Monday, June 9, 2014

Great American Fortunes - Emile Berliner: Father of the recording industry

 PHOTO: Library of Congress
Alexander Graham Bell did not invent the telephone; he was just the first to patent an improved version of it. Thomas A. Edison was not the inventor of the record player. The credit for inventing the microphone and transformer, the heart and guts of the telephone, and the record player and records, belongs to one man -- Emile Berliner, father of the recording industry. Yet few of us know of Emile or his accomplishments.

He was born in Germany in 1851. The family was of comfortable means until Emile's older brothers were mustered into the military. Without their help, their father could not support the family, forcing Emile, 14, to quit school and get a job. Facing military service during the Franco-Prussian War, Emile bolted for America.

He spent years in New York and Washington D.C., working at odd jobs, and survived the Panic of 1873 by selling glue, painting backgrounds for portraits and giving German lessons.

In Washington he became secretary to Dr. Constantine Fahlberg, the discoverer of saccharine, and attended the Cooper Institute, studying electricity and physics. His room was filled with wires, batteries and other electric devices.

In 1877, Emile built a carbon microphone and filed a patent caveat on it. Edison applied for a patent on a remarkably similar device 13 days later!

Emile also got a patent for a transformer to amplify electronic waves and prevent transmissions from fading rapidly. He demonstrated these devices at the Smithsonian Institution. The National Republican called Emile's invention "the contact telephone,” a device “to enable persons to communicate."American Bell acquired his patents, which made Bell's telephone viable. It was called the "Bell-Berliner Telephone" and was a great success. It made Emile a wealthy man.

Acquiring the rights to Edison’s microphone, Western Union sued, but Bell and Emile prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court—after 17 years of litigation! In 1881 Emile became an American citizen and married Cora Adler, another German immigrant.

Emile invented the gramophone, the first practical record player, and the flat disks later known as “records.” The gramophone established the 78 rpm standard, and “His Master’s Voice,” depicting a little dog, Nipper, listening to a gramophone became his trademark. The gramophone needed a motor. Emile arranged for the Consolidated Talking Machine Co. to produce it, but the owner patented the motorized gramophone in his own name. The company became the Victor Talking Machine Co. “Berliner” and “Gramophone” disappeared in the U.S., replaced by “Victor” and “Victrola.”

In 1898, Emile formed Deutsche Grammophon in Germany, and built the world's first factory devoted exclusively to manufacturing records.

A lover of music, Emile composed "The Columbian Anthem," a paean to America. Many thought it should become our national anthem.

 In 1907 Emile built one of the earliest helicopters. It was the first time a rotary engine had been used in an aircraft.

Victor Talking Machine acquired "His Master's Voice" trademark in 1924. Emile died in 1929, the same year RCA acquired Victor Talking Machine and renamed it RCA Victor. Emile's legacy? His inventions are incorporated into every telephone, radio, television and public address system. And Deutsche Grammophon still exists, an integral part of the Universal Music Group.

© 2008 by Daniel Alef, syndicated columnist and award-winning author of “Pale Truth,” an American historical novel. Mr. Alef can be reached at

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