches not having been invented yet). I don't know what the doodles signified, except that perhaps someone assumed she was a time traveller projecting herself decades into the future.

But no. She did it all through her telephone. People were using their phones for all sorts of inventive things back then, enjoying music and plays and comedies and opera, all manner of entertainment. It was Smartphone without pictures. Then, as is usual with the human race, we forgot all about it, the knowledge sank without a trace, and was resurrected 120 years later as a Brand New Thing.

Once more we are playing with our phones, sopping up music and entertainment and even wearing funny things on our heads that would make a Martian think we had gone insane.

Electrophone System

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. 

A 1906 advertisement stated that they could choose from among fourteen theatres — the Aldwych, Alhambra, Apollo, Daly's, Drury Lane, Empire, Gaiety, Lyric, Palace, Pavilion, Prince of Wales's, Savoy, Shaftesbury and Tivoli — in addition to concerts from the Queen's and Royal Albert Halls, and, on Sundays, services from fifteen churches. For opera, they would be connected to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

To pick up the programs, multiple large carbon microphones were placed in the theater footlights to pick up the sounds of the performers. In churches, the microphones were disguised to look similar to bibles. Home subscribers were issued headphones connected to their standard telephone lines. The annual charge was £5, which limited its affordability to the well-to-do. Queen Victoria was included as one of the listeners. In 1897, it was noted that coin operated receivers had been installed in some hotels, which provided a few minutes of entertainment for a sixpenny. Additional lines were installed, for free, for use by convalescing hospital patients.

Although fairly long-lived, the Electrophone never advanced beyond a limited audience. In 1896 there were just 50 subscribers, although this increased to over 1000 by 1919, and just over 2000 at its peak in 1923. However, competition due to the introduction of radio broadcasting resulted in a rapid decline, falling to 1000 by November 1924. In early 1923, an Electrophone director was quoted as saying that "it would be a long time before broadcasting by wireless of entertainments and church services attained the degree of perfection now achieved by the electrophone." However, that proved to be overly optimistic, and as of June 30, 1925, the London Electrophone ceased operations.

A second, much smaller system, was established in Bournemouth in 1903, but the maximum number of subscribers only reached 62 as of 1924. This system was finally discontinued in 1938, after it was determined during the previous year that there were only two remaining subscribers.

Blogservations. Two subscribers! That beats my yearly sales of books by exactly two, so I'm impressed. But I'm even more impressed that back in the Victorian era, someone thought of broadcasting concerts and plays and church services to a home audience, using technology that already existed. Someone was most definitely thinking ahead.

I'm also intrigued by the image of the young woman with the tennis racket over her head. 

Did someone just brain her with it, or did she brain herself? Or is this how you listened to those magical broadcasts, clamping this weird-looking gizmo over your head?