If you’ve ever spent time on hold with tech support, you’ve likely listened to a lot of tinny, cheesy music coming from your phone as you grit your teeth and count the seconds. Instead of making things better, hold music seems to make the minutes stretch into hours. Believe it or not, in the late 19th century people used to pay to listen to music over the phone. A French service called Théâtrophone was basically a steampunk version of Pandora Radio that allowed subscribers to have live music pumped into their homes at a price of 50 centimes for five minutes — roughly one or two euros in today’s money.
Microphones set up on stage would pump live music to a central switchboard, and from there it would go out to hotels, restaurants and homes across Paris.Scientific American wrote a piece on the théâtrophone system way back in 1892, and at that time there were about 100 of the devices running throughout Paris. The system sounds downright hokey today, but it was ingenious for the time; keep in mind that this pre-dates wireless transmission via radio, much less modern improvements, such as iPhones and internet-based “cloud” storage for music. The théâtrophone system actually ran for quite a while, and it wasn’t shuttered until 1932.
Today, we’re able to cart around weeks worth of music in a device about the size of a deck of playing cards, and if Apple’s “iCloud” service really takes off, it may reach a point that we’ll be able to store and stream more music than we’ll actually be able to listen to in one lifetime. Meanwhile, the next time you’re on hold with tech support and forced to listen to Huey Lewis and the News against your will, just be thankful that’s not the only way you can get tunes into your ears.