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.”

Setting up a record company #3: Raising finance

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 #3. Its 1894. Berliner has developed the gramophone to a degree that it’s ready for market. Fred is on board to make demo recordings to show investors the potential of the new medium.

Money...it's a drag.

Berliner was not finding it easy to raise the money he needed to grow his gramophone business. Fred Gaisberg recalled that “a stream of punters and speculators, rich and poor, visited Berliner’s small laboratory. They were all amused and interested but sceptical. They would not part with their money and Berliner’s funds and courage were getting lower and lower…He often confided to me that something would have to be done or he would be forced to close down. I had been weeks without my modest salary, but as I was earning money with my piano playing in the evenings this was no great hardship for me.”

Fred decided to try to help and persuaded an establishment figure friend of his, one B.F. Karns, to help him try to raise money for Berliner. Karns proved less substantial than he appeared and in the first instance Fred ended up lending him money….

Karns did however get them in front of some movers and shakers including the Directors of newly established and prospering Bell Telephone Company “oozing opulence and exhaling fragrant Havana cigars” but despite being tickled by the gramophone they showed no interest in backing the fledgeling record business.

Alexander Graham Bell of the Bell Telephone Company and some of his directors but with no cigars

Karns also got them to meet “Mr (FAO) Schwarz, the greatest toy maker in America, who ….asked for a talking doll.”

FAO Schwarz. He wanted talking dolls.

Gaisberg and Karns spent much of the winter of 1894 and 1895 on the road trying to raise money. Karns talked money, Fred demo’d the gramophone. But by March all the money was gone. They found themselves stranded in New York by a blizzard “snowed up in a dollar a day hotel for one whole week and without funds and with all communications cut off. For food, we patronised the free-lunch counters when the bartender’s face was turned away. Altogether we spent a week of great discomfort.”

On the return to Washington they stopped off in the City of Brotherly Love and made one last pitch to a couple of Philadelphians. They were non-committal and Gaisberg and Karns proceeded back to Washington fed up and fundless.

As 1895 turned from spring to summer, the future of the Berliner gramophone looked bleak. Fred continued making what recordings he could and Berliner concentrated upon perfecting the technology. But as far as money was concerned, the cupboard was decidedly bare.

This last diversion to Philadelphia proved ulimately to have been worthwhile. By the end of the summer the Philadelphians had formed a syndicate of 5 (two steel jobbers, a clothing manufacturer and two building contractors) to pump $25,000 into a new company which was named The United States Gramophone Company.

Gaisberg and Berliner were out of the starting blocks.