Page last updated at 09:35 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 10:35 UK

The 19th Century iPhone

A dog listens to a telephone earpiece
When the telephone was invented it was not clear what uses it might have

People take it for granted that mobile phones are now used to catch up on the latest news, share prices and to download stereo music. But this is not as new as you might think.

In the late 1880s as the telephone began to move into homes for the first time subscribers were being offered a variety of services including live opera, music from the theatre and news services.

Britain, France, Hungary and the US were the main countries developing the telephone as a form of early broadcast medium - rather like a radio station.

In London, these new telephone services were provided by a company founded in the early 1890s called Electrophone.

It concentrated on entertainment and religion providing its services down the national telephone company's phone lines.

In some cases where church services were offered - the microphones were disguised as bibles

Similar services were available in Birmingham and Bournemouth.

Electrophone was based at Pelican House in Gerrard Street at the heart of London's Soho - an ideal location close to to the heart of theatreland.

The 1890s and early 1900s were the heyday of musical comedy in London.

Electrophone signed deals with the theatres and the Royal Opera House to relay their performances.

There was also live worship on offer from prominent churches. However, attempts to wire up debates in the House of Commons predictably came to nothing.

Subscription service

To use the service subscribers picked up their phones and asked the operator to connect them to Electrophone.

They would then be asked which theatre they wanted to connect to. If they wanted opera they could be connected to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

They would then put on their headset and listen. They could pay via a coin-in-the-slot machine but if they wanted the service at home they needed to pay a subscription.

Picture courtesy Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive
Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876

Communications historian Neil Johannesen said it was not cheap: "You paid £5 a year and that got you receivers for the use of two people so it was a social event.

"Extra receivers cost you £1 a year. That was a lot of money when you think the telephone was probably costing you £20 a year at that stage and that could have got you a servant instead of a telephone."

Rows of microphones were installed in the theatres across the front of the stage in between the footlights.

John Liffen of the Science Museum said: "You could hear the same level of voice as the actors and actresses moved to and fro.

"Of course as they moved nearer or further away from the microphones that helped to give a sense of spaciousness, a sense of 'this is live - we are actually hearing this right now'."

In some cases where church services were offered - the microphones were disguised as bibles.

By 1908 Electrophone had around 600 subscribers and carried performances from 30 theatres and churches. During the First World War, recuperating servicemen were given free access to Electrophone services.

Britain had been behind some other countries in offering these services.

Stereo sound

As early as 1881 - just five years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone - live performances from two Paris opera houses had been transmitted to a great electrical exhibition at the French capital's Palais d'Industrie.

Two microphones were used to capture the sound and relayed to listeners each with two earpieces - an early version of stereo sound.

The big, bold sound of opera was particularly suited to overcoming the technical shortcomings of the earliest telephone equipment.

Communications historian Tim Crook said: "You had an inferior technology, very poor quality indeed - graphite microphones that could pick up the powerful projections of operatic singing so musical theatre and opera was the ideal medium."

A candlestick telephone
The candlestick telephone was used between the 1890s and 1930s

But the most astonishing developments took place in Budapest, where the Telefon Hirmondo company offered what we would fully recognise as a radio station - a full daily schedule of up-to-the-minute news of all kinds, plus access to the arts, delivered by a large staff of specialists.

But the arrival of radio in the 1920s sounded the death knell for Electrophone. The BBC opened its first station in 1922, 2LO London.

Electrophone was paying very high line rentals to the Post Office, which had bought out the National Telephone Company.

Faced with declining audiences in the face of free to air broadcasting, the Electrophone exchange closed on 30 June 1925, after more than 30 years of broadcasting.

It was to be years later that the internet arrived duplicating some of the old Electrophone services down a phone line.

Modern telephones and computers now allow users to download music at a small cost and get news and information.

But the Electrophone was there first.

The Pleasure Telephone will be on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 16 May at 2130 BST and available after on BBC iPlayer.

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