Emile Berliner

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While Emile Berliner never actually appeared on any records, no records could have appeared without him. The compact disc generation can also mull over the man's importance, as Berliner was the first…
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While Emile Berliner never actually appeared on any records, no records could have appeared without him. The compact disc generation can also mull over the man's importance, as Berliner was the first man to introduce the concept of a "disc" as a medium to be played on his newly invented gramophone. His competition at the time, the much better-known Thomas Edison, still thought a cylinder was the way to go, but he was ever so wrong. The disc concept was conceptually the key to the entire concept of mass production of recordings. Berliner also invented the microphone that became part of the first Bell telephones, known as the carbon microphone transmitter. At 25, the German-born inventor had already patented and sold this microphone for $50,000 to what was then the just up and starting Bell Telephone Company, getting the ball rolling for it to become one of the largest corporations in the world. His thanks from the American business community for his inventions was, as might be expected, something in the nature of an all-out assault in which he was forced to move his ventures across the border to Canada.

Berliner came to Washington from his native Germany at the age 19; the year was 1870. At home he had worked as a printer and fabric store clerk. He had already demonstrated talent as an inventor, coming up on the latter job with a new type of loom. In the United States he studied physics part-time and worked in a chemical laboratory. Seeing Alexander Graham Bell demonstrate his telephone at the U.S. Centennial Exposition inspired him to come up with improvements, like many inventors of the day. In a bit more than a decade, Berliner had designed a basic microphone that vastly improved transmission sound and had unveiled both a gramophone that played flat discs and a system for pressing these records. He invited musicians to come and record for him on zinc plates, thereby becoming the recording industry's first, and certainly most intelligent, A&R man. Berliner's gramophone and pressing system was purchased by the Victor Talking Machine Company, which later became RCA. Abroad, Berliner personally founded Deutsche Grammophon and the British Gramophone as his international marketing channel. It was Berliner who came up with a cute trademark taken from a painting of a dog listening to a phonograph, an image that was appropriated lock, stock, and canine by RCA. Berliner also invented a helicopter which flew in 1919, and the first radial aircraft engine in 1908. Nor was he only concerned with machines. He helped form a public health organization to safeguard the U.S. milk supply, and in 1911, he established a fellowship in his mother Esther Berliner's name to assist women conducting scientific research.

Having retained only a minority shareholder's control of his inventions, Berliner felt no choice but to relocate to Canada following the type of high-dollar squabbles that accompanies new inventions. The enormous Columbia company took aim at Berliner's patents, showing the usual capitalists' reluctance to compete on the open marketplace. The legal battle that ensued rivaled Homer's Iliad for length and complexity of conflict, involving not only the Columbia corporate empire and Berliner's company, but Edison Phonograph Works, the exporter F.M. Prescott, and industrialist Frank Seaman, who had signed the earliest contracts to produce gramophones for home entertainment use. As an upshot, Berliner wound up restricted from using the name of the machine he invented, the gramophone, in connection with any product he manufactured in the United States. In 1900, Berliner's first year of operation in his new home of Montreal, only 2,000 records were pressed. By the following year, more than two million had been sold. The first recording actually created in Montreal was a version of "Marseillaise" by Joseph Saucier. In 1924, the new company was finally acquired by RCA; Berliner died of a heart attack near the end of that decade.