Setting up a record company #6 Getting the right people onboard

This week we plan to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #6. It’s late 1895 and the fledgeling gramophone enterprise has just raised $25,000 from the Philadelphian syndicate to expand the business. Berliner now begins to look around and take on more staff.

His first move was to increase his research staff. Fred Gaisberg suggested his brother Will, who was just about to leave school and was desperate to join his big brother in the recording game. Berliner was happy to take the younger Gaisberg on but Fred’s father thought otherwise. Will recalled in later years, “My father informed my brother that he did not think that he should let two of his sons start their careers in such an uncertain business as the talking machine. His friends with whom he had discussed it agreed with him. I was put to selling coal, and a school chum of mine, William Sinkler Darby was given the position.”

William Sinkler Darby would go on to have a long recording career and would travel the world with Fred Gaisberg making many of the first recordings in each country that they visited. We followed them in their Russian trip of 1900, where they picked up these wonderful bearskin coats (not so wonderful if you are a bear.) Darby is on the right, Fred on the left.

Was Will Gaisberg bitter? Probably a little. Did he while away his life in the coal business? No. His father’s reticence to allow him to join elder brother Fred restrained him for only a short while. In early 1901 Will followed his brother across the Atlantic to join him at the Gramophone Company in Maiden Lane.

Setting up a record company #5: Perfecting the gramophone

This week we plan to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #5. Its 1895. Whilst Berliner is perfecting the shellac disc and Fred Gaisberg is on the road raising money for the new gramophone business, Gaisberg can’t escape the fact that a major problem with the gramophone is that it remains 100% manually operated unlike the new cylinder playing phonograph (that Thomas Edison’s company had just released) which has a clockwork driven motor that makes the playback level consistent. Berliner’s gramophone discs may sound better than Edison’s cylinders but the gramophone itself still requires the steady hand of a decent operator to play properly.

Gaisberg later recalled, “My equipment was the simple hand-driven 7-inch turntable. As it was without a governor I had to rotate it with cool nerves and a steady notion, or the music would play out of tune.”

Whilst he was pitching the gramophone to the Philadelphian businessmen who would later fund the gramophone business, Gaisberg spotted an ad in a local paper that read “Why wear yourself out treading a sewing-machine? Fit one of our clockwork motors.” Fred saw that such a device might solve the problem with the gramophone. He began a search for somebody to build a clockwork motor that would take the gramophone to the next level. That search led him to the door of a young mechanic called Eldridge Johnson who worked in Camden, New Jersey who he introduced to Berliner.

Fred later recalled “I can see him now as he was when I went to that little shop across the river…tall, lanky, stooping and taciturn, deliberate in his movements and always assuming a low voice with a Down-East Yankee drawl…
His quick, inventive brain saw what [we were] trying to do. On his own account he built and submitted to our directors a clockwork gramophone motor which was simple, practical and cheap. It was the answer to our prayers and brought Johnson an order for two hundred motors.”

It would begin a long and prosperous relationship between Berliner and Johnson and they would go on to form the Victor Talking Machine Company, one of the recording giants of the first half of the twentieth century.

Setting up a record company #4: Making better records

This week we plan to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #4. We’ve reached 1895 and whilst Gaisberg and Karns are on the road trying to find investors for the new gramophone business, Emile Berliner is busy improving the quality of the new-fangled recording discs.

The great inventor Emile Berliner gazing into the distance. Thinking of discs.

Gaisberg later recalled how Berliner worked on the discs. “Berliner had been using “ebonite” or vulcanised rubber for pressing records. Ebonite required a great deal of pressure and would not retain the impression permanently. Pondering over this, he remembered that the Bell Telephone Company had abandoned vulcanised rubber and adopted a plastic for their telephone receivers.

The Durinoid Company of Newark NJ were button manufacturers who undertook to furnish pressings of a similar substance from the matrices supplied by Berliner. The new substance was a mixture of powdered shellac and byritis, bound with cotton flock and coloured with lamp black. It was rolled under hot calenders into “biscuits”. when heated these “biscuits” were easily moulded under pressure and when cooled they retained the impression.

I was present when Berliner received the first package of gramophone records from the Durinoid company. With trembling hands he placed the new disc on the reproducer, and sounds of undreamed quality issues from the record. It was evident that the new plastic material …had under pressure poured into every crevice of the sound track bringing out tones hitherto mute to us. Berliner shouted with excitement, and all of us including the venerable Werner Suess, our seventy eight year old mechanical genius…danced with joy around the machine.”

Berliner's team. A strange looking crew, particularly Gaisberg standing on the left, Berliner front left and Werner Suess front right, eighty-five years old and keen on dancing.


According to Gramophone Magazine “Shellac continued to be the basis of all gramophone records for nearly 50 years (until vinyl records appeared during the 1939-45 war) except for such odd novelties as edible ‘chocolate’, and celluloid faced postcards. Record diameters increased from a tiny 125mm (5 inches) through 175mm (7 inches) to the eventual 250 and 300mm (10- and 12-inch) standards, giving playing times of 1, 2, 3 and 4-1 minutes respectively. Double-sided records came in at the turn of the century.”