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The History of Berliner Gramophones
Part One

The following article, printed in several parts over the next few issues, will focus on the contributions made by Emile Berliner who helped usher in the era of recorded sound. His move to Canada early in this industry's history is not well documented, even though his contributions continued on for many years after leaving the United States. This will be discussed in detail in the latter part of this article. I would like to thank Oliver Berliner (Emile's Grandson and CAPS member) for his assistance with this article and for contributing information.

The History of Recorded Sound

Credited with the first successful reproduction of sound, Thomas Alva Edison was not the first to propose that a method of reproducing sound was possible. French inventor Charles Cros had predicted that after sound waves were etched onto a glass disk, a copy of the track could be made in a metal plate and used to recreate the original sounds. The engraving process was not new, and had been successfully used in a device called the Phonautograph built by Leon Scott de Martinville in 1856. Cros' idea was that sounds could be reproduced from these etchings. This idea had not been tested by him as he was unable to obtain the financial backing needed for his experiments.

At about the same time, Thomas Edison was conducting his own experiments based on a similar idea. In 1877 he was successful in impressing the sound waves into a tinfoil sheet wrapped around a rotating drum, and is credited with inventing the tin foil phonograph, a device able to record and reproduce sound. As Edison's attention was shifted from this device for a period of time to concentrate on his electric light bulb experiments, it was left to others to continue experimenting with this exciting discovery.

In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell, having just received the Volta Prize from the French government, was looking to invest in a new project and had felt that Edison's tin foil phonograph had potential. Enlisting his cousin, physicist Chichester Bell and modelmaker Charles Sumner Tainter, experiments were conducted leading to many improvements to the phonograph. Unlike the tin foil method which resulted in a recording which could not be replayed more than a few times with any success, Bell's research yielded a machine which was capable of a relatively permanent recording on a wax coated 6 inch long removable cylinder. To manufacture and distribute this machine and subsequent models of it, The American Graphophone Company was founded in 1887. This company, which eventually consolidated with The Columbia Phonograph Company, was to be the source of bitter court battles for the father of the disc record, Emile Berliner. Up to this point the techniques used to record and reproduce sound incorporated a groove being etched or indented vertically into the surface, which was in contrast to the side to side lateral motion of the etched sound wave, which had been proposed by Cros and used by Leon Scott.

Part of Berliner's Canadian Gramophone Patent
No. 55079 from 1895

The Disc Gramophone

The history of the disc record gramophone begins with the Berliner Gramophone Company's founder, the German born Emile Berliner (1851-1929) who immigrated to the United States in 1870. Settling in New York, Berliner worked several jobs in his early days while he taught himself about electricity and acoustics. After moving to Washington, Berliner began to experiment in a small lab he built in his apartment. His interests led him to work on an improvement to Alexander Graham Bell's newly invented telephone, which could benefit from improvements to the transmitter to make it a viable product. Berliner's experiments resulted in a practical transmitter for which he applied for a patent on June 4th 1877. Berliner then sold this patent in 1878 to Bell for $100,000 and was retained as a consultant by the company. After a 2-year leave of absence in Hanover, Germany where he had set up the Telephon-Fabrik Berliner to manufacture telephone equipment, Berliner returned to the US in 1883 where he resigned from Bell and immediately set up a lab in Washington to work on new research into recorded sound.

Berliner experimented with recording an undulating wave onto a rotating disc, an idea that Cros was unsuccessful in financing earlier. This new device for recording received a patent in 1887 and was first presented at the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia on May 16th, 1888. After solving the problem of creating a master from which other copies could be pressed, Berliner went to Germany and sold his idea to the Kammer und Reinhardt toy company which marketed his invention for the next 4 years as a toy that played 5 inch vulcanized rubber or celluloid discs. Although of poor quality, these early discs, which were made by Berliner in the US and played at a speed of about 90 revolutions per minute, were easy and cheap to mass-produce. This advantage, which would eventually result in the demise of the cylinder recording is considered Berliner's greatest contribution.

An early ad from Britain

In 1889, after having modest success in Germany, Berliner began pursuing entry into the American marketplace with a new hand-driven gramophone that played larger 7 discs. In order to make his gramophone attractive to investors, Berliner opened up a retail store in Baltimore late in 1894 to market his hand driven machines and their 7-inch celluloid discs. In 1895, after several failed attempts to raise sufficient capital, Emile Berliner founded the Berliner Gramophone Company to control the manufacture and sale of gramophones and records. The royalties from these sales would be paid to Berliner's patent holding company, the United States Gramophone Company.

Unfortunately, Berliner's early forays into the talking machine market met with limited success, as a hand driven mechanism was more of a novelty when compared with the more sophisticated Edison or Columbia products of the period. What was needed was a spring motor to give his invention a chance to make headway in a market that was showing signs of great potential. After unsatisfactory attempts by other subcontractors, Berliner's problem was solved by a New Jersey machine shop owner named Eldridge R. Johnson who, after initially being contracted to manufacture a crude motor, designed a proper working motor that became the basis of the most recognized talking machine in history. With the introduction of the "Improved Gramophone" in 1897, Berliner was finally ready to make a significant dent in the talking machine market.

Marketing of the new machines was to be handled by the National Gramophone Company set up by Frank Seaman to promote and sell Berliner's products. Under this arrangement Berliner neither built nor marketed the Gramophone, but as the patent holder he made his profit by buying from Johnson and selling to Seaman. With Seaman's aggressive marketing style and the "Improved Gramophone" of 1897, sales were off to an impressive start.

In 1898, the Columbia/Graphophone group, seeing the likelihood of a competing technology, launched a patent suit against Berliner's and Seaman's respective companies for marketing a product which they felt infringed on their patents. Columbia's strategy was to go after the marketing company along with the patent holder in hopes of getting an injunction to disrupt the sales of Gramophones long enough to allow them to enter the disc market with their own product. The suit itself had little validity and would eventually be settled in favor of Berliner, but in the interim, the pending injunction was to cause many problems for Berliner.

A Kammer und Reinhardt toy gramophone

Already disenchanted with his financial arrangement with Berliner, Seaman decided to protect himself by forming the Universal Talking Machine Company and began building a new line of machines, the Zonophone, that he attempted to market under the Berliner patents. Berliner, who liked the present arrangement which forced Seaman to buy machines only from Johnson, with a hefty Berliner markup, refused to consider any changes. The rebuffed Seaman began to stockpile his new line, and when he had sufficient quantities ceased his orders for Berliner's Gramophones. This created a major problem for both Berliner and Johnson who had no experience or facilities to market or distribute their product.

Seaman's next move was to accept in 1900 a consent decree in court admitting infringement of Columbia's patents and thus the court granted Columbia a permanent injunction, making it illegal for Berliner and Johnson to sell their products. The crafty and ever manipulative Seaman then proceeded to make a deal with Columbia, which allowed him to sell his Zonophones under the protection of Columbia's patents. This turn of events was most serious for Johnson who had a large stockpile of machines, and had just completed a new manufacturing plant for which he was $50,000 in debt. In order to get back into the business Johnson established a new company under the name The Consolidated Talking Machine Company and began marketing his machine. An injunction was obtained against Johnson but he succeeded in having it lifted and sales then progressed beautifully. Eventually Berliner and Johnson prevailed in the courts and a deal was struck with Berliner so that Johnson would take ownership of the patents. In October, 1901, The Victor Talking Machine Company was founded by Johnson to hold these valuable patents. The company was named "Victor" to celebrate the Berliner court "Victory".