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The Sound of History: Oliver Berliner preserves and shares his grandfather's legacy

By Debra R. Messick | Photos by Stephen Walker

Left: His grandfather, Emile Berliner, the inventor of the gramophone and microphone, in his lab in Montreal, 1919; Inset: the trademark declarations letter registered on July 10, 1900, from the United States Patent office. Right: Oliver Berliner poses with an original gramophone and papier-maché “Nipper.”

His name might not ring a bell, but Emile Berliner fine-tuned the telephone and phonograph. His grandson, Bozman resident Oliver Berliner, 91, keeps his legacy alive.

Oliver Berliner and his wife Ginny relocated from California to Bozman, Maryland, just outside St. Michaels, in 2003. They share their charming yellow waterfront home with two rescue felines, Nick (aka Rocky) and Nora. But the house also serves as a sanctuary to numerous incarnations of Nipper, the beloved canine captured on canvas by artist Francis Barraud (1856-1924) in the painting entitled His Master’s Voice.

Nipper’s cocked head leaning into the vintage machine most Americans call a phonograph began its half-century journey as the world’s most recognized logo on July 10, 1900, with the Trademark registered to Emile Berliner — Oliver’s grandfather. While the image is popularly associated with the RCA Victor Company, it was Berliner who originally brought it into the marketplace. Nipper initially stared into a cylinder phonograph, but when Thomas Edison passed on using it as a marketing tool, and Berliner’s British company agreed, Barraud painted in the gramophone.

Oliver, now 91, never met his grandfather who died in 1929 at the age of 78, but he takes pride in preserving the legacy behind his “grandpa’s” groundbreaking patents. Though not a household name like Bell or Edison, telephone and recording industry members have long recognized Emile Berliner’s significance.

A full-page ad on November 7, 1987, in “Billboard,” marking the record business’s 100th anniversary, lauded Emile Berliner as the inventor of the Microphone, Disk Record & Player, and the Method of Mass-Production from a Single Master Recording, the word Gramophone, and credited him with adopting the world’s most famous trade-mark, His Master’s Voice, along with co-founding industry powerhouses Victor Records (RCA), Deutsche Grammophon (Polygram) and (British) Gramophone Co. (EMI).

Unlike Edison and Bell, Emile Berliner’s contributions came about despite a lack of wealth, connections, or educational accolades. Born in Hanover, Germany in 1851, Berliner left to escape being drafted into a Prussian-controlled army, arriving by boat in the U.S. at the age of 19, basically penniless with only modest family affiliations. But, he had a drive to succeed, along with an innate curiosity about the wonders of electricity.

Berliner earned a meager living as a “drummer” or door-to-door dry-goods salesman, commuting from a rooming house in Washington, D.C., Oliver related. The Library of Congress’ trove of photos, documents, and recordings demarking the inventor’s life and legacy includes a timeline citing work as a “clean up man” in the New York City laboratory of chemist Constantin Fahlberg, known for discovering the compound that became Saccharine. While there, he attended courses in physics and electricity at the Cooper Union, then a trade school, receiving valuable knowledge though not official credit — unable to afford tuition, he snuck in, Oliver stated.

Left: Two depictions of the painting His Master’s Voice hang in Berliner’s personal office; Above: Berliner compares the technology of a modern compact disk with an original celluloid disk for the gramophone; Inset: The two Grammies awarded posthumously to his grandfather for his contribution to the recording industry.

In 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his telephone at the Philadelphia Centennial Celebration, its widespread press coverage piqued popular interest and attracted inventors seeking to overcome its limited sound and distance capabilities, amateur Berliner among them.

Visiting his friend Alvan Richards’ D.C. firehouse, when Berliner tried striking an unconnected heavy Western Union morse code key, he was told to push down harder. That revelation — stronger pressure produced more electrical current to flow — inspired Berliner’s breakthrough in designing his battery-powered loose contact microphone ultimately acquired by Bell. Oliver noted that it remained the universal telephone standard for the next 100 years and is still used in landline telephones today.

Bell’s assistant surveyed proposed telephone designs submitted to the patent office then reported the unknown Berliner’s as the most promising. In 1877, Bell offered him $50,000 in cash or stock equivalent for patent rights, and Berliner took the money, foregoing a fortune ultimately valued at over a billion dollars during the government directed breakup of AT&T in 1984. “When I do see him, I’m gonna ask him, Grandpa, couldn’t you have chosen at least 10 percent stock?” he said, chuckling.

According to Oliver, Berliner next focused on Thomas Edison’s phonograph, which used a tinfoil cylinder to record sound waves read with an up and down moving stylus. The costly, fragile cylinder lasted only through 10 playbacks. Edison was aware of this but discounted the flat disk concept. Berliner, however, picked it up and ran with it, experimenting with a variety of materials. He contracted with Duranoid, a Newark manufacturer of high-end fashion buttons, to press heated and molded liquid celluloid into disks, ultimately replaced by stronger Bakelite. Next, he moved to Philadelphia to learn photoengraving from creator Max Levy and proceeded to “etch the human voice.” Using acid to etch grooves into metal master disks from which innumerable copies could be stamped, a crucial step in creating a profitable recording industry.

Like the cylinder-based phonograph, the flat disk gramophone operated by transferring the sound waves mechanically into a reproduced audio signal, using no electricity. But the hand-cranked turntable mechanism failed to maintain a steady speed, so Berliner contracted with machinist Eldridge Johnson’s Camden, New Jersey shop, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, to develop a consistent soundbox. After some trial and error, Johnson, a native of Dover, Delaware, perfected the clockwork spring-wound motor which became standard. Johnson also fine-tuned the Gramophone’s exterior design, repurposing a decorative wooden cabinet to house the turntable, horn, and internal mechanism, with dividers to store disks.

To steer his inventions towards commercial return, Berliner sought funding support from German toymaker Kaemmer & Rheinhardt, which marketed the first miniature machines, with 5-inch disks, as childrens’ toys. In effect, this essentially launched the record business, by producing recordings of original artists, as well as Berliner’s German-accented English rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” which survives as the BBC’s oldest recording.

While he progressed in the recording field, so, too, did Alexander Graham Bell, now the de facto power behind the Columbia Graphophone Company in Washington, D.C., in part due to his wealthy father in law Gardiner Green Hubbard’s position as Edison Speaking Phonograph Company president and Edison Speaking Phonograph stockholder. Despite owning Edison’s patents, the company risked financial ruin without improving its output quality.

Hubbard convinced Bell, who had married his deaf daughter, Mable, to move to Washington, and set up the Volta Laboratory, whose research projects included improving the phonograph for commercial viability. But Bell also sought to coop Berliner’s share of the disk-making business, falsely suing him for infringement of Edison’s patent. For a year before the patent dispute’s resolution in Emile’s favor, the Berliner Gramophone Company was legally enjoined from doing business.

Eldridge Johnson’s manufacturing company, initially enjoined, had its injunction lifted. Grateful to Berliner who had thrown him a financial lifeline years before, Johnson offered to temporarily act as surrogate producer. Out of respect for Berliner, he relinquished use of the Gramophone name and operated as The Consolidated Talking Machine Company. In 1901, he added the name to Victor to celebrate Berliner’s court victory. Berliner then sold his patents to Johnson, who became President at his request, with Berliner remaining the company’s second-largest shareholder. In 1906, Johnson introduced the iconic Victrola, a standard Victor machine with an improved exponential horn design radiating sound from a recording more faithfully.

Along with the three major recording companies he co-founded, the E. Berliner Gramophone of Canada began operating in 1899 in Montreal. Shortly after Emile gave the company to Oliver’s father Edgar in 1924, Edgar sold it to Victor, which operated it as the Victor Talking Machine Company of Canada, later becoming RCA. Today, the Musee des Ondes in Montreal houses a collection of the company and its founder’s memorabilia, along with a recording studio.

As profound as his contributions to audio and recording history are, Emile Berliner also provided valuable aviation-related research and developed an acoustic tile to improve the sound qualities of auditoriums and other large spaces. In 1919, and for the 10 final years of his life, Berliner became a benefactor of civic, health, and educational projects. Concerned with the dangers of unpasteurized milk in Washington, D.C., he petitioned the Congressional committee at the time responsible for the District’s governance to ban unsafe raw milk, with no result. He then contacted each member’s wife and the law passed. He also headed the Tuberculosis Association and wrote a well-received children’s book of rhymes intended to promote good hygiene. Truly ahead of his time, Emile Berliner also set up and contributed to a trust fund supporting women in science, which remains an active source of financial support for female researchers today.

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