There are inventors and inventors. History does not always treat all of them with the same justice. There are names that have reached our days and that will continue in the future, such as Johannes Gutenberg, Thomas edison, Alexander Graham Bell or Steve Jobs. Others were not recognized at the time but their work is beginning to be recognized, such as Nicholas Tesla. And there are some that are only remembered in certain areas.

This is what happens with French Clément Ader (1841-1925), whom we know for introducing the words avion and aviation into French, which in Spanish made a strong impression as a plane and aviation. But it would be unfair to leave it there, since we must be the inventor and engineer one of the pioneers in aeronautics with various steam powered prototypes. Hence the European company Airbus give its name to one of its assembly centers in Toulouse, France.

But Clément Ader He also dedicated his ingenuity to other areas, such as the manufacture of velocipeds or a detachable rail. And another area that gave it relevance was telephony. To begin with, in 1878 the telephone of Alexander Graham Bell and he was the one who started the Paris telephone network in 1880. And in relation to the telephone, Ader also stood out for a curious invention that we know little about but enjoy almost daily. Of course, with other names. Ader’s invention was called a theatrophone, a théâtrophone in French, and thus mentioned in English as well.

Clément Ader’s stereo telephony

In the World Exhibition From 1881 in Paris, the French engineer Clément Ader presented his invention. Specifically, he set up 80 telephony transmitters spread across the stage of the Paris Opera. These transmitters were connected by telephone cable to some rooms in the Paris Electricity Exhibition, several kilometers away. The result, a two-channel sound system, that is, stereophonic. Those who were on the phone could hear the sound that came from the Paris Opera with a quality never heard until then, neither live nor delayed.

Diagram of Ader’s demonstration and lithograph of the result. Source: Wikipedia

It was not until 1890 that this invention would receive the name of théâtrophone, theatrical phone in Spanish. That year it became a regular service offered in Paris by the Compagnie du Théâtrophone o Theater company. Curiously, Clément Ader was not linked to this project, at least not directly.

By then, the telephone system devised by Ader already had clients of the importance of King Luis I of Portugal, who in 1884 began using it so as not to personally attend the opera. By country, the system was introduced in Belgium (1884), Portugal (1885) and Sweden (1887) in a timely manner. Even in United States There was some attempt to implement its use, such as the 1890 concert at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga.

Le Compagnie du Théâtrophone

We said that the name of the theatrophone arises with the first company dedicated to this invention. The Theater Company, Compagnie du Théâtrophone in French, was created in 1890 by engineers Belisaire Marinovitch and Geza Szarvady, which improved Ader’s original invention by automating part of the process.

The success of the theatrophone is immediate. Will soon be installed in public places like cafes and hotels. For a 50 cent coin you could listen for 5 minutes and for a franc 10 minutes. When going off-hook, a female voice warned of the ongoing events and the intermission, in which a recorded melody sounded. The central station or switchboard of the Paris theater system was on the rue Louis-le-Grand. From there, a single operator connected theaters with subscribers, just like in the telephone switchboards of the time.

Although it was basically a French invention, it spread to several European countries. In Spainfor example the Spanish office of the patents and brand has the 1860 patent, which corresponds to “a procedure for installing a theatrical telephone network” In France, the theatrophone patent would receive the number 144318. Well. Although Ader was not directly associated with the Compagnie du Théâtrophone or facilities in other countries, by patenting his invention in up to seven countries, it would “become famous and fabulously rich”, according to the Virtual Museum of the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office.

This invention also served him to receive the medal of Knight of the Legion of Honor and to rub shoulders with important figures in French society and politics, which opened the way to his future stage as an aeronautical engineer.

Who killed the theater phone?

If the theater was so well received and successful in several European countries, why is it no longer with us? Obviously, today we have something similar. Services like Spotify, Apple music or Youtube They offer music recorded by subscription. And if you want opera, there are specialized channels and recordings on Vimeo and Youtube. To which must be added cinema in a thousand and one style platforms Netflix.

Thus, the theatrophone of Clément Ader He started inventions that we use naturally today. First, encouraged the use of the telephone beyond its usefulness as a tool to communicate. The same thing that happens with smartphones current, which serve everything, beyond phone calls.

Second, it allowed attend remotely to a live event, at least through sound. And also in stereo quality, unlike the classic phone which is monophonic, since it uses a single speaker.

The concept of pay-per-view also saw its origin here. Today it is common to pay to see sporting events, theater or opera, known as pay-per-view or pay-per-view. System that evolved to monthly subscriptions which are already a benchmark in sectors such as music and audiovisuals, live or delayed.

Let us return, then, to the million dollar question. Why did the theater phone disappear? There is a reason that temporarily damaged it, such as Copyright. In some countries, broadcasting of the theatrophone was hampered by the reluctance of theaters and operas to allow its content to be broadcast over the phone.

But what really killed the theater phone were two similar inventions but easier to implement. And cheaper. Radio and the phonograph. The theatrophone was a device placed mainly in public places or in private clubs for the upper classes. Furthermore, its use depended on a constant pay. The arrival of the radio meant that for a small fee you could have a device at home that would give you access to music, information and fictional content for hours. And it was the same with the phonograph. It was expensive, but soon its use was democratizing.

Thus, in 1932, the Compagnie du Théâtrophone ceased its activities after more than 40 years of popularity and success. The European reign of the theatrephone was over. Now was the time for radio and the phonograph.


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