TechMan: News was once delivered by telephone

Written by Ced Kurtz on .

During the eight-month work stoppage in 1992 that halted forever publication of The Pittsburgh Press, the Post-Gazette also was unable to publish.

So we did everything we could to keep our brand alive, including publishing news by fax machine and employing a town crier.

And readers could call in on the phone and listen to the list of people who had died.

Little did we know that we had reinvented a technology that existed 100 years earlier, the Telephone Newspaper. And little did we know that the Telephone Newspaper ran into the same changing technology grinder that newspapers are running into today.

The telephone newspaper was, just as it sounds, a service that would broadcast news, music, theater, stock prices and other information over a telephone line.

The most successful of these services, Telefon Hirmondo, began in Budapest, Hungary, in 1893 and survived in some form until 1944.

It was begun by Tividar Puskas, an associate of Thomas Edison. He invented a telephone exchange that increased the number of people who could listen simultaneously from 50 to half a million.

Telephone news was available in commercial venues, such as hotels and doctors' offices and in homes. At first telephone company lines were used, but as the system grew into thousands of subscribers and all-day broadcasting, companies ran their own lines.

Subscribers listened over headphones provided to them. Some were double so a husband and wife could listen at the same time. Audio quality was not always good, but then the telephone had only been invented less than 20 years before.

"Stentors," so called because they had to speak very loud into a microphone to be heard throughout the whole system, read the news. There were stories of stentors almost collapsing from the effort.

A typical broadcasting day for Telefon Hirmondo in 1907 began at 9 a.m. with the exact astronomical time. Then began the reading of news of all types, including stock quotes, weather and what was in the newspapers when they hit the streets (broadcast news was stealing from newspapers from the very beginning).

In the late afternoon began a two-hour concert by regimental bands, followed by the first act from the local opera house. After the first act was over, news was broadcast during the intermission, then the remainder of the opera closed the broadcast day.

Other telephone news systems existed elsewhere in Europe. Theatrophone in Paris was the earliest of all, starting in 1890. It was tied to the local theaters by having phone lines run to them to transmit performances. There also was news and music and pay stations, charging 50 cents for 5 minutes of listening. Theatrophone folded in 1932.

London had a similar setup, called Electrophone, from 1895 to 1925. A unique feature of London's system was that home telephone subscribers could call the operator to be hooked up to the Electrophone system. Rome also had such a service that gave rise to the first radio broadcasting in Rome in 1924.

In the United States, there was a short-lived service called Telephone Herald headquartered in Newark, N.J. It only lasted from 1911 into 1912. Subscribers paid $1.50 a month for the service.

These were high-minded journalistic efforts that employed editors to prepare the news. Telefon Hirmondo was regulated by the government as a newspaper and had an editor-in-chief legally responsible for the content.

The Telephone Herald in the United States refused to read advertising copy over its lines, fearing that it might cheapen its transmissions.

The telephone news services faced one of the same problems faced by newspapers today -- a changing technology siphoned off its business. In this case it was radio.

Radio had numerous advantages. It was far-reaching, free, did not require a wire into your home and did not tie up your telephone line.

So the telephone newspaper faded into obscurity. But for a brief period of time in 1992, Techman got to be a stentor, reading news into a recording machine for our "readers" to receive by telephone.

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