By Edward Bellamy, Technor & Company., Boston 1888

Connections with Music in the Home - The Théâtrophone


By Doug Boilesen, 2022

Bellamy's novel tells the story of a hero figure named Julian West, a young American, who towards the end of the 19th century, falls into a deep, hypnosis-induced sleep and wakes up 113 years later. He finds himself in the same location (Boston, Massachusetts), but in a totally changed world: It is the year 2000, and while he was sleeping, the United States has been transformed into a socialist utopia. Looking Backward - Synopsis (Wikipedia)

There are no phonographs in Bellamy's story but Julian West is introduced in Chapter 11 to "musical service" for homes in the year 2000 which offered a "prodigious list" of available daily music. A system is described which uses a number of music halls around the country which are connected by a telephone to every subscribed home. Music is available every day of the week. "The corps of musicians attached to each hall is so large that, although no individual performer, or group of performers, has more than a brief part, each day's programme lasts through the twenty-four hours."

The 1876 telephone and the 1877 phonograph are closely related in history with many connections. Bellamy's music system in the year 2000 delivered music to the home using the telephone with benefits so similar to what the phonograph industry advertised that its phonograph could provide that Bellamy's book has been added to PhonoLiterature.

As will be seen Bellamy could have described whatever he wanted regarding the future of home music. Interestingly, the technology that he chose didn't use recorded sound or the phonograph or any transportation of performers visually into one's own living room.

In 1888 when Bellamy's book was released Edison had just returned to work on his phonograph after having abandoned it for nearly a decade. The phonograph was still in its infancy but it was a known reality and part of popular culture and many early predictions about the phonograph were still being repeated. "Letter-writing" and dictation were the first two probabilities that Edison identified in his 1878 article of phonograph titled The Phonograph and Its Future" and they were still the primary commercial interests in 1888.

However, the introduction of the first nickel-in-the-slot phonograph on November 23, 1889, by Louis Glass inside the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco would be a pivotal step towards the phonograph becoming an entertainment device. The early jukeboxes played music using cylinder records like the ones in Edison's first catalogue in 1890 which were called 'Musical Phonograms" and the commercial success of the coin-in-the-slots playing musical records would lead to the introduction of phonographs and records for the home once they were designed to be easier to operate, spring-powered, and cheaper. Perhaps if the "musical phonograms" had happened just a few months earlier then recorded music might have had a place in Bellamy's musical vision for homes in 2000.

Instead, Bellamy described a technology that was demonstrated in 1881 by Clément Ader at the 1881 International Exposition of Electricity in Paris. The Théâtrophone, as it would be called, used the telephone to transmit music to homes.


The Théâtrophone

The following is a brief history of the Théâtrophone. (Wikipedia Théâtrophone extracted 6-29-2022)

"The system was inaugurated by the French President Jules Grévy, and allowed broadcasting of concerts or plays. Ader had arranged 80 telephone transmitters across the front of a stage to create a form of binaural stereophonic sound.[1] It was the first two-channel audio system, and consisted of a series of telephone transmitters connected from the stage of the Paris Opera to a suite of rooms at the Paris Electrical Exhibition, where the visitors could hear Comédie-Française and opera performances in stereo using two headphones; the Opera was located more than two kilometers away from the venue.(2) In a note dated 11 November 1881, Victor Hugo describes his first experience of théâtrophone as pleasant.(3) (4) ."

"The théâtrophone technology was made available in Belgium in 1884, and in Lisbon in 1885. In Sweden, the first telephone transmission of an opera performance took place in Stockholm in May 1887.

In 1890, the system became operational as a service under the name "théâtrophone" in Paris. The service was offered by Compagnie du Théâtrophone (The Théâtrophone Company), which was founded by MM. Marinovitch and Szarvady.(5) The théâtrophone offered theatre and opera performances to the subscribers."


Ladies Listening to Théâtrophone, Engraving by Dietrich in 'La Nature', 1892 (Courtesy Mary Evans Picture Library)



"The July 2, 1892, Scientific American Supplement reported on the use of a device called the theatrophone that had been in use for two years already in Paris. The basic idea was to be able to call into a theater and hear live music being played. One could either subscribe to receive the service in home or utilize one of the theatrophones set up in various locales such as hotels, restaurants, vestibules, and cafes throughout the city.

For 50 centimes, one could listen to five minutes of music. A wicket on the front of the machine displayed the theater from which the music was heard. There was one central station where the Theatrophone Company operated out of, and this was connected to several secondary stations that were placed in the theaters. A series of microphones were set up on the stage and picked up the sound to be transmitted back to the central station." "In 1892 Live Music Was Just a Phone Call Away" by Mary Karmelek on May 20, 2011, Scientific American "Anecdotes from the Archive"


Scientific American, July 2, 1892



The phonograph and then the radio became the definitive home entertainment devices in the 1920's and 1930's. The théâtrophone and the Compagnie du Théâtrophone ceased operations in 1932.(5)



A théâtrophone instrument from La collection de Jean-Louis



Théâtrophone by Jules Cheret, poster circa 1896, Printer Chaix, Paris




The 'THEATRE-TELEPHONE' demonstrated to visitors to the Exposition d'Electricite, Paris; Source: Nielsen in 'Le Journal Illustre' 25 September 1881, page 309 (Credit Mary Evans Picture Library)



The lady of the house plans the evening's listening by phone from various opera houses and concert halls, which her page must switch on at the appropriate times. Source: George Du Maurier, 'Punch's Almanac for 1878', December 14, 1877.



As part of the Exposition Universelle of 1900 (The 1900 Paris Exposition) the German chocolate company Hildebrands issued a series of postcards predicting life in the year 2000. The postcard for "Theatre in the Year 2000" showed a telephone being used for listening to live music and also in combination with a projection system that could bring sound and the performer into the home.

Phonograph advertisements would soon show visualizations of performers of great opera houses (visualizations of the imagination triggered by the life-like quality of the records, not projections based on technology), in your own home.


"Just as real, just as enjoyable, in your own home" 1912


The visualization of performers in the home would continue with phonograph advertisements explaining that there was no difference between the voice of a live performer and the recording. In 1914 to 1916 an ad campaign by the Victor Talking Machine Company showed the picture of a Victor Record next to an Opera Star and the phrase "Both are" and then name of the Opera Star, e.g., "Both are Caruso," "Both are Schumann-Heink," "Both are Farrar," etc.


"Both are Schumann-Heink," Life magazine, September 9, 1915



The following excerpt from Chapter 11 and its description of music in the home of 2000 is from Project Gutenberg's Looking Backwards from 2000 to 1887 By Edward Bellamy.

Highlights of the musical service system described by Bellamy are the following:

Music is at your command when "you wish to hear it."

"All the really fine singers and players are in the musical service..."

Music can be in any home, "perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will..."

Music is no longer only attainable "by the most favored only occasionally, at great trouble, prodigious expense, and then for brief periods, arbitrarily fixed by somebody else, and in connection with all sorts of undesirable circumstances." Now all music and opera and concerts are available for everyone.

"All our bedchambers have a telephone attachment at the head of the bed by which any person who may be sleepless can command music at pleasure, of the sort suited to the mood."

All of these attributes of Bellamy's musical home entertainment system "not made by fairies or genii" were the same ones that would be promoted by the phonograph, advertised as accomplished facts but also sometimes as if they were the wonders of fairies or genii's or by the Wizard himself, Thomas Edison.



Chapter 11, Looking Backward 2000 - 1886 by Edward Bellamy, Technor & Company, Boston 1888

When we arrived home, Dr. Leete had not yet returned, and Mrs. Leete was not visible. "Are you fond of music, Mr. West?" Edith asked.

I assured her that it was half of life, according to my notion.

"I ought to apologize for inquiring," she said. "It is not a question that we ask one another nowadays; but I have read that in your day, even among the cultured class, there were some who did not care for music."

"You must remember, in excuse," I said, "that we had some rather absurd kinds of music." "Yes," she said, "I know that; I am afraid I should not have fancied it all myself. Would you like to hear some of ours now, Mr. West?"

"Nothing would delight me so much as to listen to you," I said.

"To me!" she exclaimed, laughing. "Did you think I was going to play or sing to you?"

"I hoped so, certainly," I replied.

Seeing that I was a little abashed, she subdued her merriment and explained. "Of course, we all sing nowadays as a matter of course in the training of the voice, and some learn to play instruments for their private amusement; but the professional music is so much grander and more perfect than any performance of ours, and so easily commanded when we wish to hear it, that we don't think of calling our singing or playing music at all. All the really fine singers and players are in the musical service, and the rest of us hold our peace for the main part. But would you really like to hear some music?"

I assured her once more that I would.

"Come, then, into the music room," she said, and I followed her into an apartment finished, without hangings, in wood, with a floor of polished wood. I was prepared for new devices in musical instruments, but I saw nothing in the room which by any stretch of imagination could be conceived as such. It was evident that my puzzled appearance was affording intense amusement to Edith.

"Please look at to-day's music," she said, handing me a card, "and tell me what you would prefer. It is now five o'clock, you will remember."

The card bore the date "September 12, 2000," and contained the longest programme of music I had ever seen. It was as various as it was long, including a most extraordinary range of vocal and instrumental solos, duets, quartettes, and various orchestral combinations. I remained bewildered by the prodigious list until Edith's pink finger tip indicated a particular section of it, where several selections were bracketed, with the words "5 P.M." against them; then I observed that this prodigious programme was an all-day one, divided into twenty-four sections answering to the hours. There were but a few pieces of music in the "5 P.M." section, and I indicated an organ piece as my preference.

"I am so glad you like the organ," said she. "I think there is scarcely any music that suits my mood oftener."

She made me sit down comfortably, and, crossing the room, so far as I could see, merely touched one or two screws, and at once the room was filled with the music of a grand organ anthem; filled, not flooded, for, by some means, the volume of melody had been perfectly graduated to the size of the apartment. I listened, scarcely breathing, to the close. Such music, so perfectly rendered, I had never expected to hear.

"Grand!" I cried, as the last great wave of sound broke and ebbed away into silence. "Bach must be at the keys of that organ; but where is the organ?"

"Wait a moment, please," said Edith; "I want to have you listen to this waltz before you ask any questions. I think it is perfectly charming"; and as she spoke the sound of violins filled the room with the witchery of a summer night. When this had also ceased, she said: "There is nothing in the least mysterious about the music, as you seem to imagine. It is not made by fairies or genii, but by good, honest, and exceedingly clever human hands. We have simply carried the idea of labor saving by cooperation into our musical service as into everything else. There are a number of music rooms in the city, perfectly adapted acoustically to the different sorts of music. These halls are connected by telephone with all the houses of the city whose people care to pay the small fee, and there are none, you may be sure, who do not. The corps of musicians attached to each hall is so large that, although no individual performer, or group of performers, has more than a brief part, each day's programme lasts through the twenty-four hours. There are on that card for to-day, as you will see if you observe closely, distinct programmes of four of these concerts, each of a different order of music from the others, being now simultaneously performed, and any one of the four pieces now going on that you prefer, you can hear by merely pressing the button which will connect your house-wire with the hall where it is being rendered. The programmes are so coordinated that the pieces at any one time simultaneously proceeding in the different halls usually offer a choice, not only between instrumental and vocal, and between different sorts of instruments; but also between different motives from grave to gay, so that all tastes and moods can be suited."

"It appears to me, Miss Leete," I said, "that if we could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained, and ceased to strive for further improvements."

"I am sure I never could imagine how those among you who depended at all on music managed to endure the old-fashioned system for providing it," replied Edith. "Music really worth hearing must have been, I suppose, wholly out of the reach of the masses, and attainable by the most favored only occasionally, at great trouble, prodigious expense, and then for brief periods, arbitrarily fixed by somebody else, and in connection with all sorts of undesirable circumstances. Your concerts, for instance, and operas! How perfectly exasperating it must have been, for the sake of a piece or two of music that suited you, to have to sit for hours listening to what you did not care for! Now, at a dinner one can skip the courses one does not care for. Who would ever dine, however hungry, if required to eat everything brought on the table? and I am sure one's hearing is quite as sensitive as one's taste. I suppose it was these difficulties in the way of commanding really good music which made you endure so much playing and singing in your homes by people who had only the rudiments of the art."

"Yes," I replied, "it was that sort of music or none for most of us.

"Ah, well," Edith sighed, "when one really considers, it is not so strange that people in those days so often did not care for music. I dare say I should have detested it, too."

"Did I understand you rightly," I inquired, "that this musical programme covers the entire twenty-four hours? It seems to on this card, certainly; but who is there to listen to music between say midnight and morning?"

"Oh, many," Edith replied. "Our people keep all hours; but if the music were provided from midnight to morning for no others, it still would be for the sleepless, the sick, and the dying. All our bedchambers have a telephone attachment at the head of the bed by which any person who may be sleepless can command music at pleasure, of the sort suited to the mood."

"Is there such an arrangement in the room assigned to me?"

"Why, certainly; and how stupid, how very stupid, of me not to think to tell you of that last night! Father will show you about the adjustment before you go to bed to-night, however; and with the receiver at your ear, I am quite sure you will be able to snap your fingers at all sorts of uncanny feelings if they trouble you again."




An article in The Talking Machine World, June 1915 described how a phonograph using an electrical music transmitter was connected via telephone wires to electrical outlets in hospital rooms and wards. The outlets could then be attached to a specially designed receiver like those used by telephone operators so that music or entertainment could be privately heard by patients in their beds.




FACTOLA: A one-act play, Bellamy's Musical Telephone, was written by Roger Lee Hall and premiered at Emerson College in Boston in 1988 on the centennial year of the novel's publication. It was released as a DVD titled "The Musical Telephone" (but the DVD is no longer available). Wikipedia


FACTOID: Bellamy's novel was the "third largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ."




(1) Jessica Kuskey (2016) Listening to the Victorian Telephone: Class, Periodicals, and the Social Construction of Technology, Nineteenth-Century Contexts




Wikipedia References (Retrieved 6-20-2022)

(2) A. Lange (March 31, 2002). "Le Premier Medium Electrique De Diffusion Culturelle: Le Theatrophone De Clement Ader (1881)" (in French). Histoire de la télévision. Retrieved 2007-11-21.

(3) A. Lange (31 March 2002). "Victor Hugo, Premier Temoin Du Theatrophone" (in French). Histoire de la télévision. Retrieved 2007-11-21.

(4) Hugo, Victor (1951). Choses vues. Ottawa: Le Cercle du Livre de France. OCLC 883063.

(5) A. Lange (4 February 2002). "Les Ecrivains Et Le Theatrophone" (in French). Histoire de la télévision. Archived from the original on 6 December 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-21.