Elisha Gray would have been known to us as the inventor of the telephone if Alexander Graham bell hadn’t got to the patent office one hour before him. Instead, he goes down in history as the accidental creator of one of the first electronic musical instruments. As legend has it, Gray was inspired to investigate electro-acoustic effects after witnessing his nephew playing with his uncle’s equipment. The child had connected one end of a battery to himself and the other to a bathtub; by rubbing his hand on the bathtub’s surface he created an audible humming tone proportional to the electric current.
Gray discovered that he could control sound from a self vibrating electromagnetic circuit and in doing so invented a basic single note oscillator. The original intention was to use this principle to develop an early version of multiplex telegraphic transmission; sending multiple telegraphic messages encoded as different pitches simultaneously over the same line which could be decoded at the receiving end. Using this principle he designed a musical instrument; The ‘Musical Telegraph’ or ‘Electro-Harmonic Telegraph’ initially to demonstrate and promote his ideas.
Elisha Gray’s Musical Telegraph keyboard transmitter.
My invention primarily consists in a novel art of producing musical impressions or sounds by means of a series of properly-tuned vibrating reeds or bars thrown into action by means of a series of keys opening or closing electric circuits. It also consists in a novel art of transmitting tunes so produced through an electric circuit and reproducing them at the receiving end of the line.1Elisha Gray; Patent notes No. 173,618, Feb. 15, 1876.
Gray’s invention used and electro-acoustic principle whereby a set of tuned steel reeds where vibrated by an electromagnetic current the resulting self-oscillating current could then be transmitted over a telephone line as a buzzing musical tone. Gray built a simple receiver and loudspeaker device called the ‘Washbasin Receiver’ – essentially a large telephone-like speaker built from an old washbasin mounted close to the poles of an electromagnet. By vibrating the metal washbasin the receiver recreated and amplified the sound of the instrument (which in this pre-amplifier era was the only way to make the instrument audible.)
With each key having an associated ‘oscillator’ the Musical Telegraph was truly polyphonic. To prevent sympathetic vibrations from non-active keys Gray used a series of mechanical stops allowing the production of a clean individual tone per key.
Elisha Gray’s first “Musical Telegraph” or “Harmonic Telegraph”used a simple two ‘oscillator’ keyboard design but later versions contained enough single-tone oscillators to play two octaves – Gray suggested that ‘Obviously the number of keys may be increased’ – and later models were equipped with a simple tone wheel control. Gray took the instrument on tour with him to the UK in 1874 transmitting musical tones over a distance of 200 miles or more.
Gray also promoted his discoveries in the USA. On April 2, 1877, Elisha Gray staged a ‘Telephone concert’ at Steinway Hall on East 14th Street in New York – despite the fact that no telephone was actually used. Playing remotely from the Western Union office in Philadelphia, the famous pianist Frederick Boscovitz performed on the 16 note version of the Musical Telegraph to the astonished New York audience. The receiver at the Steinway Hall consisted of 16 resonant hollow wooden tubes, ranging from six inches to two feet in length, joined by a wooden bar with a receiver electromagnet attached. The whole receiver was mounted on a grand piano to further resonate and colour the buzzing tone of the electronic instrument. The tones were reported to be distinct though the higher notes were considered ‘rather feeble’ with the timbre somewhat resembling an organ;
“as a novelty, was highly entertaining, though unless an almost incredible improvement be effected, it is difficult to see how the transmission of music over the new instrument can be of permanent practical value.”
National Republican (Washington, D.C.), April 10, 1877, page 1:
This initial concert was followed by five more performances in the same week, three in Steinway Hall, one at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and one at Lincoln Hall in Washington:
MUSIC BY TELEGRAPH.
THE TELEPHONE EXHIBITION AT LINCOLN HALL.
Airs Played In Philadelphia Distinctly Audible In Washington–Description of the Apparatus–Its Sound and What It Resembles–The Performance a Great Success.
The atmospheric conditions last evening were far from favorable to the reception of music by telegraph, and it was not surprising, therefore, that the majority of those who went to Lincoln hall last evening to presence the latest triumph of American science–the telephone–were more or less doubtful of the success of the experiment they were about to witness. The interest manifested by our citizens in this grand and important invention could not have been attested in a more substantial manner, for the hall was filled to almost its amplest capacity by as intelligent and discriminating an audience as has gathered in that resort this season.
The preparation for the exhibition of the telephone were quite simple and were easily observable. Several wires depended from the aperture over the chandelier in the centre of the room, and communicated some with a regular telegraphic instrument on the stage to the left of the audience, others with the receiving apparatus of the telephone. The latter was placed on the floor of the stage, to the right of the audience. It is a small apparatus, about six feet long and less than two feet high, and consists of sixteen square boxes, resembling in appearance and arrangement the tubes of a large organ.
The entertainment began with the concert which Mr. Maurice Strakosch had provided, evidently to offset any disappointment that the audience might experience in the event of the inability of the telephone to surmount the obstacles of the inclement weather. The following was the programme:
Miss Fannie Kellogg is a young lady of prepossessing appearance, but evidently still a novice in the concert-room. Her rendition of the Polonaise from “Mignon,” which is an extremely difficult passage, requiring the greatest flexibility and control of voice, was not even a mediocre performance, although she took the liberty of omitting the trills and substituting a few notes of her own for those of the composer, and to cap the climax the finale of the air was sang entirely out of key as well as out of time. Indeed, it was as complete a faux pas as we have ever witnessed at a first-class concert. Miss Kellogg, nevertheless, found many admirers, for she was loudly encored, and in response to repeated calls essayed that sweet and plaintive air of Apt’s–Embarrassment–which she sang but indifferently well. To Signor Tagliapietra we cannot award too much praise. He was in exquisite voice, and his singing was perfection itself. Mr. S. Liebling’s performance on the piano was artistic and finished.
At the conclusion or the first part of the concert the piano was closed, and two young men raised the “receiving” apparatus of the telephone and placed it on the piano, after which a wire was adjusted to it, thus establishing direct communication with the “sending” instrument, in the office of the Western Union Telegraph Company in Philadelphia, presided over by Mr. F. Boscovitz. A telegraph operator next appeared and took up his position at the little table above referred to. Immediately afterwards a tall, spare gentleman with a beard came forward. This was Professor Gray, the inventor of the telephone. The Professor declared that he did not desire to exhibit the telephone as a great musical instrument, and if anybody expected to listen to grand music, he would inform them in advance that they would be disappointed. The Professor, although doubtless a genius in some respects, cannot be said to number oratory among his gifts. In a rambling, disconnected and ungrammatical speech, out or which it was impossible for the life of us to make head or tail, the Professor endeavored to explain in a scientific manner many things connected with the telephone. He was not permitted to continue the infliction very long, for the audience grew impatient, and manifested their feelings in a quiet way. The Professor was not slow to take the hint, and concluded his introductory remarks by requesting the greatest silence. He then directed the telegraph operator to inform Mr. Boscovitz at Philadelphia that everything was in readiness and he might begin. Within three or four seconds the first notes of “Home, Sweet Home” were distinctly audible in every part of the spacious ball, the melody being recognized perfectly.
We can best describe the music of the telephone as heard last night by comparing it to the sound that would be produced slowly on an organ with one finger. The higher notes were rather feeble. The utmost stillness prevailed, and at the finish the applause was long and enthusiastic. The remaining selections on the programme were played in the order given, all with the same success, as follows:
1. “Home, Sweet Home.”
2. “Come Genil.”–Don Pasquale.
3. “Then You’ll Remember Me”–(Bohemian Girl.)
4. “The Last Rose of Summer.”
5. “M’Appari,” Romance–(Martha.)
6. “The Carnival of Venice.”
At the conclusion of the exhibition the judgment of all present was highly flattering to what may yet be numbered among the greatest inventions of modern times.
New York Times, July 10, 1874
After many years of litigation, Alexander Graham Bell was legally named the inventor of the telephone despite Gray’s allegations that Bell had plagiarised his ideas and Gray seems to have lost interest in his musical exploration soon after the legal battles with Bell.
The One Octave transmitter built in the summer of 1874. The seventh (left) electromagnet is missing.
Despite this, Gray’s ideas had a profound influence on other inventors. Thaddeus Cahill was influenced by the Harmonic Telegraph when designing his Telharmonium of 1897; Cahill, rather unfairly, criticised the numerous shortcomings of Gray’s instrument in a letter supporting his patent application, highlighting the superiority and uniqueness of his own invention. These faults, according to Cahill, included low power –affecting transmission range and volume – and the lack tone shaping ability or expression control resulting in an unpleasant overall sound. Cahill declared Gray’s instrument to be:
” practically useless . No person of taste or culture could be supposed to derive any enjoyment from music rendered in poor, harsh tones with uneven power and absolutely without expression or variation”.
Thaddeus Cahill application for letters patent to the commissioner of patents April 1915. quoted in ”Magic Music from the Telharmonium’ Reynold Weidenaar
Grays ideas were further developed in 1885 by the German physicist Ernst Lorenz who added an experimental envelope control to Gray’s design. Alexander Graham Bell also designed an experimental ‘ Electric Harp’ for speech transmission over a telephone line using similar technology to Gray’s.
Gray later founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company In 1872 – parent firm of the present Western Electric Company – and two years later he retired to continue independent research and teaching at Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio, USA).
(born; Barnesville, Ohio, on Aug. 2, 1835, died Newtonville, Mass., on Jan. 21, 1901)
Elisha Gray, the American inventor, who contested the invention of the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell. He was born in Barnesville, Ohio, on Aug. 2, 1835, and was brought up on a farm. He had to leave school early because of the death of his father, but later completed preparatory school and two years at Oberlin College while supporting himself as a carpenter.
At college he became fascinated by electricity, and in 1867 he received a patent for an improved telegraph relay. During the rest of his life he was granted patents on about 70 other inventions, including the Telautograph (1888), an electrical device for reproducing writing at a distance.On Feb. 14, 1876, Gray filed with the U.S. Patent Office a caveat (an announcement of an invention he expected soon to patent) describing apparatus ‘for transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically.’ Unknown to Gray, Bell had only two hours earlier applied for an actual patent on an apparatus to accomplish the same end. It was later discovered, however, that the apparatus described in Gray’s caveat would have worked, while that in Bell’s patent would not have. After years of litigation, Bell was legally named the inventor of the telephone, although to many the question of who should be credited with the invention remained debatable.
In 1872, Gray founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, parent firm of the present Western Electric Company. Two years later he retired to continue independent research and invention and to teach at Oberlin College. Gray died in Newtonville, Mass., on Jan. 21, 1901.
‘Whose Phone Is It, Anyway: Did Bell Steal The Invention?’ By Steve Mirsky . Scientific American January 9, 2008
‘Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture’ By Thom Holmes. 1985, 2002 Thom Holmes; 2008 Taylor & Francis. P6.
Holmes, Thomas B, ‘Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition’, Routledge 2002, 42.
Weidenaar, Reynold, ‘Magic Music from the Telharmonium’ The scarecrow press, inc. Metuchen, n.J., & london, 1995 , 1995, 19.
Hounshell, David, ‘Elisha Gray and the Telephone: On the Disadvantages of Being an Expert’, Technology and Culture Vol. 16, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), 133-161.
“Music by Telegraph,” New York Times, April 3, 1877
“Telephone Concerts,” Steinway Hall Programme, April 2, 1877
“When Music Was Broadcast by Telephone,” New York Times, May 11, 1975, D17.
National Republican (Washington, D.C.), April 10, 1877, 1.
- 1Elisha Gray; Patent notes No. 173,618, Feb. 15, 1876.
6 thoughts on “The ‘Musical Telegraph’ or ‘Electro-Harmonic Telegraph’, Elisha Gray. USA, 1874”
Thank you for giving Elisha Gray the publicity he deserves. As an Oberlin faculty member and organologist (sci. of musical instruments), I am especially appreciative of his Musical Telegraph. Can the item be seen somewhere?
The two octave transmitter is at the Smithsonian Institute.
This website was my introduction to Elisha Gray and his musical accomplishments, and for this I am most grateful. It is rich in content, but unfortunately it also contains a number of errors. In the past year I have done extensive research on Gray, including his holdings at the Smithsonian. I would like to offer here a list of problems that should ideally be corrected by editing the article itself. If this is not possible, perhaps my list may stand here as an Errata Sheet for the article.
Roderic Knight, emeritus professor of ethnomusicology, Oberlin College Conservatory of Music
Corrections to be noted:
-The washbasin receiver is from 1874, not 1847.
-(In the caption for the patent drawings) The tines do not vibrate electronically, but electromechanically, by electromagnets.
-The side view patent drawing is Fig. 2 (cut off from the top of the graphic). Fig. 3 refers to the back view, below it.
-The caption for the concert illustration correctly states that the first public demonstration of the musical telegraph was at the Highland Park Presbyterian Church, Dec. 29, 1874, but the illustration is not from that event. Rather, it is from a grand concert on April 2, 1877 at Steinway Hall in New York City. (I can provide a much better graphic of this event if it can be included.)
-The citations for the various newspaper articles, are very much mixed up. I can provide the details if the web content itself can be altered.
-It should be noted for clarity that the one-octave transmitter built in 1874 and shown in the b&w photo is lacking its left-most electromagnet. There should be eight.
-In the caption for the two-octave keyboard (color photo), it should state that it is held (as are all of the items pictured) at the Smithsonian Institution (not ‘Institute’).
-Cahill’s Telharmonium was introduced in 1897, not 1879.
Please add this item to my Errata Sheet at the end of the article:
-Cahill’s acerbic comments about Gray’s musical telegraph were not part of Cahill’s patent application; rather, they were contained in a detailed letter to the patent examiner in support of his application. The date was April 7, 1896. Your article gives the date as 1916, by which time the Telharmonium had already met its unfortunate end. (This is covered in Reynold Weidenaar’s book Magic Music from the Telharmonium (Scarecrow Press, 1994), p. 18-21 & footnote 66, p. 45.)
What if I want to use the image of musical telegraph in my book? Surely, the image is copyrighted, is it not? Where can I get permission to use it? Thanks.
This is Pyungho Kim again. I should have said ‘Elisha Gray’s two octave keyboard transmitter’ Please inform me of copyright issue of using the image of transmitter. Thanks.