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Collection Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry

The Gramophone

Early Sound Recording Devices

During the early 1880s a contest developed between Thomas A. Edison  and the Volta Laboratory team of Chichester A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter . The objective was to transform Edison's 1877 tinfoil phonograph, or talking machine, into an instrument capable of taking its place alongside the typewriter as a business correspondence device. This involved not only  building  a better machine, but finding a substance to replace the foil as the recording medium. By the beginning of 1887 both sides had announced the  invention of a machine  using a wax cylinder that would be incised vertically to match the sound vibrations. The same machine that was used to make the recording would, as with the tinfoil machine, be used for playback. Edison, as he did earlier, termed his wax cylinder apparatus a phonograph; Bell and Tainter named their apparatus a graphophone. Business people preferred the former, but neither machine was much of a success. Since the phonograph did not succeed as a dictating device, Edison's company began to market pre-recorded wax cylinders of popular music that could be played on the phonograph in the office or home or even on coin-in-slot machines in arcades, saloons, and elsewhere. By the early 1890s a rudimentary recording industry was underway. Meanwhile, Bell and Tainter made considerable improvements to their graphophone, and they, too, entered the entertainment field. Both sides had applied for a patent on the vertical cutting, or incising, of sound vibrations into a wax cylinder. Both sides made recordings with the result that a phonograph cylinder could be played on the graphophone and vice-versa.

As the Edison versus Bell/Tainter contest was going on, Emile Berliner in Washington, D.C., began to take a great interest in the future of sound recording and reproduction. As he had done earlier with Bell's telephone, he began by examining in detail both the phonograph and the graphophone in order to learn the advantages and disadvantages of each. He soon formed the following conclusions: the wax cylinder, while a vast improvement over the tinfoil cylinder, was too soft and fragile for making a permanent recording. A wax cylinder would wear out quickly so some more durable substance was required. The vertical cut (or hill-and-dale cut) grooves were often not deep enough to keep the stylus from skidding across the surface of the cylinder. To avoid this both the phonograph and the graphophone had the stylus attached to a feed screw that would carry it over the cylinder. A constantly deep groove would enable the feed screw to be eliminated, but that would require the use of something different from the vertical cut. A soft wax cylinder could not be mass-produced, so if recordings were ever to be widely disseminated, some method of mass-producing exact facsimiles was required. All of this added up to the fact that there was a need in the sound recording and reproduction field for a different type of machine, one that did not use soft wax cylinders, one that did not use the vertical-cut groove that was alternately deep with loud sounds and shallow with soft sounds, and one that employed a relatively hard and permanent record that could be easily reproduced in vast numbers. These problems were, of course, recognized by Edison and Tainter, who was largely responsible for the graphophone, but by the time they had overcome many of the cylinder's defects, the cylinder record was already doomed to extinction by the disc record.

Berliner's Invention of the Gramophone

The gramophone: etching the human voice

Emile Berliner had many trials and errors developing the gramophone. Some of them were described by the inventor in a lecture-demonstration he gave at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on May 16, 1888, which was printed in the institute's Journal (vol. 125, no. 60). Very early in his work, Berliner decided upon the disc format coupled with the lateral vibration used by Leon Scott in his phonautograph. Scott had developed this machine in the 1850s for the sole purpose of visually recording the vibrations of the voice so that they could be studied by those involved with human speech. The vibrations were made by speaking into the large end of a megaphone whose small end was a thin diaphragm that could freely vibrate. A thin brush attached to the diaphragm would make tiny tracks on blackened glass. These lateral vibrations could then be photographed and studied. Apparently it never occurred to Scott or anyone else at the time that, if these tiny tracks could be fixed and then the stylus repassed through them, the reverse process would take place and the sounds would be reproduced through the large end of the megaphone. The phonautograph did play a certain role in the development of the phonograph/graphophone, although these used cylinders instead of the disc, and they used up-and-down vibrations instead of side-to-side ones.

Gramophone: specification forming part of Letters Patent No. 372,786, dated 1887 November 8

Berliner decided to work with the phonautograph. First he tried to replicate the delicate tracings he had made on blackened glass on a sturdier substance through a photoengraving process. Although Berliner was unaware of it at the time, this was a practice that had been advocated by the Frenchman Charles Cros in a remarkable paper written in April 1877 and deposited with the French Academy. In his paper, Cros for the very first time stated a theory for recording and reproducing sound. Unfortunately, Cros never acted upon his theory. If he had, then Charles Cros would have been the inventor of the talking machine and not Thomas Edison, but like Berliner, Edison never knew of Cros, and his tinfoil machine owed nothing to Cros's theory. At any rate, Berliner found that trying to photoengrave the surface of a glass disc was fraught with problems. He then turned to an etching process.

After trying many different substances, Berliner finally turned to zinc. Following many failed trials, he arrived at a process whereby he would coat a zinc disc, made from regular stovemaker's zinc, with a beeswax and cold gasoline mixture. Then he cleared away the coating with fine lines made by a stylus attached to a mica diaphragm so that it would vibrate from side to side. Then, after coating the blank reverse side of the disc with varnish, he would immerse the disc in an acid bath. After a certain time, the acid etched the fine lines into grooves in the zinc, leaving the remaining parts of the disc untouched. With the vibrations fixed into the zinc, the disc could be placed on a turntable and the sound reproduced with a steel stylus. This is how the earliest disc records were eventually made. Unlike the cylinder machines which could be used for both recording and playback, Berliner's method required two machines, one for each process. As a name for the whole operation the inventor coined the word "gramophone" (in early advertisements it was often written Gram-o-phone). His earliest patents were number 372,786, awarded November 8, 1887, and number 382,790, dated May 15, 1888. Berliner continued to patent improvements to his gramophone throughout the remainder of the century and even into the early years of the twentieth century, by which time he had lost control over his gramophone business.

Scrap book [excerpts]

The next problem facing the inventor was finding a method for reproducing the master zinc record. First it had to be electroplated. The result was a metal reverse, or negative, record whose grooves would project outward instead of inward. This negative could then be used to stamp positive copies in a substance that would hold the impression exactly. Berliner tried numerous substances, including plaster of Paris and sealing wax, with poor results. Finally it occurred to him that a new substance on the market called celluloid might be the answer. He contacted the inventor of celluloid, J. W. Hyatt, who felt certain that he could provide exact duplicates of Berliner's records. At first it indeed seemed that celluloid would be very successful, but it soon became clear that the material could not withstand the pressure of repeated playings using big, hard steel needles under the full weight of the tone arm and horn. Berliner had to abandon celluloid. Early celluloid Berliner discs are very rare. Next he began contacting manufacturers of hard rubber items. It is not known which company he employed, but it is known that he had been in contact with the India Rubber Comb Company of Newark, New Jersey. Warming the rubber made it possible to stamp copies of a zinc negative.

The Gramophone Business

Early Gramophone, hand cranked

By the early 1890s, Berliner had already launched the gramophone upon the market. The world's first samples of laterally-cut disc records were issued not in the United States, but in Germany. In 1887 Berliner had obtained patent coverage in both Germany and England for the gramophone. In 1889 he went to Germany to demonstrate his new invention to German scientists. While visiting his native Hanover, he was approached by representatives of the firm of Kammerer and Reinhardt, which manufactured toys in the town of Waltershausen. They offered to place small discs and small hand-turned machines on the toy market. Berliner agreed, and as a consequence, for several years five-inch "Berliner Grammophon" records were manufactured in Germany and a number of them were exported to England. Some of the first discs were made of celluloid, while later issues were pressed in hard rubber. The whole operation was on a very small scale, however, and today these little discs are very rare indeed.

E. Berliner's gramophone

Returning to America, Berliner entered into an agreement with several New York backers and together they formed the little-known American Gramophone Company. (This organization was totally unknown until uncovered recently by the research of Raymond Wile in the 1990s. See his articles in The ARSC Journal: vol. 21, no. 1 and vol. 24, no. 2.) It proved to be premature, however, and apparently never really got off the ground. Then Berliner organized the United States Gramophone Company in Washington, D.C. In 1913 Berliner stated that he formed the company at about the time that he switched from celluloid to rubber discs. The patent application for hard rubber discs was submitted in 1893. In a 1905 lawsuit the lawyers for the Victor Talking Machine Company stated that "in the year 1894 . . . the Berliner gramophone and records came at once into popular favor. . . . They were placed on the market in 1894, the year following the application [for rubber records]." The organization of the United States Gramophone Company in Washington, D.C., in 1894 marked the true beginning of the enormous record industry, not only in the U.S., but in the world.

Sound-record and method of making same: specification forming part of Letters Patent No. 548,623, dated October 29, 1895

What attributes of the gramophone disc and machine caused its quick popularity? Until 1894 all records were cylinders designed to be played on cylinder machines. These cylinders were made of wax compounds, easily broken and easily worn out. They could not be mass-produced and could be copied in limited numbers only by mechanical, or pantographic, means. Because cylinders employed a vertical, or hill-and-dale, cut their machines had to have a feed screw attachment in order to keep the reproducer and stylus from jumping out of the grooves and this feed screw easily came out of adjustment. The storage of cylinders presented problems because of their width and the need for box containers to protect them. The title of a selection and the name of a performer could not be inscribed on cylinders, so printed paper slips were inserted in the cylinder storage box and were easily lost. By contrast, the disc record was made of hard rubber that was difficult to break. It could be mass-produced so that discs could flood the market. Discs had a constant deep groove with the sound vibrations on its walls, therefore the stylus could fit down into the groove and the groove itself would pull the stylus (with its attached tone arm and horn) across the face of the disc. Discs required no storage boxes, and they could be stored upright in a small space. And discs had a blank center area where title, performer, and disc number could be etched or, as in later discs, where a permanent paper label could be attached. The fact that the gramophone machine could not be used for making home recordings, as a cylinder machine could, does not seem to have had much effect on the public.

Not long after forming the United States Gramophone Company, Berliner lost faith in rubber pressings. Some were being sent from the rubber company with smooth spots and other defects. Berliner turned to the Duranoid Company, which made electrical parts out of a shellac compound. In 1895 Berliner sent Duranoid a nickel-plated stamper, and the company returned to him a shellac pressing that was in every way superior to the hard rubber pressings. By the middle of the year all Berliner discs were being made by Duranoid.

Berliner Gramophone Company

Motorized Gramophone

In 1896 Berliner licensed a group of businessmen to sell and distribute his products. They formed the Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia and hired Frank Seaman to organize the National Gramophone Company in New York to handle the distribution of both the discs and the machines. Recordings were made in both Washington and Philadelphia, stampers were made in the Washington laboratory, pressings were made by Duranoid, and sales were handled from New York.

The only major problem now was with the playback machines. Originally these were all hand- turned. Spring motors were attached to some, but the springs were too weak. It required much more power to turn the gramophone with its heavy tone arm and horn bearing down on the turntable than it did with a cylinder machine and its "floating" reproducer. Berliner worked with Eldridge R. Johnson's machine shop in Camden, New Jersey, to manufacture machines with spring motors. Johnson obtained the motors from another source, but the design of the gramophone spring-driven machine was entirely his own. Although not completely satisfactory, the Johnson machine was the best that could be obtained.

Matrix Plant of the Berliner Gramophone Co. burnt Sept 30. 1897

A setback occurred on the night of September 29, 1897, when the powerhouse of the Washington Traction Company, where the laboratory of the gramophone company was located, burned to the ground. It was reported that the company lost at least one hundred zinc masters that had not been pressed, as well as all of its machines and equipment. Everything had to be replaced.

During the late 1890s the market for the Berliner disc began to expand into foreign countries. Berliner had obtained patents in Germany and England in 1887 and in the following two years had added Italy, France, Belgium, and Austria. In 1897 Berliner sent William Barry Owen of the National Gramophone Company to England, and in April 1898, with the backing of several English businessmen, he formed the Berliner Gramophone Company of London. In like manner, two other associates, Joseph Sanders and Fred Gaisberg, were sent to Germany to form a branch there, not surprisingly with the main office in Hanover, Berliner's home town. Soon there were gramophone companies in all the major countries of Europe, including Russia. Berliner's sons Herbert and Edgar opened the Berliner Gramophone Company of Montreal in 1899. In subsequent years, after Berliner lost his fight against illegal competitors, the Berliner name was gradually dropped from each corporation so that, for instance, the London branch became simply The Gramophone Company.

Illegal Competition and the End of the Berliner Company

Photocopy of Zon-o-Phone advertisement

In 1898 came the first of the illegal competitors attracted by the financial success of Berliner's invention, the Wonder machine and record made by the Standard Talking Machine Company. One of the few existing catalogs of their records, in the Library of Congress's collections, shows that a Wonder record was simply a copy of a Berliner record but with the numeral "1" added to the disc number. This obvious infringer of Berliner's patents was soon put out of business. A more serious challenge came the following year when advertisements appeared for the Vitaphone disc and machine made by the American Talking Machine Company under rights from the American Graphophone Company. But the lawyers for the Berliner Gramophone Company pointed out that the graphophone patents covered vertical cuts while the Vitaphone's lateral cuts were an infringement of Berliner's patent. The Vitaphone was closed down but not until it had sold a considerable number of what were for the most part original records. Finally came the Zonophone made by the Universal Talking Machine Company. In the pages of the trade magazine Phonoscope it was disclosed that Universal's president was O. D. LaDow, who was at the same time secretary and general manager of the National Gramophone Corporation (formerly the National Gramophone Company), and that Frank Seaman, president of National, was also an executive of Universal. Shocked at what it perceived as a betrayal of the gramophone's interests, the Philadelphia organization refused to send Seaman and LaDow any more records or machines. Seaman's lawyers brought suit claiming that by its 1896 contract the Philadelphia organization was legally obliged to continue to supply National with discs and machines. Despite Seaman and LaDow's extraordinary methods, which included issuing original Berliner discs with all identifying information except the title erased, and exchanging the Gramophone Company label pasted onto Johnson's machines for one reading Zonophone, in June 1900 a court injunction shut down the Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia and left Emile Berliner with no way to operate. For several years attempts were made to overturn the injunction but to no avail. Berliner himself was never again so personally involved with the new record industry. He passed his patent rights to the maker of the machines, Eldridge R. Johnson, who in 1900 formed the entirely new Consolidated Talking Machine Company, at the same address as the now defunct Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia. Shortly afterwards Johnson changed the company name to "Manufactured by Eldridge R. Johnson" and then in 1901 he made a final name change to the Victor Talking Machine Company. He built a large plant in his native Camden, New Jersey, and the Victor, a direct descendant of the Berliner Gramophone Company, became the largest and best-known record company in the world.

Birthplace of the Victor

For years following the breakup of the Berliner Gramophone Company, Emile Berliner refused to disband the United States Gramophone Company in Washington, D.C., even though it was a company in name only. He retained a great interest in the continuing growth of the record industry and obtained patents on some improvements. He had a financial interest in Johnson's Victor Talking Machine Company and followed its remarkable career avidly. Gradually with the passing years, Emile Berliner's outstanding contribution to the industry began to fade from memory. The very word "gramophone," like the word "graphophone," was eventually dropped in this country in favor of "phonograph." Until World War II, people in in Great Britain and other countries  continued to use the word gramophone for a disc record or a disc machine.  The word  phonograph was used for the old cylinder record and machine, by then relegated to a dictation device as it was originally meant to be. In the United States, the term gramophone has been the basis of the name "Grammy," used for awards presented annually by the members of The Recording Academy.

The legacy of Emile Berliner is the record industry as it existed from 1894 to the advent of the stereo LP. The lateral-cut flat disc doomed the vertical-cut cylinder, although Thomas Edison refused to stop manufacturing discs  until 1929. The graphophone interests obtained a license and began to make and issue Berliner-type discs around 1902 and stopped the cylinder business by 1908. Other American cylinder companies either went out of business or switched from cylinders to discs. Berliner's disc was not superseded for nearly sixty years. Manufacturing techniques were improved, zinc masters were replaced by wax masters, the speed of revolution--various in the early years--finally settled down to approximately 78 turns per minute, and in 1925 the electric recording process was developed. But until the stereo LP, which employed Berliner's lateral cut combined with the cylinder's vertical cut, there was no basic change to what Emile Berliner had begun to issue in 1894.



Berliner left one other legacy to the record industry. On a trip to London in 1899, Berliner visited the offices of the London branch. There he noticed a painting hanging on the wall of a small dog with cocked head posed in front of Johnson's gramophone machine. The little terrier was listening to his master's voice coming from the horn. It had been painted by an English artist named Francis Barraud using his own little dog Nipper as the model. Berliner contacted Barraud and asked him to make a copy. Berliner brought the copy back to the U.S. and immediately sought a trademark for the painting. The trademark was granted by the Patent Office on July 10, 1900, just too late for Berliner to use it. However he let the Montreal Office use it and he passed it on to Eldridge R. Johnson, who began to print it on his Victor record catalogs and then on the paper labels of the discs. Then the gramophone branches overseas took it up and shortly "His Master's Voice" became one of the best-known trademarks in the world.