Emile Berliner Biography (1851-1929)


With the invention of his flat disk record (which, in 1888, replaced Thomas Edison 's more expensive and more fragile cylinder) Emile Berliner elevated the record industry to prominence in home entertainment. Born on May 20, 1851 in Hanover, Germany, Berliner studied the printing trade before immigrating tothe United States at age nineteen, where he studied sound and electricity atCooper Union in New York City. In 1877, he invented an improved voice transmitter with a variable-pressure contact for the telephone. This device, whichcame to be called a microphone, won him a job as chief inspector for Bell Telephone the following year. The sale of his patent made him a wealthy man, butit brought him fifteen years of court battles against Edison, who patented the same device two weeks after Berliner.

Ten years later, Berliner patented a gramophone that played a flat record. Heproduced records for the new gramophone in the following way: a moving stylus recorded a musical performance onto a seven inch zinc disk covered with a fatty film. The stylus scratched through the acid-proof, film coating the discas it moved. When this "master" disc was dipped into acid, the acid was ableto eat away only where the wiggling of the stylus exposed the zinc beneath the coating, thereby leaving a groove in the zinc matching the original movement of the stylus. Unfortunately, copies made from these masters had a "fuzzy"sound quality because the grooves etched by the acid on the master did not always retrace the movement of the original stylus with perfect accuracy.

New Jersey mechanic Eldridge R. Johnson, seeing the potential of Berliner's discs, went to work on an improved duplication method. Rather than starting with a zinc disc, he began with a hard wax disc (similar to the wax Edison wasusing for his cylinders), into which a recording stylus cut grooves directly.Then the disc was dusted with gold powder and slowly electroplated (coated with layer after layer of metal) to form a "negative" made of. This negative, or matrix, was separated from the wax original and used to stamp out many copies of the recording in a malleable substance like shellac.

Via this simple method of duplication, a speech, musical performance, or other aural experience could be made available to the public in quantity at a reasonably low cost. Berliner's discs had two advantages over Edison's cumbersome "cylinders": first, they were more easily stored, and second, although theduplication process developed by Johnson was similar to the procedure Edisonused on his cylinders, reproducing the flat discs was far easier and more reliable.

Using his own patents as well as those of Berliner, Johnson founded the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901, which later became Radio Corporation of America or RCA. Berliner's recording equipment became the record industry's standard. As increasing numbers of musical performers made presses of their works for sale on Berliner's disks, sales of the Berliner gramophones and discs began to rise. At fifty cents a disc, records quickly gained popularity--and when the great tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) recorded a series of performances for Victor in 1903, any doubt about the future of the Berliner gramophonewas demolished as legions of excited fans bought his recordings. In the process, Caruso became the first performer to sell a million records.

Berliner continued creating and patenting ideas, including an airplane enginein 1908 and acoustical tiles to enhance soundproofing in 1925. In his last years, he worked to promote the compulsory pasteurization of milk as a means of improving infant health and nutrition. He died in Washington, D. C. on August 3, 1929.

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