The radio revolutionized communication in the early 20th century, as for the first time in history there could be immediate, widespread distribution of entertainment and news into individual homes around the world. With the first commercial radio broadcast in 1920, the way the world received its news changed forever. However, the radio was not the first electronic news service, nor was it the first to be able to broadcast directly into people’s homes. Almost forty years before the first radio broadcast, in 1887, the Hungarian Tivadar Puskas introduced the innovative telephone news service, barely a decade after the invention of the telephone itself.
Like many inventions, the telephone saw vast innovations in the use of the new technology in the years following its invention. Tivadar Puskas had recently invented both the telephone exchange and the multiplex switchboard, which proved instrumental in expanding the use of telephones to the general public. With these inventions, the number of people that could listen to a single broadcast grew exponentially. On a device patented by Thomas Edison, only 50 people could listen to the same telephone signal at once. But with Puskas’s exchange, that number increased to 500,000. Puskas soon thought of adapting the telephone exchange to offer a regular broadcast. He opened the first and longest running telephone newspaper service, Telefon Hirmondo, in his home city of Budapest in 1890.
The structure of Telefon Hirmondo was innovative at the time and was operated similarly to how radio or television stations are. It operated on a subscription system, where the subscriber paid an annual fee and the company would set up the wiring and receiver in the subscriber’s house. The receivers came with headphones for the user and a program schedule. Telefon Hirmondo broadcasted daily from 10:30am to 10:30pm and featured local and national news and stock quotations several times a day, as well as entertainment, primarily live broadcasts from the Budapest Opera House. Weekly events also included sporting coverage including horse races, and a slot for special lectures or concerts for children. The service was set up in 1893, and by 1907 it had 15,000 subscribers, including the mayor of Budapest, the members of the Hungarian cabinet, and Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph. The service operated on the company’s own lines, and was so successful that it soon licensed the technology to other companies in Paris, London, and Rome.
By the early 20th century, the telephone newspaper had spread to other European cities. Electrophone in London operated from 1895 to 1925, and expanded on the service by including live broadcasts of opera and theatre shows, and live church sermons on Sundays. It supposedly included Queen Victoria as one of its listeners. Others soon appeared around Europe, as well as a brief telephone newspaper company operating in Newark, New Jersey in 1912. The technology is remarkable for the time as the users were able to listen to the broadcasts in stereo with decent reception for the time. Additionally, the subscriber base was not only individual homes. Hotels, cafes, and doctors often set up coin operated receivers for the telephone newspapers that anyone could pay to use.
While the telephone newspapers were widespread in the early 1900s, the better quality and range of radio broadcasting quickly rendered them obsolete in the 1920s. However, some lasted, successfully making the switch from telephone to radio. Telefon Hirmondo in Budapest continued operation until 1944, when the city was heavily damaged by Allied bombing during World War II.
Nowadays Tivadar Puskas and telephone newspapers are merely historical footnotes, but the system and service was a very important development in modern communication. It was the first instance of a regular system for electronic broadcasting, and with daily or weekly newspapers as the only other significant news media in the day, it rapidly grew in significance. Additionally, its operation and business model are not unlike some online services of today. The implementation of a limited subscription based electronic service as well as point to point network communication and distribution are frequently thought of as only possible in the Internet age but the telephone newspaper bears many similarities to online news sites. While it was only around for a few decades, the telephone newspaper was a breakthrough in communication and was an important predecessor to radio and more modern media.