I was thinking today about a piece of technology that makes Daphne Oram’s graphic synthesizer from 1957, a centrepiece of the Science Museum’s new show, look quite conservative. It’s called the Telharmonium. It was built by a man called Thaddeus Cahill in 1906. He built three versions and the biggest weighed 200 tons. However, it was probably the first truly portable electronic music instrument. It was carried in 30 railway carriages and it was a series of tone-wheel generators, a little bit like a Hammond organ, though in a Hammond the generators were about 1.6in in diameter whereas in the Telharmonium they were 8ft tall. They were big-toothed cogs that spun in front of a solenoid, thus creating an oscillating frequency.
Of course in 1906 there weren’t any amplifiers: they hadn’t been invented. The only form of amplification that existed was the telephone receiver. So what would happen is that Thaddeus would announce his arrival in a town, turn up and plug the output of the whole apparatus into the telephone exchange.
People would listen to the performance by taking their phones off the hook – it was loud enough for you to hear at a distance from the receiver. So Thaddeus, or his assistants, would sit and play on this extraordinary machine and through the telephones in the various houses in the city. That was technology and it stayed technology – it never really settled down into being a proper instrument.