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What Did it Take to Get us Here?

As this member’s salute to CAPS’ half-century, I’m taking the liberty of repeating much of what my fellow Canucks already know, in hopes of filling a hole or two in this saga, but also with the thought that enthusiasts in other parts of the world may read it and get their questions answered.

Oliver Berliner presenting at a CAPS meeting on October 30, 2011

My grandfather, the Great Emile, established the first Berliner Gramophone Company in the American town of Newark, state of Delaware, in 1887 – a decade after selling his telephone patent to a Canadian of Scottish heritage who’d migrated to Boston, U.S.A, from his birthplace in ‘New Scotland’ (Nova Scotia province, where his remains now reside) to seek his fortune.

This Alexander Graham Bell, a teacher of deaf people, had been engaged by her father, to teach his hearing- impaired Mabel Hubbard. Later, Bell would marry his student and be invited to reside with her in Gardner G. Hubbard’s Boston residence, where he would be provided with funds to support an electro-acoustics lab as well as a lab assistant.

When Bell cut his hand and called out to his assistant, Thomas Watson, it was Watson who heard the first transmission by Bell’s invention, via the words, “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you”. With those words the telephone (from the Greek: distant sound) was born. By way of what must have been destiny, in the year 1876 the United States was celebrating its centenary in Philadelphia where, fortuitously, the president of Brazil insisted on trying Bell’s creation there on display, and exclaimed, “My God, it talks!”.

Largely heretofore ignored by the press, the Brazilian’s interest brought newspaper reporters scurrying to Bell’s exhibit. Needless to say, it was not long afterwards that inventors and wannabes began to create and patent an improved telephone. In fact, with father- in-law Hubbard in the process of launching the telephone industry, Bell sent a representative to the U.S. Patent Office to see who’d leaped into the fray, and with what. The reviewer returned to Boston to advise that, of all he’d seen there was but one that offered what Bell needed...a telephone circuit designed by an obscure 25-year-old Washingtonian named Emile Berliner.

In due course, Emile’s landlady sent a message to him at the dry-goods store where he was working for $3 a week, notifying him that a Thomas Watson, an assistant to Alexander Graham Bell, was waiting to see him.

In that meeting, Emile demonstrated what would be the microphone (from the Greek: tiny sound)...a modification of a child’s toy drum that was destined to set the scientific world on its ear. For in addition to establishing what was deemed by experts to be impossible – the ability to pass current between contacts that didn’t touch one another - but also a circuit as described in the patent where a.c and d.c voltages were carried over the same wires.

“We will want that”, said Watson. “You will hear from us”. Not long after, Emile received an offer from American Bell Telephone Co. to purchase the Berliner telephone patent which contained the unique circuitry needed to make Bell’s telephone a practical reality. With the sale to Bell, as the telephone transmitter, the Berliner variable- resistance microphone was used in all the world’s telephones for the ensuing 100 years. It’s adoption saved The Bell System from destruction at the hands of the powerful Western Union Telegraph Company, relying on a (rendered-) worthless Thomas Edison patent. Further, along with the assignment to Bell of the Edison patent, Western Union was prohibited from ever entering the telephone business’'; its telephone poles became Bell’s, as did the Western Electric Company.

A decade later, the then Great Emile introduced a method of mass-producing unlimited perfect copies of a single recording, along with it a machine to play those records, which he named the gramophone (from the Greek, sound of words). Emile established the first Berliner Gramophone Company in the Delaware city of Newark, because the Duranoid Company there was stamping out of celluloid large, fancy buttons for m’lady’s dresses; and my grandpa recognized that disc records could be pressed the same way. Sadly, unable to obtain financing to “get into business”, his company closed its doors.

But by 1893 Emile had obtained the long sought financing through Mr. Thomas Parvin, and it was agreed that this Berliner Gramophone Company would be located in Philadelphia, and though bearing his name, Emile would own but 10% of it yet would receive royalties for the use of his precious patents. The Philadelphia location was extremely close to Newark for convenient disc-pressing there, as before (discs were now comprised of mainly a shellac paste). But the principal reason for the Philly location was that Emile could have convenient access to the counsel of Mr. Max Levy, the inventor of photo-engraving – the method of reproducing photographs in newspapers and magazines. It was this method that Emile used to create stampers from which disc records could be pressed. He called it “etching the human voice”.

By mid-1900 when the “His Master’s Voice” Berliner trade-mark came into use in USA and Canada, discs had come to be so much in demand that the leading cylinder maker, an Edison licensee known as the Columbia Graphophone Company, had realized that the future of the record business lay in discs, despite both Edison and Bell having regarded the cylinder as superior. Columbia’s general manager engaged a lawyer named Phillip Mauro to determine whether the Berliner disc playback method – the gramophone – infringed on the “floating stylus” patent of A.G. Bell’s cousin Chichester and his associate Charles Sumner Tainter (an acquaintance of Emile’s).

Mauro reported to Columbia that the Berliner patent did not infringe Bell-Tainter’s. But so anxious was Columbia’s owner to get into the disc business that he’d earlier spurned, that he ordered Mauro to sue the Berliner interests, anyway.

Oliver Berliner examining a Kämmer & Reinhardt (Berliner) gramophone
during a visit to see Domenic DiBernardo’s collection.
(Mark Caruana-Dingli, Oliver Berliner, Domenic DiBernardo)

Who were the Berliner interests? There was Emile Berliner; the United States Gramophone Company, which controlled his patents; the Berliner Gramophone Company; Eldridge Reeves Johnson – a subcontractor manufacturing Berliner gramophones; and the Berliner Company’s master distributor, the National Gramophone Company and its owner, Frank Seaman. Unmolested was the 1900-launched Berliner Gramophone Company of Canada which had recently opened a St. Catherine Street retail store in Montreal and was pressing discs in rented space from - would you believe? - Bell-Canada.

At this point it should be noted that the not-so-secret owner of Columbia was Alexander Graham Bell. Sadly, Bell had become willing to forsake his decades-old mutually rewarding relationship with Emile Berliner, who’d recently even become a customer, by trying to destroy him with a dishonest claim. But putting two and two together, it becomes obvious why Bell would leave Berliner-Canada alone.

Cutting to the chase, here’s what “went down”. Seaman, who’d long resented Berliner Company's strict limitations on him and was anxious to destroy him, accepted Columbia’s offer for release as a defendant if Seaman would testify that: the Berliner gramophone infringed on the ‘floating stylus’ patent. Such testimony, which was allowed in court, was meaningless because Seaman was no more qualified than the ‘man in the moon’ to function as a legalities expert.

Prior to trial, Eldridge Johnson had managed to extricate himself as a defendant. Upon doing so, he immediately arranged with the Berliner interests that, under the Consolidated Talking Machine Company brand, he would manufacture Berliner discs and gramophones and when Berliner prevailed at trial he would account. It thus became legally necessary for Emile’s U.S. Gramophone Company to sue Consolidated for patent infringement; and per tacit agreement, this was done.

After a lengthy trial, at long last, the verdict: (As Mauro foretold) the court ruled that the floating stylus was propelled by a feedscrew while the gramophone’s reproducer was propelled by the groove on the disc.

Seaman’s own company and its products, the Zonophone player and disc records which had infringed the Berliner patents, were awarded to Emile as damages. Columbia continued to be prevented from the manufacture of disc records and players. No one else could engage in the business of making discs and disc players.

But the loss of income caused by Columbia’s lucky, unprecedented court-ordered injunction that prevented during trial the Berliner Company from doing business, had left the Berliner interests bereft of funds – while Eldridge Johnson had prospered by it - and it was agreed that a new company would be formed to take over all Berliner’s and Johnson’s former activities. Johnson would be the largest shareholder, Berliner next. Berliner would assign to the corporation all his patents and trade-marks as well as all National assets; by choice, he’d not be a director nor employee. Thomas Parvin would be a non-employee director. The Berliner Gramophone Company of Canada Ltd., would be the new corporation’s Canada outlet. To commemorate the Berliner court victory, Johnson named the corporation the Victor Talking Machine Company.

Johnson decided not to use the word, gramophone, claiming it should be exclusive to Emile. Thus all record players were to be called talking machines. And ironically, it was not long before Johnson offered to license to Columbia that which it had tried to steal. A half-century and two world wars later Columbia’s sales would exceed those of Victor Records, by then known as RCA Victor and whose Canada operations, resulting from my father, Edgar M. Berliner’s 1924 sale of Berliner-Canada to Victor-Camden, would be RCA Victor Co. of Canada Ltd.