Book Review: Magic Music from the Telharmonium

Magic Music from the Telharmonium
Reynold Weidenaar
The Scarecrow Press,
Inc., Metuchen, NJ., and London
1995; ISBN 0-8108-2692-5

by Paul Hertz

Read any current text on electronic sound synthesis, and chances are that the figure of Thaddeus Cahill will traverse a sentence or two in the historical overview, farther off in the mists than Theremin or Martenot, invoked perhaps in a burst of filial piety as the "father of electronic synthesis." You may also glimpse the shadow of his Telharmonium, looming large as a locomotive, at 200 tons the undisputed heavyweight of electronic musical instruments. Like the dinosaurs, it was destined for extinction. Not even a fossil remains.

Reynold Weidenaar's engaging and scholarly investigation of Cahill and his invention brings both man and machine into closer light. We learn that Cahill, a skilled lawyer as well as a visionary inventor, very nearly made a financial success of his venture to sell electronic music by subscription over telephone wires to New York restaurants, despite the failure of his first company. He sank all his profits into a second venture, and was doomed both by the advent of the First World War, and by the prevailing state of technology. Years later the vacuum tube, the Wurlitzer theater organ, and Muzak would make his vision a reality. Cahill's vast and complicated machine depended on huge generators to create sine waves for additive synthesis, and required musicians to master multiple keyboards for tone generation and expression. Its "unique feature of equal temperament with the option of just intonation" suggests that it was an instrument with a potential beyond proto-Muzak. Unfortunately, no recording is known to survive.

Though it might now find a salient place in Bruce Sterling's Museum of Dead Media, the telharmonium was hailed as harbinger of scientific progress and social equality by the popular press and luminaries of the day. Mark Twain, whose endorsement figured heavily in advertising for Telharmonic Hall, was an early subscriber. Weidenaar captures the careless optimism of an America ready to burst onto the world stage, and views Cahill's invention as emblematic of the time. His portrayal of Cahill's struggle to realize his concept takes place against a detailed background of populist enthusiasm, cutthroat business practices, and boundless expectations of technological progress. While the closing chapter of the text does attempt to assess the social significance of the Telharmonium, it does little more than sketch the emerging relations of technology and society, dwelling instead on the Telharmonium as a significant failure in the history of technology.

Based on the author's Ph.D. dissertation, Magic Music from the Telharmonium provides ample appendices on Cahill's patents, and an extensive bibliography.