Sunday, January 13, 2008


Proust's Stereo

In the latest New Scientist, I've got a piece on what is just about my most favorite invention ever:

Sickly and often bedridden, by February 1911 French novelist Marcel Proust had one constant companion in the solitary confines of his cork-lined Paris sanctuary: a mysterious contraption that he kept by his bed. When he wasn’t labouring over his magnum opus, A la Recerche du Temps Perdu, Proust would collapse into bed, grasp a pair of wires trailing into a primitive headset, and lose himself in Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande.What he heard was no scratchy gramophone recording, but a live broadcast—and in stereophonic sound.


That's right: while we were stuck for most of the 20th century with crappy mono sound, Victorians and Edwardians actually had live stereophonic broadcasts -- thanks to a telephone-music system wired to theatres in Paris, London, and Budapest:

The brainchild of one Clement Ader, the Theatrophone (Electrophone in the UK) carried online stereo music for audiophiles for decades. At Ader's first demonstration in Paris in 1881, a reporter for Scientific American pretty much had his mind blown:

“Singers place themselves, in the mind of the listener, at a fixed distance, some to the right and others to the left. It is easy to follow their movements, and to indicate exactly, each time they change their position, the imaginary distance at which they appear to be."

They didn't even really have a word for it yet, but this is one of the very first descriptions ever written about what it's like to listen with stereo headphones.

Then, like now, musicians got upset -- one Verdi's last acts was to sue an Italian online music firm for carrying Rigoletto. But that's not what killed online music. It was radio that killed the telephone star: sure, radio was crappy sounding, but it was cheap and wireless and portable. For the next four decades, consumers actually went backwards and lost the immersive feel of stereo sound. It's startling today to see photos of an Electrophone salon in London, and I closed my article on this thought:
Perhaps Ader’s invention has only truly arrived with today’s music downloads via souped-up phone lines and cables. Proust would hardly have been surprised by our iPod era: one photograph from 1901 shows clients at the Electrophone saloon in Soho all slouched in headphone reverie and bearing distant expressions on their faces; they neither talk nor look at each other. Change their headsets for earbuds, and their petticoats and frock coats for T-shirts and jeans, and you have the very picture of modern commuters.
Here, by the way, is that picture:

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