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Radio on the Telephone
(Telefon-Hirmondo, The News-teller)

From Colorado Radio Collector's "The Flash!!"
Wayne Gilbert12/99

Back      "Broadcasting" readily conjures up an image in most of our minds. "Stentor," on the other hand, leaves most of us wondering if it's an animal, vegetable, mineral, or just another new term that some computer nerd thought up. If you guessed any of the above, you are wrong, but without a stentor the first broadcasts would not have been possible. A stentor is a person with a loud voice, and they were "broadcasting" before the beginning of the 20th century, or before 1900 for those who are millennium impaired.

     Wired voice transmission was the invention of a Hungarian electrical engineer named Theodore Puska, a one time employee of Thomas Edison. It was his vision that his invention would be used as a 'telephone newspaper'. He wanted to be able to report an event as it happened, instead of as soon as possible after it had happened, a truly futuristic concept in that era when printed newspapers were the accepted distributors of news and events, and their only truly current news was when they printed an 'extra' edition.

     In 1893 as many as 6200 homes were equipped with a small wooden box (Fig. 1) and a set of earphones which allowed them to listen to stentors broadcasting the latest news reports and stock market quotations as well as musical concerts and theatrical plays while the rest of the world was trying to pick out spark codes with 100 foot aerials. The average radio collector may find this hard to believe or accept, but voice transmission broadcasting was not a child of the radio age and the first stentors were not found in the United States.

     As many of you have already guessed, stentors were "wire" broadcasters, not wire-less broadcasters, but it is interesting to note that although the terms were different, the basic concept was the same, and that was to intentionally broadcast from a single station or location to a number of people simultaneously, who were all listening for your broadcast. It is also interesting to note that these early broadcasters were faced with some of the same problems that wireless broadcasters were later forced to face. For example: some wired broadcasts had to be delayed or canceled because of bad weather, and from the beginning there was the question of how many commercials the listener would tolerate.

     The collection and gathering of the news for the telephone newspaper were very similar to the paper newspapers of the time, but the editing was performed very rapidly and long narrow strips, known as galley slips, were quickly produced to be read into a "double receiver" (microphone) by the stentor. A good stentor could read for approximately 10 minutes before his voice gave out and a replacement had to take over, although in emergencies one stentor had to broadcast longer but never for more than 30 minutes (Fig. 2).

     A transmitter amplified the double receiver's output by the same means as that used for a standard telephone, but the information was then directly transmitted to a special receiver in each of 27 districts, where it is again amplified before being further transmitted to each subscriber's wire. Although the quality of the received broadcast was reported to be good in Budapest, what was regarded as 'good' may have been in the ear of the beholder. The original mechanical amplifiers originally were made by basically connecting a rod from the output speaker diaphragm to the diaphragm of another speaker which was acting as a microphone. As microphones and speakers became more sophisticated, an earpiece speaker was simply connected face to face to a microphone. This worked more efficiently, but did have the disadvantage of also amplifying the background hash and hiss that was inherent to all telephones of the time.

     The broadcast day was divided into specific times that were allotted to news reports, stock market reports, sporting events, children's programs, and entertainment programs (Fig. 3). Generally the broadcast day began at approximately 10:30 a.m. and continued nonstop until 10:30 p.m. or the end of the last segment, whichever came first. The subscriber to the service could pretty well depend upon the broadcasts following the standard format, and listen only to those segments he chose. News reports were usually trimmed to no more than 250 words each to insure that the schedule remained consistent. Alarm bells were attached to the receiver and would be rung to announce a breaking news item, but barring emergencies, the programming format didn't deviate from day to day. Advertising time was built into the schedule, and sold for 42 cents for a 12-second commercial.

     As primitive as it sounds, this system worked and survived in Hungary until 1930. Of course it was improved upon as time passed but was always limited by the amplification problems and the quality of the normal telephone equipment until the end.

     In about May of 1900, an American by the name of M.M. Gillam visited Budapest and was so impressed with their system that he came home and proceeded to apply for an US patent in order to install a similar system in this country. For some reason, no doubt including the basic differences in the telephone systems, he did not get his system on the 'air' until the fall of 1911. His company was called the Telephone Herald and was patterned, at least in concept, very closely to the Budapest system. The primary difference was that the Budapest system used their own wires and the Telephone Herald used wires leased from the telephone company.

     Newark, New Jersey, was chosen as the home of Mr. Gillam's new system, and he was successful in signing up 1000 subscribers by the middle of November 1911. In fact, there were so many subscribers wanting the service that he had to stop advertising for a period to allow for additional equipment to be installed. This 'catch up' phase apparently lasted until the spring of 1912, and by November of 1912 there were 5000 subscribers to the service.

     By this time microphone technology had improved and the 'broadcasting' studio looked very much like the later wireless studios. Unfortunately, however, the technology for amplifying the signal hadn't improved to any major extent, which not only limited the number of subscribers on any given line but also kept the system from operating a speaker in the customer's home. This, coupled with the poor quality of musical sounds produced by the mechanical amplifiers, created insurmountable problems that resulted in the demise of the total system by December 1912.

     This little-remembered system pioneered many of the concepts later used by the wireless broadcasting systems that were to replace it after the vacuum tube solved the amplification problems, but that is a different story and the beginning of a totally different era.
Colton, Arthur. The Telephone Newspaper-New Experiment in America.Telephony. March 30, 1912. pg 391
Denison, Thomas. The Telephone Newspaper. World's Work. April 1901. pg 640
Rowe, G. Broadcasting in 1912. Radio news. June 1925. pg 2219.
Talbot, Frederick. A telephone Newspaper. The Living Age. August 1903. page 172.
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