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Telefon Hírmondó, The Telephone Newspaper

Théâtrophone

When cell phones were first introduced, they were unattractive, brick-like devices that could do nothing more than make voice calls and send and receive text messages. In order to entice customers to this new technology, network operators offered subscribers various value-added services, such as the ability to get news updates, infotainment, match scores, weather updates, and so on, on their phones through text messages. For a nominal fee, a customer could subscribe to any or all of these value-added services, and get their daily dose of news and entertainment in 160-character snippets. Value-added services not only increased customer’s engagement with their phones, it also brought additional revenue to the network operators. It was a brilliant marketing ploy.

But back when there were no cell phones—I’m taking about way back, like more than a hundred years ago—and only the elite few had telephones in their homes, there was a somewhat similar service. This new service started emerging in a handful of European cities shortly after the introduction of the telephone in the 1870s. They were known as telephone newspapers.

Théâtrophone

Broadcasting as we know it, only became possible with the invention of the radio in the mid-19th century. But the earliest radio waves couldn’t carry voices, only signals that were interpreted as dots and dashes—the Morse code. Audio broadcasting started only in the first decade of the 20th century, and by the 1920s radio broadcasting had become a household medium. In between these two technological milestones lie telephone broadcasting.

The first organized telephone-based entertainment service is the Théâtrophone, which went into operation in Paris, in 1890, and allowed subscribers to listen to opera and theatre performances over telephone lines. It was the world’s first live streaming service. A demonstration of live-streaming was actually made nine years prior during the 1881 Paris Electrical Exhibition. French inventor Clément Ader arranged 80 telephone transmitters across the front of a stage at Comédie-Française and connected them to individual telephones in a suite of rooms at the Exhibition site, where visitors could hear opera performances in stereo using two headphones. The theater was located two kilometers away. King Luís I of Portugal was so impressed by the demonstration that he had one installed at his palace so that he could listen to opera when he could not attend in person.

Théâtrophone switchboard

Théâtrophone started offering its service of opera performances and five-minute news to Parisian in 1890. The company set up coin-operated telephone receivers in hotels, cafés, clubs, and other locations, where for 50 centimes one could buy five minutes of listening. Subscription tickets were also issued at a reduced rate, and the service was also available to home subscribers. In 1893, three years after the service was introduced, there were reportedly 1,300 subscribers.

One of the most successful telephone newspapers was the Telefon Hírmondó, literally the “Telephone Herald”, that operated in Budapest from 1893 until 1944, to become the longest-running of all telephone newspaper systems. Initially the Telefon Hírmondó provided a short hourly news program using phone lines already provided by the local telephone company. As the service expanded, Telefon Hírmondó began to offer full twelve hours of continuous programing using the company's own dedicated lines.

A typical day’s programme began at 9:30 in the morning with news bulletins and newspaper article summaries. The afternoon schedule comprised of “short entertaining stories”, “sporting intelligence”, and “filler items” of various kinds. Every hour there news summaries for those who had missed the earlier bulletins. The evening schedule consisted of theatrical offerings, opera, poetry readings, concerts, lectures and linguistic lessons.

Telefon Hírmondó

A stentor reading the day's news to 6,200 Telefon Hírmondó subscribers, circa 1901.

The following schedule for a day's programme appeared in a 1907 issue of Scientific American.

9:00 AM…  Exact astronomical time
9:30 AM — 10:00 AM…  Reading of programme of Vienna and foreign news and of chief contents of the official press.
10:00 AM — 10:30 AM…  Local exchange quotations.
10:30 AM — 11:00 AM… Chief contents of local daily press.
11:00 AM — 11:15 AM…  General news and finance.
11:15 AM — 11:30 AM…  Local, theatrical, and sporting news.
11:30 AM — 11:45 AM…  Vienna exchange news.
11:45 AM — 12:00 AM…  Parliamentary, provincial, and foreign news.
12:00 PM…   Exact astronomical time.
12:00 PM — 12:30 PM…  Latest general news, news, parliamentary, court, political, and military.
12:30 PM — 1:00 PM…  Midday exchange quotations.
1:00 PM — 2:00 PM…  Repetition of the half-day's most interesting news.
2:00 PM — 2:30 PM…  Foreign telegrams and latest general news.
2:30 PM — 3:00 PM…  Parliamentary and local news.
3:00 PM — 3:15 PM…  Latest exchange reports.
3:15 PM — 4:00 PM…  Weather, parliamentary, legal, theatrical, fashion and sporting news.
4:00 PM — 4:30 PM…  Latest exchange reports and general news.
4:30 PM — 6:30 PM…  Regimental bands.
7:00 PM — 8:15 PM…  Opera.
8:15 PM (or after the first act of the opera)…  Exchange news from New York, Frankfurt, Paris, Berlin, London, and other business centers.
8:30 — 9:30…  Opera.

Running the Telefon Hírmondó was akin to running a conventional newspaper, but without the printing and type-setting machinery and the many thousand pounds expenditure it involved. There was an editor, his assistants, and the usual flock of reporters for collection of news. News items were received in the office, written and edited in a manner so that the subscribers may receive the intelligence in the fewest words possible. News readers, called stentor, were required to have strong voices, because of the limitation of the amplification system they had to speak loudly into the microphones. By the year 1907, Telefon Hírmondó employed over two hundred people and had over fifteen thousand paying subscribers.

Reporters of Telefon Hirmondó

Reporters of Telefon Hirmondó

concert room of Telefon Hírmondó

In the concert room of Telefon Hírmondó

Thomas S. Denison wrote in the April 1901 issue of The World's Work:

The paper is so well known and has accomplished so much that it appears to be beyond the stage of experiment so far as Budapest is concerned. One strong point in its favor is its early reports. In this respect the paper has a strong hold, for it is able to issue an "extra" at any hour of the day. Moreover, invalids and busy people may get as much news as they want with little effort. Indeed, the plan has so many advantages, that we shall probably soon see it in operation on this side of the ocean, with the improvements that Yankee ingenuity will be sure to devise.

The success of Telefon Hírmondó inspired many entrepreneurs to start telephone newspapers in their own cities. Notable examples include Electrophone in London, Tellevent in Detroit, Araldo Telefonico in Italy, Telephone Herald in Newark and Portland, Musolaphone in Chicago and many others. Telefon Hírmondó outlived them all. The telephone newspaper stopped broadcasting only when its wire network was destroyed by bombing during World War 2.

Tivadar Puskás, the man who created Telefon Hírmondó, never lived to see the success of his invention. A prominent Hungarian telephone pioneer and inventor of the telephone switchboard, Puskás died of a sudden heart attack a month after Telefon Hírmondó began broadcasting. He was still waiting for the authorization letter from the government to arrive that would officially permit him to operate his telephone newspaper.

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