Emile Berliner

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   Emile Berliner

When I first began researching Emile Berliner, there were only a few 'on line' references to Emile. There was limited published information about this brilliant inventor, businessman, family man and great humanitarian. This site contains summary information about Emile and links to other sites that present more detailed information. 

When visiting Hannover Germany not long ago, I tried to learn more about Berliner, visiting his birthplace, libraries and museums only to find there was little information about this son of Germany, great American and father of the gramophone.  I hope you enjoy learning more!

Historical References
The most comprehensive archive of Emile Berliner's papers and documents is at the United States Library of Congress, Berliner archive in Washington DC and also at the Canadian Library and Archives in Ottawa Canada.  In addition, special thanks to Noel Sidebottom, curator at the British Library who many years ago introduced me to the British Library Sound Archive and allowed me time to climb over and under to research and photograph an incredible collection of phonographs and gramophones. Noel got me hooked on the British Library and the gracious staff who have helped so much and gave me researcher access to 'the good stuff'.

Recently, there has been incredible new interest in this quiet, unassuming man. Berliner is becoming better recognized for his exceptional work in the development of the disc gramophone (phonograph) and the recording industry.

Emile Berliner was born in Hannover on May 20, 1851, the son of Samuel and Sarah Friedman Berliner.  He finished his formal education at the age of 14, typical during the mid-nineteenth century in Europe. During his teens he performed a variety of odd jobs including stints as a painter, a laborer, a salesman and a clerk in one of the family's several fabric stores on Bergstrasse in Wettbergen, Germany.  As most of his apprentice-level income helped support the large Berliner family that included ten brothers and sisters, his parents were probably not happy about Emile's decision to emigrate to America. They had already seen three of his brothers leave to volunteer to serve in the military, so they must have hoped that Emile could avoid fighting in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) by leaving home.  As France (Louis Napoleon) was then considered the aggressor, young men of the southern states that included the state of Hannover in Lower Saxony were eager to defend Germany; so perhaps Emile might have struggled with his decision to leave his native country.  Incidentally, recent research uncovered a document on file in Berliner's home town, Hannover Germany that noted he in fact avoided military service and he was subject to fine of about $150 should he return to Hannover. 

Berliner, the Immigrant
With only a few dollars in his pocket, Emile brought his spirit of adventure, willingness to take risks, creative mind and work ethic to the United States, fertile territory for the thousands of Europeans who hoped to plant seeds of greater opportunity for a better, richer life.

In 1870 at the age of nineteen, Emile set sail from Hamburg to New York on the immigrant ship Hammonia.   We can only imagine what Emile contemplated as he sailed to the new world.  Knowing he was required to find work upon arrival, as was the law, he had made prior arrangements with a family friend, Nathan Gotthelf who had previously emigrated to the U.S.  Upon his arrival, Emile began work at Nathan's dry goods store in Washington DC and stayed there for three years. It's likely that Emile's restless, inventive, and industrious mind caused him to again to look for better opportunities. 

HAMMONIA I   Photograph. Peabody Essex Museum                 Salem, Massachusetts.   Source: Michael J. Anuta, Ships of Our Ancestors

By 1873, Emile having no immediate family obligations, quit his job and began to look for work in the field of telegraphy and electrical communications. For the next three years, he traveled around Boston and Milwaukee and then temporarily settled in New York where he began working in a chemistry' lab during the day while attending evening classes at the Cooper Institute (now Cooper Union) studying physics and electronics.  Emile Berliner was an enthusiastic reader of the works of technological pioneers including Faraday, Maxwell, Ohm, Dalton and others.  

Berliner and Bell
In 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell had invented a crude but workable telephone, many young engineers most notably, Thomas Edison turned their creative talents toward 'perfecting' the telephone. Berliner sought to improve the telephone transmitter and invented a new 'microphone' while he was employed by America Bell Telephone (ABT) first in New York, then in Boston.

The first published account of the modern speaking telephone was given in a paper read by Alexander Graham Bell before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston in the summer of 1876. There was of course much research and many published papers that described transmitting and receiving voice before Bell's telephone.  However, like Edison, Bell followed through. He completed a working product, secured the necessary patents and financing, manufactured and successfully launched his product(s) on a wide scale. 

It is ironic that Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner both worked in the same American Bell Tel Bldg in Boston building in Boston but not at the same time.  At the time Edison decided to join Bell's competitor, Western Union where he successfully introduced his patented carbon transmitter, Berliner was working on a similar transmitter/microphone at American Bell Telephone (ABT) now known as AT&T.  Berliner filed a patent application in 1877. Bell began employing Berliner's design which overcame distance limitations of the first Bell telephones and produced greater volume and voice clarity.   The American Bell Telephone   Company Headquarters Bldg to the right still stands in Boston.

Ultimately Bell acquired the rights to use Edison's design when Western Union lost its first of several legal battles with the then American Bell Telephone and in a disastrous business move, exited the telephony service business to focus on telegraphy.  Although there is evidence that Edison and Berliner both independently developed a carbon transmitter based microphone, after more than decade-long battle, the decision of Judge Brown in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, declared Berliner's patent void on February 27, 1901.  Berliner maintained until his death that he (not Edison) was the inventor of the telephone microphone, more specifically, the variable resistance contact transmitter while Edison had claimed through documentation, patent protection and highly skilled legal staff that he invented the carbon transmitter microphone. 

Anyone researching Berliner's archives and other papers will find overwhelming evidence that Berliner had in fact independently developed the carbon transmitter microphone in spite of what the court ruled.   As Edison had been involved in many legal entanglements, perhaps he understood the need to keep the detailed engineering documentation and notes that have been used to defend so many subsequent patent and intellectual ownership battles and which now is used to provide such accurate details about Edison's work. 

It is no coincidence that Thomas Edison (inventor of the cylinder phonograph) and Emile Berliner (inventor of the disc gramophone) and Charles Sumner Tainter (Father of the Talking Machine, graphophone) would ultimately find a way to store and retransmit the human voice while conducting experiments during the development of the telephony industry. Both Edison and Berliner noted on many occasions that their work in the development of the telephone was the catalyst for their respective developments of the phonograph and gramophone.

Berliner continued work for the then American Bell Telephone Company in New York (co-incidentally sharing a loft with Edison Phonograph Company) and Boston (in the same building on the third floor at 109 Court Street where Edison and Bell had previously shared a working lab space). For the next several years while at Bell Telephone, Emile worked on a variety of solutions in the emerging telephony industry.  Anyone having a serious interest in the development of the telephone, should know that Berliner filed several key patents for the contact telephone, microphones and the telephone system, some of those patents were the basis of telephony technology currently in use today. 

In late 1880 while living in Boston, Emile filed a patent for a Photophonic Transmitter, a device related to an instrument called a 'photophone' (invented by Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter) in which a beam of light is vibrated by a reflector which effects the amount of light transmitted at each sound vibration.  The Bell/Tainter invention relied on sunlight while Berliner determined that a man made light source was necessary for reliable transmission.  It's incredible that Berliner was conducting experiments in optical transmission more than 125 years ago. 

While living in Boston, he became an American citizen and married 21 year old Cora Adler.    Although not generally known to the public and rarely included in his biographies, in March 1882, Emile after conducting a variety of experiments received a patent for an Electric Incandescent Lamp, an improvement to the carbon filament light bulb.

In early 1884, Emile and Cora left Boston to move to Washington DC, perhaps to be closer to the Adler family in Baltimore or perhaps Berliner knew he would reconnect with old friends such as Charles Sumner Tainter who would soon set up a laboratory (funded by Bell) in Washington DC.

A slight digression:   I can't help but think of four masters of invention Bell, Berliner, Edison and Tainter every day when I walk from the train station to the financial district of Boston.  As I pass by the monument dedicated to the birthplace of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, I think of the labs at 109 Court Street where Bell, Watson, Berliner, Edison, Tainter and so many bright inventor/entrepreneurs co-operated and competed. 

As I walk up Court Street and cross to my office on State Street, I think of the time when just before sunrise, Edison found it expedient to get rid of small bottle of nitro glycerin (blasting oil) by gently lowering it into a catch basin at the intersection of these streets.  I wonder if Edison knew that many of these catch basins were connected by hollowed logs, some of which were uncovered and found to be in tact during the recent 'Big Dig" in Boston?   What else did Edison or others lower into that catch basin? 

Berliner and the Gramophone
When Berliner set up his independent laboratory, he worked exclusively on the development of the gramophone. Having gained much real-world experience in capturing and transmitting sound vibrations, Berliner believed that recording vibrations using a lateral-cut groove in an even depth flat disc provided the most efficient recording medium.  

In 1887 Berliner patented the gramophone system to compete with Edison's phonograph and other cylinder machines (Columbia) that were emerging.  From the outset, Berliner expected to be 'in the content business' meaning his business focus was the revenue to be earned from selling records rather than licensing or selling gramophones.  His Gramophone Company's primary manufacturing facility was in Camden, NJ.   Today's collectors who are fortunate to hold any of these early records know that their recording quality was quite poor and that virtually all of Berliner's early gramophones and records gave poor results. 

In the summer of 1887, Berliner introduced an "Improved Gramophone" which was fitted with a better motor with a conventional crank, developed by Eldridge Reeves Johnson.  In 1889, German Toy and Doll manufacturer Kammer & Reinhardt began manufacturing Berliner's "Toy Gramophone" and five inch records under the K&R name. The British Library (Sound Archive) has an 1890 recording of what is believed to be Emile's voice reciting Twinkle Twinkle Little Star; Click on this link and listen to pick up Emile's slight German accent.  This recording is courtesy of the British Library National Sound Archive

In May 1888, Emile Berliner gave a presentation to the Franklin Institute in which he made several specific predictions about talking machines.  He described a standard reproducing apparatus, simple in construction and easily manipulated, will at a moderate selling price, be placed on the market.  Users would buy an assortment of what he called 'phonoautograms' of songs, recitations, chorus and instrumental solos or orchestral pieces.  Prominent singers, speakers or performers may derive an income from royalties on the sale of their phonoautograms.   Collections of phonoautograms may become very valuable. Languages can be taught.  Addresses - congratulatory, political or otherwise can be delivered by proxy.  A singer may send her voice and be represented as per programme and conventions will listen to distant sympathizers, thousands of miles away.   

Twenty five years later in May 1913, Emile presented a paper that detailed many of the obstacles that had to be overcome in recording methodology, recording media and talking machine apparatus.    He describes in detail how after the hand-driven gramophone had been on the market for a few years, he secured the co-operation of Mr. Eldridge Reeves Johnson in developing a motor-driven reproducing machine.

It was not until Berliner and Johnson merged their engineering talents and companies to form the Victor Machine Company would the gramophone and lateral cut records demonstrate "high quality" music reproduction and compete with Edison cylinder phonographs on performance rather than price alone.  Ultimately, Victor emerged as the front running manufacturer of gramophones and records. 

As Berliner had found a trusted business partner Eldridge Johnson to help him with the engineering and operations of his venture, he believed developing a relationship with well-known marketing mogul, Frank Seaman would help him market and distribute his gramophones and records. Seaman formed the National Gramophone Company.  Frank Morgan Seaman was a longtime Kodak advertising agent whose reputation as a successful marketing manager was well known.

Emile Berliner would now rely on three companies.  The United States Gramophone Company based in Washington DC founded in 1892, held the patents. The Philadelphia based Berliner Gramophone Company founded in 1895 manufactured the machines and records, the New York based National Gramophone founded in 1896 was responsible for U.S. marketing and distribution.   During this period Berliner's international companies continued to grow.  Berliner's British Gramophone Company was founded by William Barry Owen in England in 1897. The German Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft was founded in 1898 by Emile's brother Joseph. In 1900 he organized the Berliner Gram-o-phone Company in Montreal, Canada.

As the National Gramophone company's revenues increased, Frank Seaman sought to be more profitable by manufacturing his own gramophones essentially cutting Johnson out of the deal.  Seaman tried to convince Berliner to terminate his relationship with Johnson.  Berliner stood by his agreement with Johnson and declined Seaman's offer to set up a new venture.  Seaman continued distributing Berliner's machines and records while developing his own Zonophone Company to manufacture and sell disc phonographs and records.   Berliner saw this move as a breach of their original agreement and then informed Seaman that the exclusive U.S. distribution agreement was null and void. Berliner then began distributing his records and machines in the US.  

In 1899 Seaman entered into an agreement with Columbia Phonograph Company who had successfully defended its patents and ownership of cylinder records and machines against Edison.  In what some consider an unscrupulous move that would ultimately bring down Berliner's U.S. Gramophone business,  Seaman testified on behalf of Columbia that the National Gramophone sales infringed upon the rights of Columbia.  Columbia Phonograph Company was successful in the courts and in the summer of 1900 Berliner was enjoined from selling 'his own' machines in the United States, which in turn was essentially the end of Berliner's U.S. direct business. 

Although Seaman is often portrayed at 'the bad guy', some believe he had no choice because the decisions he made in the early years wouldn't allow him to enjoy a profitable business arrangement going forward.  Some argue that had Berliner agreed to some reasonable royalty arrangement or facilitated a joint-manufacturing arrangement with Johnson, he would not have lost control of the gramophone business.  

In 1900 Berliner turned over to Eldridge Johnson defense of his U.S. patents and the control of continued legal battles with Zonophone and Columbia.  He then temporarily moved to Montreal where he still had patent ownership of his designs. He immediately launched the Berliner Gram-o-Phone Company to manufacture and sell machines and records for the Canadian market.   

In this legal battle, Johnson had everything to lose (factories, employees, customers, and a well-established dealer network) if he could not re-establish himself and his team in a new venture to produce the new and improved gramophones which he had been developing while exclusively manufacturing for Berliner.  He formed a new company, the Consolidated Talking Machine Company with his business partner and attorney Leon Douglass.  It was not long before Frank Seaman again emerged contesting in court that Johnson was simply a front for the defeated Berliner.   Leon Douglass is credited for having guided Johnson through a lengthy legal proceeding that ultimately became a resounding victory for Johnson.  

Johnson agreed to desist using the word 'Gram-o-phone' or alternatively gramophone (thus effectively establishing Edison's word, 'phonograph' by default which since has become the more popular name for the record playing machine) in the United States.   In British English, the word 'gramophone' is more popularly used while the word 'phonograph' is generally thought to mean a cylinder (rather than flat disc) phonograph. 

The GrammyInteresting that in 1957 executives from RCA Victor, Columbia, MGM, Decca and Capitol in founding the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences chose the Gramophone derivative 'Grammy' for the coveted recorded music award, perhaps a similar derivative of the word Phonograph just didn't sound right.

In 1901 the Consolidated Talking Machine company was renamed the Victor Talking Machine Company as Berliner and Johnson expanded their manufacturing supply and license agreement. Victor Talking Machines (history is presented elsewhere in the website), ultimately acquired Berliner's Canadian Gram-o-phone Company.  I think William Barry Owen should be awarded a Grammy!

It's fun to speculate as to how the name Victor Talking Machines was chosen.  Some believe that Eldridge Johnson chose the name 'Victor' to reaffirm that the company had finally become the Victor over the Columbia/Seaman consortium and would remain the Victor in any subsequent legal battle with others.  Later Victor would become synonymous with the Victor Company, the Victrola, and RCA Victor and the lesser known JVC, Japan Victor Company.  


Berliner, great humanitarian and more
Although Berliner is best known for his work in acoustics and more popularly the gramophone, 
he also invented acoustic floor and wall tiles for dampening sound, particularly useful in concert halls and theatres which had not yet benefited from amplified audio. 

To the right is a 1912 photo of Dr. Emile Berliner standing with the world's first lightweight internal combustion engine (his Gyro rotary engine) which later powered several helicopters which he invented and further developed with his son Henry A. at the Berliner Aircraft Company.

In 1912, he filed a patent for a propeller for a flying machine.  Six years later he filed a patent for a helicopter. He was an accomplished author, violinist, and pianist.  He composed the Columbian Anthem which narrowly missed becoming the United States' national anthem. 

He was a pioneer in the practice of preventive medicine and an active, effective proponent government supported preventive health care policies in connection with the Bureau of Health Education. He spearheaded a national campaign to convince mothers to 'scald the milk' in an urgent move to protect children from dangerous diseases that could then be found in the milk supply.

News story:  Emile Berliner,  The Boston Post, June 25, 1922

"A former Boston boy, Henry Berliner and his father Emile Berliner is going after that rich prize of $250,000 offered by the British Air Ministry for a successful helicopter, and with characteristic Yankee enthusiasm he expects 'to bring home the bacon'.  A helicopter, you know is a machine capable of flying straight upward from a space no bigger than its own bulk - from the roof of one of Boston's high office buildings, for example - and the apparatus developed by Emile Berliner and his son Henry is said by experts who have observed it in test flights at College Park, Md., during the past two weeks, to be 'the best of its type yet invented.'   Emile Berliner, pardon the hackneyed expression needs no introduction in scientific circles, especially here in Boston.  He stands out as one of the most noted inventors in the country, and his son Henry A., who graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1918, seems to have inherited his father's inventive genius".

Emile was an early proponent of 'women's rights' as he supported the not yet popular woman's suffrage movement in the U.S.  He believed given the proper education and opportunities, women could equal men in the sciences.

He created the Sarah Berliner Research Fellowship in 1909, named for his mother. This is one of the many global endowments that today give real evidence that Emile Berliner was a great humanitarian. 

When searching files at the United States Patent Office, researchers will find not only an extensive list of Berliner's patents, they will find ten times the number of patents that make reference to a Berliner invention or process.  It was fun to discover that in 1875, Emile had filed a patent for a necktie fastening device.  He was 24 years old then and had been in the U.S. for less than five years.

Other Berliner inventions include, a microphone, a carbon battery, a pnuematic hook (suction cup), electric furnace generator, a long list of devices associated with flying machines or more specifically, helicopters.  Also, a contact telephone on May 24, 1881,  a telephone system on March 21, 1882; an incandescent lamp on May 30, 1882, the 'busy signal' for telephones, a meaningful improvement to the violin's resonance, heat radiating mantel for the fireplace,  a combination telephone & telegraph, a harmonic telegraph - essentially a way to multiplex several telegraph transmissions, many gramophone disc recording methods, record substances and devices. 

Above photo of Berliner with Helicopter, Photo courtesy United States Air Force archives.

Having been given the opportunity to research Berliner's archive at the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Library and Archives in Ottawa Canada, I found a rich collection of photographs of Emile.

It's no secret that he loved being with his family and children in particular as evidenced by the number of photos of Emile with his family.  In his last will and testament, Emile suggested that his children and grandchildren, seek peace of mind above all else for a happy life.

There's some debate about Berliner's repeated failure to recognize that certain business partners would let him down.  After much research, I believe Emile made very conscious business decisions to   'do the right thing' which may have cost him some financial success, however his legacy of integrity, fair play and humanitarian efforts prove he was one of the 'richest' men to come from the gramophone and recording industry.                                             

Many believe that Emile Berliner actually moved to Montreal, Quebec Canada.  He did not.  Although a frequent visitor, he continued to live in the Washington DC area and remained an American citizen for the rest of his 78 yr. life.  Check out: Musée des ondes Emile Berliner Montreal and U.S. Library of Congress- Berliner 

Also see the PhonoJack trip -1050 Lacasse, Musée des ondes Emile Berliner Montreal. The Emile Berliner Museum in Montreal. Color photos by PhonoJack (c).


Boston, MA  USA