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.”

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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.