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 new record company #7 Sell your product!

This week we aimed to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America in the late 19th Century. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #7. The final day; we made it! Its 1896. The new Philadelphian investors have decided that the United States Gramophone Company needs a permanent recording studio and a retail shop for gramophone players and discs and that it should be based in Philadelphia itself. Fred was selected to set up the recording studio which was above a shoe shop in Twelfth Street, Philadelphia. A new colleague Alfred Clark, then 22, was chosen to establish the gramophone shop. Clark and Gaisberg had similar backgrounds, both had also previously worked for Edison. Clark however was a much snappier dresser as Gaisberg later recalled.

“He was..a youth big and well proportioned, perfectly dressed in a tailor made suit which struck a note of distinction. Further his dark eyes and curly brown hair set off by a boyish blush whenever he spoke made him irresistible, quite apart from his wisdom and the fact that he had emerged from shadow of the great Edison.”

Gaisberg and Clark headed to the City of Brotherly Love to start this new record business, Gaisberg with his recording and Clark with his retail. A&R and distribution. Both would go on to play vital roles in the development of The Gramophone Company; Fred would make many of its recordings and Clark would eventually become Managing Director of the Gramophone Company and then the first Chairman of successor company EMI.

But back in 1896 all of this was ahead of them. Gaisberg fondly remembered the early days in Philadelphia.”Clark and I had living rooms adjoining the studio and so were frequently in each other’s company and exchanged views on the artist’s life, the gramophone industry and it’s future. That it had a future neither of us doubted. We were both in on the ground floor and had all the enthusiasm of youth.

There were evenings when we stopped at home and enjoyed the leather perfumed atmosphere of the studio over the shoe-shop. There was a piano, as usual mounted on a two foot high platform, and the recording machine invited exciting experiments in sound recording. Clark had a violin he was very fond of and occassionally tucked under his chin….

We..often found ourselves as guests in the homes of our (investor) directors..and in the more modest homes of Eldridge R Johnson and B.G. Royal then the small mechanics who ran the small tool shop across the river in Camden. At that time they were making the first two hundred spring-motor gramophones for the company. Their little shop was destined to expand into the great Victor Talking Machine before the decade was over.”

So as we look back on the 7 blog entries of this week that tell the story of how Fred Gaisberg and Emile Berliner set up the United States Gramophone Company we can see the years 1893-1896 were key to the development of the gramophone business. Berliner had, with the help of Eldridge Johnson, perfected his disruptive gramophone technology and the discs that it played. He had raised money to develop the business and had brought on board three key members of staff – Gaisberg as a PAID employee, Clark and Sinkler Darby. Technology + Capital + People = Business. Oh, and they found an artist or two.

What next? Well…1897 would see the push to internationalise the business. Next stop: World domination.

Setting up a record company: #1 Get the technology right

When William Barry Owen and Trevor Williams shook hands to establish the UK’s first record company, The Gramophone Company, in 1897 they sent for Fred Gaisberg, an American “recording expert” to come over to England to help them by setting up the recording department and the UK’s first recording studios in Maiden Lane.

Fred’s involvement in the American parent company, The United States Gramophone Company, went back much longer – to its very inception. We plan to tell the story of how that record company came into being in seven blog entries over the next seven days….

You might remember from an earlier blog entry that Fred had been working for Thomas Edison’s Columbia Phonograph Company before meeting the eccentric inventor, Emile Berliner. Berliner had worked out how to record on flat discs that were a marked improvement on the cylinders being used by Edison. He called his playback device the gramophone. Fred asked Berliner for a job when he felt he was was ready to take the new invention to market.

Later in 1893 Fred recalls that he “received a postcard asking me to come and see him [Berliner]. In great anticipation I called at his house. he informed me that in recent months his laboratory experiments had culminated in the production of a recording and reproducing process sufficiently advanced to place on the market. He also confided to me that three of his relatives and friends had formed a small syndicate to exploit his gramophone. With the limited funds he wanted to make a small programme of songs and music for demonstration purposes in order to raise capital for promoting a company. He told me I was just the person he was looking for….My value to Berliner rested in the fact that I could collect quickly a variety of effective talent to make these demonstration records.”

Fred of course said yes to Berliner’s offer and they switched into business start up mode. Over the next six days we plan to highlight some of the key moments in the setting up of what would become the record business. All the great recordings from Sinatra to The Beatles to Lady Gaga can be traced back to the events of the next few years. 1893 to 1897 saw the invention of recording sound become a business.

These are the pictures that show the birth of the UK recording industry.

In 1898, the recording industry was a handful of years old and based almost entirely in America when one of the big Stateside players, The United States Gramophone Company, owned by Emile Berliner, decided to move into Europe to challenge the
thee year old French Pathe Company who was the biggest European recording company at the time.

They sent an American, William Barry Owen, over to London to bring together a syndicate of local investors to finance the expansion. Owen was a natural entrepreneur and gambler as Fred Gaisberg remembers:

“He was an opportunist and a bold gambler…You would always find him in the stiffest game of poker in the drawing room..and his eyes would bulge as he laid a full house of the table. He brought to London an infectious enthusiasm and energetic leadership which I believe was quite new to the conservative English city man of that day.”

Owen connected with Trevor Williams who was a Lincoln’s Inn solicitor who was enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new technology and raised $5,000 from friends and family to acquire the European rights to Berliner’s Gramophone.

Gramophones were to continue to be manufactured in the US and imported to Europe. The new investors insisted, however, that recordings of European popular artists were essential to the company’s success on the continent.

The new company, called simply The Gramophone Company, held its first meeting in April 1898. Owen became Managing Director and Williams was made Chairman. As with most start up businesses, the management were motivated by the fact that they had invested their own money in the company. They decided to order 3.000 gramophone machines and 150,000 records from the States to start the business and requested an American recording expert to be sent over to help them develop the European recording programme.

Emile Berliner chose 25 year old Fred Gaisberg to come over to England to set up the recording department which he did in the basement of The Cockburn Hotel 31 Maiden Lane in the late summer of 1898.

More photos of this birthplace of the British recording industry have been unearthed by the EMI Archives staff.

Here is the first picture that was found and we talked more about it here:

This next, new, picture shows the same room but from a reverse perspective. It looks like Amy Williams and the mysterious young man from the first picture are seated on the right hand side of the picture and that could be Fred Gaisberg on the left. There is a strange looking multi-horned contraption to the right of the picture and we are not sure whether that is a recording or playback device:

And the exterior of the Cockburn Hotel at 31 Maiden Lane that leased its basement to The Gramophone Company looked like this. Its difficult to make out the two people in the doorway but they could well be Fred Gaisberg and a colleague:

Clearly the studio was ready! Next stop….find some artists.