Although Emile Berliner (1851-1929) may not be as well known as Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell, his contributions to modern technology are equally significant. Berliner's inventions led to audio recording and playback techniques that were in use throughout the twentieth century. His discoveries and innovations—the first discs or records-have steadily increased in value as collectors' treasures.
On May 20, 1851, Emile Berliner was born in Wolfenbuttel, a town near Hannover, Germany. His father, Samuel, was a salesman, while his mother, Sarah, cared for young Emile and his ten siblings. At the age of 14, Berliner worked for a printer in order to contribute to the family finances. Shortly after, he found a job in a tie shop, where he was able to utilize his first invention—a power loom. When Berliner was still a teen, a friend of his father's who had recently immigrated to the United States, extended an invitation to come to Washington, D.C. and work in his store. Berliner left for the U.S. in 1870, in order to avoid obligatory service in the Prussian military.
A hardworking, brilliant young man, Berliner struggled against an economic climate of recession, as well as the language and cultural barriers faced by new immigrants. He spent a great deal of time at the Cooper Institute Library in Washington, studying the science related to sound and electricity. Determined to improve on existing technology, he set up a rudimentary laboratory in his apartment and began testing his ideas.
Pioneer in Audio Technology
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell presented his telephone at an exhibition at the centennial celebration in Philadelphia. Berliner recognized that he could improve the quality of the telephone's sound transmission. By experimenting with a telephone he had assembled in his apartment, Berliner invented a telephone transmitter in 1877— an innovation that would lead to the first microphone and clear, long-distance telephone communication. He patented the device on June 4, 1877. Being in need of cash, Berliner sold the rights to his invention to the Bell Telephone Company of Boston three months later for $75,000 (some sources report $50,000). He also took a salaried position at Bell as an engineer. In 1881, Berliner returned to Germany and joined his brother, Joseph, in founding the first European telephone company—the Telephon-Fabrik Berliner.
After returning to the U.S., Berliner left the telephone business in 1883 and set to work in his Washington laboratory. He studied the work of Charles Croz and Thomas Edison in order to learn as much as he could about sound recording. At that time, recordings were generally made on cylinders. Based on Croz's discoveries, Berliner began recording sound on disc. Although this technology was already in use, it required an up and down groove playback method. Berliner introduced the lateral method, whereby, the needle moves from left to right in vibrating rhythm. His first discs were wax-coated zinc pieces, upon which a sound diaphragm was coded. The discs were dipped in acid, which burned the pattern into the metal, and the wax was stripped. On September 26, 1887, Berliner patented his entire playback apparatus as the "gramophone."
Berliner displayed his invention at the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia in 1888, but first marketed it in Germany. He engaged the services of a toy manufacturer, Kummerer & Reinhardt of Waltershausen, to produce his gramophones. At this time, his apparatus was powered manually with a crank. After returning to his U.S. lab, Berliner set out to improve the power base for playback and his disc replication technique. He employed several musicians to record on his discs. He began making discs from a new material composed of shellac, soot, and fur. In 1893, Berliner secured investment from friends and acquaintances to found the United States Gramophone Company in order to market the gramophone and control its patent rights. In late 1895, investors contributed another $25,000 to launch the Berliner Gramophone Company, a manufacturing enterprise. Initially, sales of this new technology were sluggish. However, when Eldridge R. Johnson of New Jersey introduced a wind-up spring motor to replace the tedious hand-crank in 1896, sales improved dramatically. Over the next four years, nearly 25,000 of these motors were manufactured for the Berliner Gramophone Company.
Early Berliner discs offered turn-of-the-century American recordings, such as tracks by Buffalo Bill Cody, Cal Stewart, Len Spencer, Arthur Collins, Vess Ossman, and Harry Macdonough. The type of music that Berliner recorded later became known as Tin Pan Alley and Ragtime. On November 1, 1894, "After the Ball," a tune associated with and immortalized through the 1927 musical Show Boat, was recorded on a Berliner disc.
Despite the success of his corporation, Berliner only retained minority stockholder status. His gramophone patent became corporate property. The Berliner Gramophone Company hired Frank Seaman of New York to head the company's marketing effort, leading to the creation of the Seaman National Gramophone Company. Berliner's inventions were now controlled and split among three companies: The United States Gramophone Company in Washington, the Berliner Gramophone Company in Philadelphia, and the Seaman National Gramophone Company in New York.
A New Start in Montreal
In 1900, Seaman National signed a contract with American Gramophone and Columbia Phonograph to produce the Zonophone. Berliner perceived this move as a breech of a mutually understood and secure exclusivity agreement. According to a biography on Berliner offered by the Canadian Communications Foundation, an injunction filed by Seaman National against Berliner Gramophone on June 25, 1900, prevented Berliner from further marketing his product in the United States. This led to his establishment of a new company in Montreal. However, that assertion was refuted by Berliner's grandson, Oliver, in a 1992 issue of the Antique Phonograph News. He explained that his grandfather chose to set up in Montreal because of that city's strategic location in direct rail contact with Philadelphia.
Berliner's Canadian company was established on 2315 St. Catherine Street in Montreal. Its headquarters and retail outlet were housed at the same location and managed by Emmanuel Blout. A factory was built on Aqueduc Street. The newly established Berliner Gram-O-Phon Company began advertising in magazines during late 1900. Ads included the claim that a "child can operate it perfectly" and the warning: "Beware of trashy imitations." Earlier that year, Berliner registered his company's trademark, which would become an icon in the music industry for the remainder of the century. He purchased and enlisted Francis Barraud's image of his dog, Nipper, listening to his master's voice. The first record this image appeared on was number 402, or the track of "Hello My Baby" by Frank Banta. Berliner's new company manufactured 2,000 records during its first year of business, and sold over two million records in 1901. In 1904, Berliner set up a recording studio and relocated the factory within Montreal. By 1906, the company produced various models of its gramophone, including the Ideal, the Bijou, and the Grand. A few years later the famous Victrola model was introduced.
The company continued to grow rapidly. In 1908, its headquarters moved to a newly constructed, modern brick structure. A large image of Nipper was mounted over the main entrance with the words: "The Home of the Victrola." The company saw continued growth and expansion into the 1920s. By this time Berliner's son, Herbert, worked for his father's company and was instrumental in bringing the Victrola and Berliner records into radio. In 1924, the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company was acquired by Victor Talking Machine, which became a part of RCA through a 1929 merger.
A Wide Range of Interests
An avowed agnostic, Berliner wrote a book (Conclusions) explaining his views, which was published in 1889. Being of Jewish heritage, he gave financial support for the rebuilding of Palestine and was instrumental in the founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Berliner was fascinated with the development of the helicopter and built three of his own models. He developed and tested his helicopters with his son, Henry, who was president of Berliner Aircraft, Inc. from 1930 until 1954. After suffering a heart attack, Berliner died on August 3, 1929.
Three of the world's largest music companies were spawned from Berliner's early companies. His German Gramophone Company became Polygram. His British Gramophone Company became HMV (His Master's Voice), which was absorbed by EMI as its central interest. The Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company became the Victor Talking Machine Company and later the RCA Victor Company. It was purchased by BMG in 1987. At the end of the twentieth century, the Nipper image still appeared on BMG-owned American RCA Victor labels. However, with increasingly complex legal stipulations restricting the Nipper trademark, Nipper appeared on fewer discs as the century drew to a close. The author of an Internet article on the history of the Nipper image declared, "Nipper … is as much of an anachronism as a memory that works for longer than a week. The modern record industry is the cumulative product of many technically and commercially inventive people. But if one person deserves more credit than any other for our ability to hear Fats Waller sing and play in our living rooms today, that person is Emile Berliner. Little Nipper serves as a reminder of the history that continues to enrich us all."
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