Recording Pioneers- Part 1

Emile Berliner 1851 – 1921

“The key to victory is never-ending application”

-Emile Berliner

Name: Emile Berliner

Born: 20 May 1851

Resident: Born in Hanover in Germany, immigrated to the United States as a young man of only 19 in 1870

Occupation: Recording sound mastermind

Loves: His wife and family, inventing, campaigning for better health standards and shellac discs

Emile Berliner

Emile Berliner

Berliner applied himself to the science of sound and recording. On November 8 1887 he patented a successful system of sound recording. Berliner was the first inventor to make recordings on flat disks or records. Previously recordings were made onto cylinders. With Berliner’s new system a spiral groove with sound information was etched into the flat record.

Around the time of his invention Berliner met a young man called Fred Gaisberg. With a keen interest in the newly developing phonograph industry Gaisberg paid a visit to Berliner’s laboratory in Washington DC where he watched Berliner record Billy Golden onto a flat disc and then listened to the playback.

When Gaisberg first heard one of Berliner’s recordings he noted

“I was spell bound by the beautiful round tone of the flat gramophone disc”

-Fred Gaisberg

The superior sound and ease of mass reproducing recordings lead Berliner to set up the Gramophone Company in the United States. He later sent the young Fred Gaisberg to London to set up a recording studio to exploit the European market.

Emile Berliner & Hanover Factory - Germany Copyright: EMI Group Archive Trust

Emile Berliner & Hanover Factory – Germany
Copyright: EMI Group Archive Trust

Berliner has been described as an eccentric inventor and scientist but the intricacies of the business world never came naturally to him. The success of the Gramophone Company was due to his careful choice in business savvy partners, such as Gaisberg, who made the contacts and sales that pushed the company to be an industry leader. Gaisberg commented in his journals

“For many years Berliner was the only one of many people I knew connected with the gramophone who was genuinely musical and possessed a cultured taste.”

-Fred Gaisberg

For his achievements in the recording field Berliner was awarded the prestigious John Scott and Elliott Cresson medals by the Franklin institute. He remained a true scientist throughout his career. Both in public health by promoting the pasteurisation of milk thus reducing the rates of childhood infectious diseases and in the field of physics where he continued making developments in acoustic tiles, aeronautics and microphone technology.

HIS MASTER’S GRAMOPHONE

  

PART 1

We made mention of this fine new hardback book a few months back, but feel it deserves more attention, and so, with the kind permission of its creators Christopher Proudfoot and Brian Oakley, we’re starting a series of extracts to give/remind you of the first golden era of  recorded music and the wonderfully crafted machines that allowed it to be heard.

First up is ‘The Improved Gramophone – Trade-mark, (Style No 5).

This was the machine that started the life of The Gramophone Company in Britain in 1897, the first to be sold here by Wilfred Barry Owen and his associates. While the very first machines imported from New York bore The National Gramophone Co name, subsequent imports carried the names of The Gramophone Company (until 1899), The Gramophone Company Ltd. (until the end of 1900), and The Gramophone and Typewriter Ltd (January 1901-March 1902) together with one of the first two addresses of the Company, 31 Maiden Lane or 21 City Road.

Initially retailing  at £5.10s (£5.50), cheaper models were added, retailing at 2,3 or 4 guineas (£2.10, £3.15, £4.20)

With a plain oak case housing the motor and, together with the extension arm, mounted on a baseboard and the mainspring projecting in a nickel-plated cast iron casing, the Improved Gramophone set the standard of craftsmanship and quality that was to epitomise the Gramophone Company’s output for many years.

Other versions, like this one

were made from walnut with gilt fittings, and there were even ‘Extra Fine’ models made from mahogany – all at this stage imported from New York. The witch’s hat horns were either made from tinplate or zinc and painted black, as in the first photo, or single spun from brass. While the first shipment was largely the black version, the brass model, an experiment, proved the more popular and by 1902 nickel plated and even silver plated versions were available.

To complete the purchase, wealthy customers were invited to buy a carrying case. These came in several styles, made in black enamel, brown canvas and green crocodile or tan leather. Classy eh?

A Welshman and an American went into a hotel. They came out as employees #1 and 2 of the UK recording industry.

One hundred and fourteen years ago, in December 1897, an American businessman was pacing up and down his room at the brand new and ostentatious Hotel Cecil on the Strand.

The hotel had been opened the previous year in 1896 and was the largest and grandest in Europe, situated in the most fashionable shopping street in the world. Sadly it didn’t survive changing fashions and was knocked down to make way for Shell Mex house in 1930 but back in the day, it looked like this:

Hotel Cecil from the Thames

Hotel Cecil from the Strand

Dancing at The Cecil was all the rage.

The American, who was William Owen Barry, was not there to dance. He had moved across from the US to set up a new company. In fact he was seeding a new industry that did not yet exist in the UK; sound recording. He needed investors and had presumably taken rooms at the expensive Cecil in order to suggest the seriousness and potential rewards of his business proposal.

William Owen Barry

He’d met a number of potential investors since arriving in London in the summer but had not yet been able to secure the necessary funds. Hotel bills and entertaining expenses were no doubt growing as he trawled the town for financial suitors but as he came to end of the year he still had little to show for his endeavours. No doubt there would have been pressure coming from his boss, Emile Berliner, in the States – probably along one of the new telegraph cables that were shrinking the globe. He was pacing up and down the room as he waited to meet a potential investor; Trevor Williams (or to give him his formal Edmund Trevor Lloyd Williams) was a Welshman from North Wales who worked as a solicitor at Lincoln’s Inn and impressed by the new technology and had a yen to invest.

Trevor Williams

But the American needn’t have worried. The Welshman had formed a syndicate to invest $5,000 to secure the European rights to the new fangled Gramophone. They shook hands on a deal and agreed to work together to establish and grow this new business. They would reconvene in the New Year to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and formalise The Gramophone Company. Possibly a glass or two were taken? Maybe a cigar smoked? And then the Welshman would have stepped outside onto the teeming Strand, back into the bustle of the city at the centre of a huge empire, at the peak of the Naughty Nineties, head spinning with the new business opportunity….

Anything was possible.

P.S. In the years to come, their company would return to The Cecil to make records of the house band….