American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Reason

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Recording Sound

Gramophone, disc, and List of Plates
Emile Berliner (1851-1929)
Gramophone, disc, and
"List of Plates,"
Motion Picture, Broadcasting,
& Recorded Sound Division

Berliner factory after the fire
Berliner factory after the fire,
Washington, D.C., 1897

Color digital print from original photograph
Motion Picture, Broadcasting
& Recorded Sound Division

In the late 1880s, German immigrant Emile Berliner (1851-1929), working in Washington, D.C., created a new medium for sound recording and playback, the flat disc "Gramophone." While Thomas Edison's 1877 phonograph was "a wonderful invention," in the words of a contemporary Scientific American, in its original tinfoil form it was impractical for common use. Edison soon devoted his energy to development of the incandescent light. But about the same time that Berliner was creating the gramophone, Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory and Edison's laboratory resumed work on development of the phonograph. (The word, "phonograph," was Edison's trade name for his device, which played cylinders rather than discs. The cylinder invention patented by Bell's Volta Laboratory was called the "graphophone.")

According to its donor, Mrs. Isabelle S. Sayers, this Gramophone machine of the mid-1890s was owned by Thomas Edison himself. While Edison probably saw little threat to his phonograph in this crude machine, discs would far outsell cylinders by 1910. Berliner's January 1895 List of Plates, shown next to the Gramaphone, describes the typical range of music and speech that could be heard on cylinders as well as discs at that time.

The disc on the Gramophone seen here is the first recording of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," recorded for Berliner only thirteen days after the premiere of the march. Generous descendants of Berliner's have entrusted the Library with preservation of more than five hundred published and unpublished Berliner discs along with the inventor's laboratory notebooks, business and legal papers, and personal scrapbooks.

Berliner's discs were the first sound recordings that could be mass-produced by creating master recordings from which molds were made. From each mold, hundreds of discs were pressed. Recording masters and Gramophone machines were made in Berliner's Washington, D.C. laboratory, two blocks from the White House. Fire destroyed that laboratory in 1897. Later, Berliner's company evolved into the Victor Talking Machine Company.

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