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.

Setting up a record company #2 Finding the right artists

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 #2.
Its 1893.Fred Gaisberg has joined Emile Berliner in his attempt to bring his new invention, the gramophone, to the market. It meant Fred leaving behind the Columbia Phonograph Company of Thomas Edison and working from Berliner’s lab at 1410 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

Berliner's team at The United States Gramophone Company, front from left Berliner, Werner Suess. Back from left Gaisberg, William Sinkler Darby, Gloetzner, Joe Sanders, Zip Sanders.

This is a photograph of the early team who nurtured the gramophone project. Fred recalls the very early days when the team was just three people:

“Berliner did the recording, I scouted for artists, played the accompaniments, and washed up the acid tanks. Berliner’s nephew, Joe Sanders, made the matrices and pressed the samples.”

His artist’s were very varied and were selected to show off the potential of the new recording system. The first five were:
1) Billy Golden, who had introduced Gaisberg to Berliner. He sang “Turkey in de Straw”, a famous “negro” song.

2) O’Farrell an Irish comedian who recorded “Down Went Mcginty to the Bottom of the Sea.”
3) George W Graham who was a member of Indian Medicine Troupe who sold quack medicines at street corners and entertained the crowds accompanied by John O’Terrell on banjo. George recorded “his famous talk on ‘Liver Cure'”
4) Donovan, a train announcer, who recodrded nursery rhymes
5) Emile Berliner singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

No classical artists at this point, but from this initial selection of five recordings sprang the great recording catalogues of today.

Emile Berliner cuts the first discs: Tvinkle, tvinkle, little star, how I vunder vot you are

Emile Berliner may have been the most talented of all the great inventors playing with the new audio technology during the second half of the 19th century. He was born in Germany 160 years ago today, May 20th 1851, and moved to the states when he was 19.

Berliner is probably most famous in the recording business for having invented both the Gramophone and the flat disc – what most people would call “a record” but he also invented technologies that drove forward telephony, telegrams, aviation, helicopters and public sanitation to name a few.

Fred Gaisberg first met Berliner in 1894. Fred was working for Thomas Edison at the time but it looked as though Edison’s Phonograph was likely to fail as the stenographers of Washington turned Luddite. The phonograph played back music that had been recorded upon wax cylinders. Gaisberg was just turned twenty at this point. He’d heard about another guy in the city of Washington who was doing interesting things with sound recording and called in to see him. That man was Emile Berliner.

Gaisberg made the visit with a friend called Billy Golden who was a comedian that Fred had recorded for Edison.

A face even his mother found hard to love.....

Fred recalled that they “found Emile Berliner in his small labatory on New York Avenue…Berliner certainly did make me smile. Dressed in a monkish frock, he paced up and down the small studio buzzing on a diaphragm.

“Hello, hello!” he recited in a guttural broken English. Tvinkle, tvinkle, little star, how I vunder vot you are.”

Berliner placed a muzzle over Golden’s mouth and connected this up by a rubber hose to a diaphragm. I was at the piano….Berliner said “Are you ready?” and upon our answering “Yes” he began to crank like a barrel-organ and said “go”.

The song finished, Berliner stopped cranking. He took from the machine a bright zinc disc and plunged it into an acid bath for a few minutes. Then taking it out of the acid, he washed and cleaned the disc. Placing it on a reproducing machine also operated by hand like a coffee grinder, he played back the resulting record from the etched groove.

To our astonished ears came Billy Golden’s voice. Berliner proudly explined to us just how his method was superior to the phonograph. He said that in his process the recording stylus vibrated laterally on a flat surface, thus always encountering an even resistance and this accounted for the more natural tone.

Acquainted as I was with the tinny unnatural reproduction of the cylinder-playing phonographs, I was spell bound by the beautiful round tone of the flat gramophone disc. Before I departed that day, I exacted a promise from Berliner that he would let me work for him when his machine was ready for development.

Gaisberg was working for Berliner with a few months.

This is a great film about Berliner and the Gramophone that we found on youtube. Did you make it? Get in touch!