The telharmonium , teleharmonium or dynamophone , is a electromechanical musical instrument, developed starting from 1897 by American Thaddeus Cahill (1867 - 1934). It is the first genuine instrument of musical synthesis.
DescriptionThis ancestor of the Synthétiseur was not an electronic but electromechanical instrument. Indeed, the sound was not produced by an electronic oscillator, but by the rotation of a “phonic wheel”, or réothome, in front of a micro compound of a reel and a Aimant, according to the same principle as a microphone of electric guitar. One also compared this principle with that of a Dynamo which would produce short electric impulses, from where the name dynamophone.
The phonic wheelThe phonic wheel is a wheel notched on its circumference. When the notches pass in front of the microphone, they generate electrical signals, whose frequency depends on the number of revolutions and their number. A cylinder is cut out in several phonic wheels, with a number of notches multiplied by two from one wheel to another, which makes it possible to obtain for a given note several octaves. For example, if the cylinder turns to 110 tours/s, one obtains with a wheel with 1 notch a note of frequency 110 Hz, that is to say the note the two octaves under the the of reference to 440 Hz. With a wheel with two notches, one obtains a the with 220hz, with 4 notches the the 440hz… By multiplying the number of cylinders by 12 (as much as semitones in the Western ranges), one can thus produce all the notes on an important tessiture, only limited by the number of notches (and by the technology of the time).
An imposing instrumentThe telharmonium was able to cover 7 octaves, between 40 and 4000 Hz. It was polyphonic and had a keyboard with touching dynamic: the intensity of the pressure carried out on a key varied the distance of the cylinders compared to the sensors, which generated a more or less strong signal.
Cahill having like objective to develop its system of musical diffusion by the means of the telephone, it was necessary that the telharmonium is sufficiently powerful so that it can reach its listeners. However, at the beginning of the XXe century, electric amplification did not exist yet. It is thus by using massive cylinders, of a diameter of almost 50 cm, that the instrument could generate currents of 1 amp in the telephone telephone circuit! The usual horns of the time were replaced by kinds of loudspeakers. The second version of telharmonium measured a score of meters length and weighed 200 tons. The instrument was played 4 hands and had a keyboard of 36 notes per octave.
The inventionAfter being itself interested in the pianos, the typewriters and the telephone, the lawyer and inventive American Thaddeus Cahill had the idea to diffuse music by the means of the incipient telephone. Amplification not existing at the time, it created the concept of an electric musical instrument, sufficiently powerful to be carried by the telephone cables. In 1898, it obtained a patent for a “apparatus able to create and diffuse electric music”.
The first telharmonium (which weighed already 7 tons), was born in 1901, and Cahill joined Oscar T. Crosby and Frederick C. Todd to obtain the financial support necessary to its company. In 1902, Crosby created the New England Electric Music Company and Cahill settled with Holyoke, Massachusetts, in a large workshop to improve its invention there. From there, it made several conclusive demonstrations, connected by the phone networks, of which one reached New York.
SuccessOne finished to assemble telharmonium 2 in 1906 (4 years of work, 50 people, at a cost of 200.000 dollars). It was dismounted, charged on 30 coaches and transported by the railway to New York. Installed in a building of Broadway, all the enormous machinery was dissimulated in the cellar, while the musicians occurred in what became Telharmonic hall. This innovation was a promising success in 1907. Several coffees, hotels and museums signed contracts to receive the music in their buildings, like some particular rich person. One played on telharmonium of traditional works (Bach, Chopin, Grieg, Rossinni), which were also diffused in the street. This year, the type-setter Ferruccio Busoni also created a specific work for this instrument, “Sketch off has new esthetic off music”.
Decline and the heritageIn spite of this passing fancy, the problems were not long in accumulating. The company did not manage to find sufficient subscribers to be advantageous, and the telephone companies accepted many complaints, following the interferences which the telharmonium generated in the other conversations. The level of the musical signal being much more important than that of the traditional telephone, it polluted all the network New Yorkais. In spite of an attempt to establish its own cable network, the company went bankrupt in May 1908.
Of return to Holyoke, Cahill was harnessed with the manufacture of a third model, even more imposing, which was presented in 1910. It settled again in New York in another room, in 1911, but did not find the success of its beginnings. Its new business, heavily in debt, disappeared in 1914.
The telharmonium did not survive the First World War, and one unfortunately does not know any recording of this precursory electric instrument. In 1950, one of the brothers of Thaddeus tried to save the first prototype, but it was finally sent to breakage. However, the principle of the phonic wheel was taken again and miniaturize in 1935 to create the Orgue Hammond, with success that one knows to him. The invention of Cahill thus remains one of the stages founders of the electronic music.
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