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Headphones, History, & Hysteria

February 11th, 2011 | 1 Comment | Posted in Schubin Cafe
Fred Flare's Sherbet Colorblock Headphones

Fred Flare’s Sherbet Colorblock Headphones

Headphones are an integral part of modern media production and distribution. So, who invented them?

Here’s one theory: “The first stereo headphones were invented in 1958 by John C. Koss….” That statement may be found at this web site: http://www.bookrags.com/research/headphones-woi/

Here’s another: “[The Beyerdynamic] DT48 was designed in 1937, the first pair of headphones in human history.” Here’s the web site for that statement: http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/2970/beyerdynamic-dt48-what-is-it

Then there’s The New York Times Magazine. In it, on January 9 of this year, Virginia Heffernan wrote that headphones had been invented “a century ago” by Nathaniel Baldwin. A provided link to a Utah-history website indicates that the invention was in 1910. Here’s a link to Heffernan’s column: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/magazine/09FOB-medium-t.html. And here’s one to the Utah-history site: http://historytogo.utah.gov/salt_lake_tribune/history_matters/070801.html

As for me, I don’t know who invented headphones (though I have an informed suspicion, which I’ll reveal later). But I do know many who didn’t invent them. The list includes John Koss, Eugen Beyer, and Nathaniel Baldwin.

All three did make important contributions to headphone history. And, as best I know, none of them claimed the invention personally.

The Koss history may be found on the company’s museum page: http://www.koss.com/koss/kossweb.nsf/kmuseum. Koss, a musician who rented TV sets to hospitals, wanted to sell phonographs developed with his friend, Martin Lange.

Koss SP-3They brought the Model 390 phonograph to a hi-fi show at Milwaukee’s Hotel Wisconsin in 1958. To allow visitors to hear the quality of the sound in the noisy room, according to the Koss Museum, “They demonstrated the 390 along with a pair of aviator headphones.” The headphones were a bigger hit than the phonograph, so Koss started manufacturing SP-3 headphones (shown at left), perhaps launching the modern “personal listening industry.”

dt48e_web_1How do I know that Koss didn’t invent headphones? Among other things, the fact that his first demonstration used existing aviation headphones is a good clue. Another comes from the work of Eugen Beyer, best known today as the creator of the company now known as Beyerdynamic.

In 1937, Beyer’s company introduced the first DT 48 headphones, still sold today (the current version, the DT 48 E, shown at right, is said to be intended for ENG/EFP operations). And, although the DT 48 wasn’t hugely successful when first introduced, the DT 49, introduced in 1953, was very popular in stores that sold music recordings. Here’s a link to the history section of the Beyerdynamic web site: http://north-america.beyerdynamic.com/company/once-today.html.

It’s nice that The New York Times went farther back to some 1910 headphones, and I don’t fault them (much) for not realizing they weren’t the first. There’s no question that Nathaniel Baldwin manufactured headphones. One pair is shown below left, as pictured on the Vintage Headphones site: http://vintageheadphones.net/vintage-headphones/vintage-bakelite-headset-nathaniel-baldwin.php

Baldwin vintage_headphone-65023005128106430Baldwin’s headphones also show up in U.S. Navy documentation. Admiral Arthur Jepy Hepburn, head of the Navy’s Radio Division at the time, recalled coming “across a letter from Salt Lake City written with violet ink on blue and pink pad paper. The writer, a Mr. Baldwin, stated that he was sending a pair of telephones, which he had patented, and requested that they be tested. He wrote that they had a resistance of about 2,000 ohms, which he understood was standard for Navy headsets, but he could not be sure because he had no way of measuring it.”

That quotation is from section 9 of chapter XI of the book History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, by Captain Linwood S. Howeth, USN (Retired).  It may be read here: http://earlyradiohistory.us/1963hw11.htm. The section goes on to describe how much more sensitive Baldwin’s headsets were than existing Navy versions and how, after some false starts, he also made them more comfortable than the existing versions.

So, how do I know that Baldwin didn’t invent headphones?  Well, in part, it’s because the Navy book shows that Balwin’s were better than existing ones, which means that Baldwin’s weren’t the first. And the fact that Baldwin hoped his matched the Navy impedance shows that even Baldwin was aware of the earlier versions.

electrophoneheadphonesAnother reason Baldwin’s cannot be the first is because of something the BBC called “The 19th Century iPhone,” the Electrophone: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8668311.stm. Electrophone service began in Britain in 1895. According to the BBC story, “If [Electrophone subscribers] wanted opera they could be connected to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. They would then put on their headset and listen.” A version of the headset is shown at right.  Its four wires indicate that it was stereo-capable (the first live transmission of stereo sound took place in 1881, as I described in this earlier post: http://schubincafe.com/blog/2010/01/100th-anniversary-today/).

Telefon Hirmondo - trimmedIt’s true that the Electrophone headphones were worn under the chin instead of over the head, but the Electrophone followed the slightly earlier Hungarian Telefon Hírmondó. The drawing at left shows a subscriber to that service clearly wearing a set of over-the-top headphones.

Were the Telefon Hírmondó headphones the first?  They were not.

1890 Mercadier trimmedAt right is a portion of an 1890 drawing of someone taking dictation by telephone while wearing a pair of Ernest Mercadier’s headphones. The full photo may be found in the book Vintage Telephones of the World, by P. J. Povey and R. A. J. Earl, published in 1988 by Peter Peregrinus Ltd., London, in association with London’s Science Museum, as part of the Institution of Electrical Engineers’ (IEE) History of Technology Series 8.

Mercadier did his work in Paris. On June 16, 1891, he received U.S. Patent 454,138 for his headphones, called a Bi-Telephone. But even they weren’t the first headphones.

Pages 3 & 4 of the July 6, 1888 issue of The Electrical Engineer had the following two sentences: “The operator’s receiver has been designed to leave hands perfectly free, and is mounted on a strop or band, which goes over the head and allows the receiver (or two if preferred) to come close over the ear. This form is largely used in Lisbon by subscribers who wish to hear the opera without leaving their residences, and is greatly appreciated.”

Was there a subscription service delivering opera to homes in 1888? There was. It actually began in 1885, as I noted in this previous post: http://schubincafe.com/blog/2010/10/125th-anniversary-of-pay-cable/.

elbow restWere those the first headphones? Perhaps they were. It depends on one’s definition of headphones and who the users had to be.

Those 1888 headphone users were listening to music at home, just as users of Koss’s headphones did in the late 1950s. And what did those headphones replace? Previously, listeners to stereo music sent over telephone lines had to hold a receiver to each ear. To reduce muscle strain, there were elbow rests, as shown at the left.

If the definition of headphones is not restricted to home users, however, the people who needed them first were telephone operators. Without headsets of some kind, they would be restricted to positions in front of telephone microphones and would have to hold receivers to their ears throughout their work shifts.

Fang operator 2Ezra Gilliland, who worked for both the Bell Telephone Company and Thomas Edison and was later involved in sound recordings, rigged a telephone transmitter (mouthpiece) and receiver (earpiece) into a contraption that sat on an operator’s shoulders. According to various reports, the Gilliland harness weighed between 6 and 11 lbs. It appears to have been in use no later than 1881.

One is depicted to the right. The photo is a portion of one that appears in the book A History of Mass Communication by Irving Fang, published by Focal Press in 1997.

Was that the first form of headphone? Possibly. Think of it the next time you decide to complain about your intercom.

A year before the earliest published information we know about the Gilliand harness, however, Edward P. Fry, an invalid, installed a telephone connection to New York’s Academy of Music so he could listen to operas.  Much has been published about Fry’s listening habits, which included reading a small book of the opera’s text (libretto) and surrounding himself with photos of the singers, which he would pat when he thought they did well and turn upside down when he didn’t.

It seems unlikely that an invalid held a telephone receiver to his ear for hours while also reading a libretto and manipulating photographs. So, it’s possible that the first headphone was created in 1880. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was even a little bit earlier.

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125th Anniversary of Pay Cable

October 29th, 2010 | 3 Comments | Posted in Opera-Media Servings, Schubin Cafe

1884 Mar 6 - O Antonio Maria TVQuestion: What is shown in the drawing at the left?

Here’s more information to help you figure it out: It’s a small portion, the lower left corner, of a larger drawing, and there’s something very similar at the lower right corner as well. The larger drawing appeared as a two-page spread on pages 76 and 77 of a Portuguese periodical called O Antonio Maria. The illustration (and the article that followed it) is about an event involving media technology and popular culture.

Do you think you have a good handle on the object being depicted in the drawing? The date of the periodical in which it appeared is 6 de Março de 1884, or, in English, March 6, 1884, more than 126 years ago.

Today is the 125th anniversary of pay cable. The event shown in the drawing, about a year-and-a-half earlier, helped make pay cable possible. And pay cable helped create the news and entertainment media as we know them. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Fox News Channel is not yet 15 years old. MTV is 29. CNN is 30. Next month HBO will be 38. Those numbers are all a lot lower than 125.

Cable markerHere’s a historical marker erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania at 1501 E. Centre Street in Mahanoy City. This is what the fine print says: “The first cable television system in Pennsylvania, believed to be the first in the United States, was established June 1948 in Mahanoy City by John Walson. This community antenna (CATV) system, operated by Mr. Walson’s Service Electric Company, initially connected only three channels to his Main and Pine Street store and a few homes. In the following decade, Service Electric grew to serve many thousands of cable subscribers.” If you’d like even more information, here’s a link to the marker’s web site: http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1024

I have no desire to set off another war between the states, so let me just say that, whatever the origins of community-antenna television in the United States, I believe they occurred at around that time. But the U.S. is not the whole world.

1937 July TV and Shortwave WorldRegularly scheduled all-electronic television broadcasts began in Britain before they did in the U.S., and so did subscription television retransmission systems. At left is a portion of a drawing that appeared in the July 1937 issue of Television and Short-Wave World in an article titled “Television Relays for Modern Flats.”

The article described the systems being installed by a company called Radio Furniture and Fittings. That comany was later absorbed by Rediffusion, an organization the very name of which suggests pay cable, and that was, in fact, its initial business. The name Radio Furniture and Fittings, however, suggests that cable TV wasn’t that company’s only business.

In fact, they provided cable-radio service for years before they got involved in cable TV. So did Rediffusion.

1932 Broadcast Relay ServiceRediffusion was created by Broadcast Relay Service Ltd., established in 1928 to provide radio programming to subscribers. Did they relay radio signals over coaxial cables?

As might be suggested by this 1932 photo of one of their storefronts, copyright by RediffusionInfo.com and used here with permission, they did not. Instead, they ran unshielded wires to homes and connected them to loudspeakers.

Rediffusion later applied similar principles to TV distribution. As I noted in my article “The World of CATV Engineering and the CATV Engineering of the World” in Videography in April 1978, Rediffusion’s TV subscribers didn’t receive retransmitted broadcast signals via coaxial cable; they received much-lower-frequency signals carried over wires. “Changing channels” was actually done by switching between signals on different wires.

1922 Fredonia Telephone Company in TelephonySubscription redistribution by wire of wireless broadcasts was a service available in the U.S. no later than 1922. J. A. Gustafson, manager of the Fredonia [Kansas] Telephone Company, wrote in the December 16, 1922 issue of Telephony, “We have added a radio receiving set to our central office equipment and furnish radio service to our subscribers. This service is furnished over cable pairs that would otherwise be idle.

“To furnish this service we use a standard radio receiving set and three stages of amplification. A circuit is furnished to the subscriber at a monthly rental for the circuit only, and the subscriber buys his own loud-speaker or receivers.” Gustafson went on to describe various revenue models, including subscription, pay-per-listen, and coin-operated.

That was roughly 88 years ago, a nice ripe age, and also the standard number of keys on a piano keyboard. But more than a hundred years before that a keyboard instrument played a role in what would become pay cable.

Wheatstone lyre book 2 trimmed

British physicist Charles Wheatstone used to give “enchanted lyre” “telephone concerts.” The audience sat around a fake metallic lyre suspended from a wire, as shown above.

The wire went through the ceiling, where it connected to the frame of a keyboard instrument in an unseen room. A musician would play upstairs, and the sound would be conducted down the wire to the lyre downstairs.

Wheatstone called it an “acouryptophone.” A reporter for the journal Repository of Arts speculated in the September 1, 1821 edition that there might someday be more wires, extended farther, allowing people to listen to opera in their favorite tavern.

Opera alert: The word “opera” is going to appear frequently between here and the end of this post. It’s not because an opera (New York City Opera’s Le coq d’or) was carried exclusively on cable-TV channels (no broadcast) in 1971. It’s also not because today, in addition to being the 125th anniversary of pay cable, is also the start of the first anniversary of National Opera Week: http://www.operaamerica.org/content/advocacy/now.aspx

It’s because opera played a role in all of the following events. It was a very popular form of entertainment, the rock concerts and football games of the 19th century, and opera companies were institutions with the resources necessary to try technological marvels. You can read about opera’s role in the development of stereo sound and broadcasting in my post on the 100th anniversary of the first live opera broadcast here: http://schubincafe.com/blog/2010/01/100th-anniversary-today/

In the December 30, 1848 issue of Punch, there was an article about a proposed “opera telakouphanon.” The last word in the previous sentence was a term applied to a “speaking trumpet,” a form of hearing aid. The author speculated that some version might be used “to bring home the Opera to every lady’s drawing-room in London.” But a new element (besides substituting homes for taverns) was introduced to the 1821 idea: it was to go only “to the dwellings of all such as may be willing to pay for the accommodation.”

As the telephone was being developed, a writer for The New York Times speculated in 1876 that it would be used to deliver opera from the Academy of Music (the city’s main opera house at the time). The following year (1877), a cartoon in Punch’s Almanack for 1878 (below) showed how a home of the future would be able to select from different opera offerings.

1877 Dec 14 Punch Telephone 3 trimmed

In 1878 opera actually was carried electrically over wires in Bellinzona, Switzerland, and in 1881 it was carried in stereo from the Paris Opera to the Exhibition Hall of the Palace of Industry as part of the International Electrical Congress. Below is a diagram from a Scientific American report that year.

Ader 1881opr2

All of the above set the stage for the event depicted in the first drawing at the top of this post. Augusto Machado was a Portuguese opera composer, but Portugal was not the center of the opera world in the 1880s, so he opened his opera Lauriane in Marseilles in 1883. After its success, Machado was bringing it home to Lisbon on March 1, 1884.

It was a big deal: a local-boy-makes-good story.  O Diário de Notícias (The Daily News), alone, ran five articles about it between February 28 and March 3. The king was to attend. And that turned out to be a problem.

King Luis I’s sister, Maria Ana, Princess of Saxony, died on February 5.  Rules of royal mourning restricted the king to the palace.  He could not attend the Portuguese premiere of the opera.

Alan Danvers, engineer and manager of Lisbon’s Edison Gower-Bell Telephone Company, was aware of the previous opera transmissions and came up with the idea of putting microphones into the opera house and connecting them to the palace. The article in O Antonio Maria includes multiple illustrations of the king listening to the opera, such as the one below.

1884 Mar 6 - O Antonio Maria King Luis 1

The king knighted Danvers for his services. More significant for us, the following year the theatrical concession company Matos & Valdez entered into an agreement with Danvers’s telephone company to provide a pay-cable opera service to subscribers.  For 180,000 reis (about $74 at the time or around $1750 today) for the season, they could listen to up to 90 opera performances.

The first was Mefistofele on October 29, 1885, 125 years ago today. It was the first subscription entertainment service delivered to homes, and it led to, among other things, radio, television, and the first newscasts, as shown below at the Telefon-Hirmondó in Budapest (see the 100th-anniversary post for details). Opera sound continued to be delivered by pay cable into the 1940s.

Telefon_Hirmondo_-_Stentor_reading_the_days_news

What about that drawing at the top of this post? Yes, the opera that was the subject of that article and drawing was transmitted in 1884, but it was a sound-only transmission. So why are there what appear to be TV monitors at the lower left and right?

1884 Mar 6 - O Antonio Maria full

1884 Mar 6 - O Antonio Maria TelephoneThere’s nothing in the article to explain them, and the artist is no longer alive, but details at the bottom, such as one just over the signature, might offer a hint. Microphones (called “telephone transmitters” or even just “telephones”) in 1884 were not necessarily shaped as they are today.

By the way, in addition to pay cable, another modern technology was being developed at that time. Ever since the publication of the photoconductive properties of selenium in 1873, there was a great deal of interest in the creation of what we now call television. Also in 1885, for example, Germany issued what was later called “the basic television patent.”

1880 de PaivaThe first book on the subject was published in Portugal in 1878 by a physics professor who was later made Count of Campo Belo by the same King Luis I. This is the cover of an 1880 edition of the book, with text in English, French, and Portuguese.  You can read it here: http://histv2.free.fr/de_paiva/p0.htm

Campo Belo might ring a bell based on the 1958 play and 1960 movie Sunrise at Campobello, about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s getting polio before he became President of the United States.  FDR was the first President to appear on all-electronic television (Herbert Hoover appeared on electromechanical television when he was Secretary of Commerce).  And Sunrise at Campobello was written and produced by Dore Schary, who later ran Theatre Vision, an early contemporary of HBO in the field of, yes, pay cable.

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100th Anniversary Today

January 13th, 2010 | 1 Comment | Posted in Opera-Media Servings, Schubin Snacks

 

It isn’t often that we get hundredth anniversaries in media technology, so I figured this one — a double-header, actually — is worth mentioning.  Today is the anniversary of the first live broadcast of a complete opera; yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the first live opera broadcast.

If that’s enough for you, stop reading, and go on to something else.  But, if you’d like to learn a bit more about how opera made possible stereo sound, home entertainment, and even the newscast, read on.  You have been warned, however, that this will not be a just a tiny nibble.

deForestRadio pioneer Lee De Forest was an opera lover.  The May 1907 prospectus of his Radio Telephone Company said, “It will soon be possible to distribute grand opera music from transmitters placed on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House by a Radio Telephone station on the roof to almost any dwelling in Greater New York and vicinity.”  He hired opera singers to sing into his microphones and also transmitted opera-music records, even from the Eiffel Tower.

He reportedly couldn’t get Met general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza to agree to allow a live radio broadcast, however, until De Forest pointed out that a stage microphone would also allow Gatti-Casazza to hear from his office what was happening on stage (though the previous general manager had already installed such a system).  Finally, an experimental broadcast was authorized.

On January 12, 1910, Acts II & III of Tosca were sent by a transmitter at the Met, via an antenna strung between two masts on the roof, to a handful of receiving stations in the New York area.  The New York Times accurately reported, “This will only be an experiment and perfect results are not expected immediately.”  Those singing or talking into a microphone offstage were heard much better than those singing on the stage.  Memory and imagination probably helped listeners.

Still, the world’s first live opera broadcast went fairly well.  But, as is so often the case immediately after a reasonably successful experiment, the idea was exploited.  Reporters were invited by the Dictograph Company, which provided the microphones, to hear two operas broadcast the next day, Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, with superstars Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso.

The press invitation said the beautiful voices would be “trapped and magnified by the dictograph directly from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, and borne by wireless Hertzian waves over the turbulent waters of the sea to transcontinental and coastwise ships, and over the mountainous peaks and undulating valleys of the country.”  In fact, on the 12th, there was shipboard reception, on a vessel docked at a Manhattan pier.  As for the peaks and valleys, The Times had estimated a radius of perhaps 50 miles, given the low height of the opera-house roof.

On the 12th, others respectfully refrained from interfering with the broadcast.  On the 13th, a report in Telephony said, “deliberate and studied interference from the operator of the Manhattan Beach station of the United Wireless Company” caused “some interruption.”  “But,” according to The Times, “the reporters could hear only a ticking which the operator finally translated as follows, the person quoted being the interrupting operator: ‘I took a beer just now, and now I take my seat.’”

Oscar Hammerstein, whose Manhattan Opera House competed with the Met, installed a wireless station in his new London Opera House the next year.  But it wasn’t for broadcasting; it was for selling tickets to “passengers in the great liners 500 miles out at sea,” according to The Times.

This is another opportunity for you to bail out and stop reading.  Want to know a little bit more about early opera radio before the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday-afternoon series began in 1931?  Read on.

Before the First Live Opera Radio Broadcast

- In 1876 (55 years after opera broadcasts were predicted in The Repository of Arts), Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone (whether Antonio Meucci, a former stagehand at Florence’s Teatro della Pergola opera house, actually beat Bell to the punch in 1849 experiments as technical director at Havana’s Teatro Tacón opera house is a different issue).

Meucci_fogliettoOn March 22, The New York Times noted that “By means of this remarkable instrument, a man can have the Italian opera, the Federal Congress, and his favorite preacher laid on his own house.”  In fact, they raised the box-office concern that “No man who can sit in his own study with his telephone by his side, and thus listen to the performance of an opera at the Academy, will care to go to Fourteenth street and to spend the evening in a hot and crowded building.”  The following year, George du Maurier published a cartoon in which a household selected among opera offerings delivered by wire.

Theatrophone_-_Clement_Ader_1881- In 1881, Clément Ader demonstrated the world’s first stereo transmission from the stage of the Paris Opéra. Multiple microphones fed multiple earpieces at the International Exhibition and Congress of Electricity.  Listeners held a receiver to each ear to get immersed in the sound field.  As the term stereo wasn’t yet in use for audio, the extensive report on the demonstration in Scientific American on December 31 of that year referred to it as binauricular auduition and said it provided an auditive perspective similar to what the stereoscope provided for vision.

Possibly as a result of the 1881 experiment, an 1882 book science-fiction book by Albert Robida, Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century), devoted an entire chapter to opera on TV.  But, referring to Ader’s opera without visuals (before opera recordings or opera on the radio), a critic reported, “The telephone is a harsh judge.”  Ader nevertheless pursued the idea of making delivery of live opera sound outside the opera house a permanent option.

Commercial service followed, beginning in Portugal in 1885, delivering operas in stereo to homes and other locations, the world’s first electronic entertainment service for homes.  The idea soon spread across much of the world, and, in 1891, the opening of the opera Le Mage in Paris was heard live in London.  Marcel Proust was a Théâtrophone subscriber and wrote of listening to the opera Pelléas et Mélisande in bed at home.

Theatrophone poster

telefon hirmondo 3
- The Théâtrophone used a coin-operated business plan for its institutional service and a pay-per-event (plus subscription) plan for its home service.  Ader’s Hungarian associate, Tivadar Puskás, chose a monthly-subscription model for his version, which began in 1893 (Nikola Tesla worked on the design). That meant that the lines were available when operas weren’t being transmitted, so the newscast was invented to give subscribers something to listen to before operas (and during intermissions).  In 1930, the Hungarian service, Telefon Hírmondó (Telephone Herald), had 91,079 subscribers in Budapest alone who got the opera each night, with news reports during the intermission.

- In 1900, at the Paris Exhibition, Horace Short (like Ader, better known as an aircraft inventor) installed an “auxeto-gramophone,” a compressed-air-amplified record player, near the top of the Eiffel Tower and acoustically broadcast recordings of arias by stars of the Paris Opéra.  The sounds could be heard throughout Paris, with no listening apparatus required.

- In 1904, Professor Otto Nussbaumer of the University of Graz in Austria sang into a microphone and was heard wirelessly next door, possibly the first vocal music carried by radio.  The physics department head reportedly told him, “Your box works, but your singing is awful.”

Between the First Live Opera Broadcast and the Start of the Met Saturday-Afternoon Series

- In 1919, U.S. Navy transmitter NFF, at the time the world’s most powerful, broadcast live from the New Brunswick Opera House and was reportedly heard on a ship 2,000 miles at sea.  In Chicago, the Signal Corps aired opera records.

Hugo Gernsback's 1919 Proposal for Live Cinema Sound

Hugo Gernsback’s Proposal for Live Cinema Sound

- A 1919 proposal called for opera movies to be shot & distributed and projected to the singers, whose voices would be broadcast live to movie theaters to run in sync with the pictures.  The Met’s first live cinema transmission (31 theaters in 27 cities) took place in 1952, with local TV stations having to agree to drop their network feeds so the coaxial cable could be used for the opera.  Today, the Met’s Live in HD reaches more than 1,000 cinemas in 42 countries via satellite.

Nellie Melba small

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

- In 1920, Nellie Melba sang into a powerful transmitter at the Marconi factory in Chelmsford, England and was heard throughout Europe and even across the Atlantic.  In fact, the transmission was so powerful that it interfered with all others and was eventually shut down by the authorities.  The Melba transmission was recorded in Paris, possibly the first off-air sound recording.

- The same year, four medical students in Buenos Aires had planned a single radio transmission, but, not wanting to be outdone by Marconi & Melba, changed it into an entire season of live operas broadcast from Teatro Coliseo in Buenos Aires.  The first, on August 27, was Parsifal.

- On May 19 & 20,1921, the opera Martha was broadcast from Denver’s Municipal Auditorium by 9ZAF, a Special Amateur station said at the time to have had a range of 1500 miles.  Reception was reported from Wyoming.  This is believed to be the first opera broadcast by a station licensed to operate in the commercial radio band.

- In 1922, shortly before the Met broadcast a Veteran’s Day concert version of Aida from an armory, the real-life son of the singer playing Mimi stepped in as her lover Rodolfo after the tenor “got out of line” in an amateur Salt Lake City Bohème broadcast.  An “elocutionist” described the action.

- In a 1924 Boston broadcast of Il Trovatore, the manager announced that the tenor couldn’t continue after the second act and a messenger would be sent to get Gaetano Tommasini as a replacement.  Having heard the announcement in his hotel room, Tommasini arrived before the messenger left.

- AT&T’s WEAF (now WNBC) established a National Grand Opera Company in 1925, when it began weekly condensed-opera broadcasts.  There was also a WEAF National Light Opera Company, both later taken over by NBC (which also ran a television opera company for 16 years).

- The 1927 inaugural broadcast of what is now CBS included a condensed version of Deems Taylor’s opera The King’s Henchman. A condensed version of African-American composer Harry Freeman’s opera Voodoo was broadcast in 1928 before being staged.  And, in 1929, Cesare Sodero’s Ombre Russe became the first full opera to have its world premiere on radio (NBC) before opening in an opera house.  But the first opera commissioned (by NBC) for radio (Charles Cadman’s The Willow Tree) didn’t premiere until 1932, and, in 1937, Louis Gruenberg’s Green Mansions was the first commissioned (by CBS) as a “non-visual opera.”

- In 1930, NBC carried a live broadcast of part of Fidelio from the Dresden State Opera House in Germany.  The schedule noted it would be carried “atmospheric conditions permitting.”

Old Cross

Milton Cross, one of only three permanent announcers in the history of Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts

- In 1931, the Met began its live network opera broadcasts, which continue to this day, said to be the longest-running series of live broadcasts (they were sponsored by the same company, best known as Texaco, from 1940 through 2004, said to be the longest continuous sponsorship in broadcast history).  During the first broadcast, commentator Deems Taylor described the action during orchestral interludes, outraging opera purists, who called NBC, one woman saying she couldn’t hear what was going on because “some idiot keeps talking.”  A telegram asked, “Is it possible to have Mr. Taylor punctuate his speech with brilliant flashes of silence?”  But Taylor told the audience two weeks later, “We have received several thousand replies, of which fewer than 100 were opposed to being told what was going on upon the stage.”  Nevertheless, the Met later restricted commentary to periods when the house lights were on.

And the rest — live TV, cinema, subtitles, satellite, Internet, HD, and even 3-D opera — is history.

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