Although he has been overshadowed in the public imagination by contemporaries Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, German-American inventor and entrepreneur Emile Berliner (born May 20, 1851 in Hannover, Kingdom of Hannover; died: August 3, 1929 in Washington, DC) actually improved two inventions associated closely with those other men, the telephone and the talking machine. Indeed, his improvements to the telephone made it commercially feasible while his version of the talking machine resulted in the gramophone, the first machine to employ disks, rather than cylinders, for recorded sound. Berliner did not restrict himself to these endeavors. The scope of his interests ranged from electronic acoustics to manned flight and musical composition. His intellectual and commercial accomplishments made him a millionaire and he used his wealth to support a variety of social movements. He was in the vanguard of the public health and women’s rights causes and an advocate of the modern Zionist movement. In short, he was an inventive and entrepreneurial renaissance man, actively interested in, and partly an initiator of, some of the crucial technological and social transformations of his time.
Emil Berliner (he later altered the spelling of his first name) was born on May 20, 1851, to Samuel and Sarah (Friedman) Berliner in the city of Hannover, seat of the Kingdom of Hannover ruled by George V, a Berlin-born cousin of the British Queen Victoria and a peer of the British realm. While the family name hints of its Berlin origins, the Berliners had been a fixture of Hannover’s Jewish community since the late eighteenth century, when Emil’s great-grandfather, Jacob, had originally settled in the area. It was Jacob’s son, Moses, who officially made the family name Berliner.
Berliner’s formal education was rigorous but brief. He attended one of the foremost Jewish schools in the German states, the Samson-Schule in Wolfenbüttel (approximately 30 miles southeast of Hannover). As one of thirty-five male students under Dr. Samuel Meyer Ehrenberg, Berliner was a good pupil but not an especially outstanding one. His formal education ended in 1865 at age fourteen upon graduation from the Samson-Schule. As the fourth oldest child of eleven siblings, and with older brothers in military service, Emil went to work to help support his family. The young age at which he left school and began working suggests that his father’s business was not profitable enough to support the family. Though his father operated a linen manufactory and his Uncle Meyer worked as a washer and dyer of silk and wool, young Emile was apprenticed to a printer. Two years later he went to work in a dry goods store, which was more in line with the family businesses. It was while working at the dry goods store that Berliner first exhibited a mechanical aptitude for improving existing technology. At age sixteen he created an improved loom that impressed his elders.
In the late 1860s a series of events occurred that ultimately led to Berliner’s emigration from Germany. The first of these was the annexation of Hannover by Prussia in 1866. Prussian rule brought with it a renewal of anti-Semitic attitudes that had relaxed during the previous two decades. Furthermore, by the end of the decade Berliner had come of age for military service. Fortunately his education at the Samson-Schule was such that he passed the examination for the Einjährige-Freiwillige, which allowed him to volunteer for only one year of service in the Prussian Army instead of being conscripted for three. The examination itself was something of a status symbol for young, middle-class men who enjoyed a certain amount of education. For Berliner, like others, the one-year volunteer service provided a plausible alternative should he face conscription by the Prussian Army. Unlike many one-year volunteers, though, Berliner had not sought this option either as a bridge year to higher education or as a means of postponing examinations. However, the Berliner family made their own plans for him. In 1869, Nathan Gotthelf, a family friend who had immigrated to the United States, returned for a visit to Hannover. During the visit, Berliner’s parents arranged for Emile to immigrate with Gotthelf to the United States and work in the Washington, D.C., dry goods store in which Gotthelf was a partner. Thus, in April of 1870, just before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Berliner boarded the Hammonia in Hamburg, Germany, and made the two-week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Hammonia berthed at Hoboken, New Jersey, and Berliner spent a half-day sightseeing in New York City before taking a train to Washington, D.C. He arrived in the capital city on May 12, 1870, and began the clerking position for which he had been contracted at Gotthelf’s dry goods store. It was during his first weeks in Washington that Berliner added the “e” to his first name, Emile, to Anglicize it. Berliner clerked at Gotthelf, Behrend and Company for three years, during which he improved his English and took up the study of the piano and the violin. Some have postulated that his musical studies may have later spurred Berliner’s interest in the fledgling field of acoustics.
Berliner’s youthful restlessness and drive to succeed in his adopted land took him away from Washington, but eventually he returned. It was during his second stay in the nation’s capital that he met Cora Adler (1862-1942), another German immigrant whose family lived across the street from Berliner’s residence and tiny workshop. She and Berliner married in 1881, the same year he became a U.S. citizen. The Berliners had seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood: Herbert (b. 1882), Hannah (b. 1884), Edgar (b. 1885), Oliver (1887–1894), Louise (b. 1894), Henry (b. 1895), and Alice (b. 1900). Two of Berliner’s sons, Herbert and Edgar, were businessmen who joined their father in his Canadian gramophone enterprise. Another son, Henry, was an inventor and highly respected aeronautical engineer who worked with his father on a prototype helicopter.
After three years of working in the dry goods business, Berliner became convinced there were better opportunities elsewhere, and he resigned his position to return to New York City. At first he found only day labor jobs such as a glue salesman and a background painter for tintypes. He also gave German lessons. Seeking a better employment option, he answered a newspaper advertisement from a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, firm that sold men’s clothing and accessories, and began to work as a traveling salesman in the Midwest. The fact that Milwaukee had a prosperous German population no doubt played a role in his decision to relocate, but, unfortunately, Berliner’s sales route took him far from Milwaukee. He traveled a north-south route along the Mississippi River from St. Paul, Minnesota, to St. Louis, Missouri, and westward along the Missouri River to Omaha, Nebraska. Berliner stuck it out for a number of months before returning to New York City for the third time, where he managed to get a low-level job as “cleanup man” in Russian émigré chemist Constantin Fahlberg’s laboratory.
In the mid-1870s, Berliner began taking advantage of free evening classes offered by the Cooper Institute in New York (now the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art). “He was a regular habitué of its library and indulged his growing fondness for scientific books and publications.” He also made the acquaintance of August Engel, who owned a drugstore located around the corner from Berliner’s residence, and the two struck up a friendship. After an evening’s discussion of physics, about which Berliner had only a rudimentary understanding, Engel gave Berliner his own copy of a classic work Grundriss der Physik und Meteorologie (Synopsis of Physics and Meteorology) by Johann Heinrich Jacob Müller. Berliner was especially interested in the chapters on acoustics and electricity. He eventually quit Fahlberg’s laboratory to become a bookkeeper in a feed store. Yet another chance encounter at the end of 1876, this time with his old employer B. J. Behrend, enticed him to return to Behrend’s Washington, D.C., dry goods store (now simply Behrend and Co.), albeit with more responsibility and at higher pay. Before leaving New York, however, Berliner, who by then had been living in the United States for six-and-a-half years, initiated the process by which he would become a U.S. citizen.
Just months prior to Berliner’s return to Washington, D.C., in March of 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, working in Boston, had patented the telephone. Berliner soon became interested in the infant science of telephony, as it naturally dovetailed with his own interests in electricity and acoustics. Having set up a workspace in his third-floor room at 812 Sixth Street NW, around the corner from Behrend and Co., Berliner began conducting experiments. Within months, he had invented the prototypes for the microphone and transformer that would enable Bell’s telephone to become a practical communications tool and permit the Bell Telephone Company to not only triumph over its main business rival, the monopolistic Western Union Telegraph Company, but to become a monopoly in its own right.
Although Berliner’s basic design for his microphone (also known as a transmitter) was sound, his initial attempts at devising a working instrument failed. Ironically it was an acquaintance of Berliner, telegrapher Alvin S. Richards, who inadvertently set him on the path that resulted in the prototype microphone. Berliner decided to learn telegraphy in hopes that it would give him insights into telephony, which it did. Richards explained to Berliner that a firmer electrical contact (i.e. pressing down harder on the telegraph key) resulted in a clearer message because more current passed over the contact. That was Berliner’s epiphany with regard to the microphone. “I went home in a highly expectant mood,” he later recounted. “I knew I had it. Forthwith I rigged up a diaphragm, made a contact with a steel button, and polished it up so brightly as to insure a clean contact. Then I began to adjust it until the galvanometer showed the current. Then I pressed ever so gently. I found that each time I pressed against it the galvanometer deflected a larger angle. I then knew the principle was right.” Yet what Berliner had developed was an apparatus that depended not on firm contact, as he and many others had presumed, but on loose contact with varying amounts of pressure. The varying pressure created waves of electrical current, much like sound waves. His microphone differed from Alexander Graham Bell’s design in that the latter, which employed Faraday’s magneto-electric induction force, used sound waves (i.e. the voice) to “produce a weak electric current” that transmitted sound over wires.
By 1877, Berliner’s English-language skills had improved to the point where he felt confident enough to write his own patent caveat for the new microphone design. A caveat application was much less expensive to file than a patent application. Its main purpose was to document the existence of a new invention in order to prevent a rival inventor for obtaining a patent on the same idea. On April 8, 1877, Berliner wrote out a first draft. He made another copy of his caveat on April 12, 1877, and filed it with the United States Patent Office on April 14, 1877. It began: “The following is a description of my newly-invented [sic] apparatus for transmitting sound of any kind by means of a wire or any other conductor of electricity, to any distance.” Berliner then divided his description of the microphone into seven parts that discussed the physical apparatus itself and the theory behind it, accompanied by two drawings he had made. In the final part, itself divided into seven subsections, Berliner described exactly what the instrument could do and its possible practical applications, including use as a transmitter. Two weeks later Thomas Edison filed a patent application for a transmitter, and in the following years others would lay claim to precedence in inventing the transmitter.
Although Berliner’s caveat for the microphone claimed that the device would be able to transmit sound over a wire “to any distance,” the claim would have remained unsubstantiated had he not produced a second invention critical to telephony. The same month he wrote and filed his caveat for the diaphragm transmitter he also invented the audio transformer. Essentially, Berliner added an induction coil to the transmitter’s circuit, which boosted the current and enabled the transmitter to function over longer distances. It was a simple and eloquent solution. Though he was confident in his ability to describe his work for the purpose of a caveat, Berliner understood that for the patent applications themselves he needed a patent lawyer. For that purpose he hired James L. Norris. Under Norris’s auspices Berliner filed a patent application for his microphone on June 4, 1877. Four months later, on October 16, 1877, Berliner filed for a patent for his transformer. On January 15, 1878, he was assigned patent number 199,141 for the transformer. Then, on March 16, 1878, Berliner received a setback when the commissioner of patents declared an interference on his microphone/transmitter patent application, which meant that there was a question as to priority because of a multiplicity of inventors, including Thomas Edison, claiming first rights. The questions regarding the validity of Berliner’s application, and who should receive the patent for the transmitter, were decided ultimately by the United States Supreme Court thirteen years later. The delay, itself, and its length would become a point of contention. By the time the case reached the court, Berliner would have powerful financial interests on his side.
In the late-nineteenth century, the telephone industry was wide open to competition. The fledgling Bell Telephone Company squared off against the Western Union Telegraph Company, which sought to expand its near monopoly in long-distance telegraphy to encompass local telephone services. Both companies, as well as other interested parties, kept abreast of the latest technological and legal developments in the field, each seeking to outmaneuver the other. After Western Union bought the Edison transmitter, which was superior to Bell’s, it leapt ahead in the race to capture the American market. With a capitalization of approximately $40 million in 1876 (approximately $839 million in 2010$), Western Union held an enormous advantage over the tiny Bell Company. Berliner had observed the competition between the two companies and had decided that as an individual he could not hope to compete against the corporations. He elected to throw in his lot with Bell since Western Union had already courted Edison. Less than a week after he was granted the transformer patent he wrote a letter to the Telephone Company of New York, a Bell Telephone subsidiary, offering his inventions to that company for $12,000 (approximately $271,000 in 2010$). The company turned him down, but further correspondence between Berliner and the Bell subsidiary resulted in an exhibition in New York City of Berliner’s inventions before Telephone Company of New York executives who were interested in his inventions but too timid to buy them outright. Nevertheless, Telephone Company of New York officials later described Berliner’s apparatuses to Gardiner G. Hubbard, Alexander Graham Bell’s father-in-law and the first president of the Bell Telephone Company.
Bell Telephone was slow to respond to Berliner’s lobbying efforts, but it finally did so early in 1878 when Thomas A. Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s erstwhile assistant and later superintendent of Bell Telephone, personally traveled to Washington, D.C. to inspect Berliner’s inventions, especially the transmitter. “After a brief twenty minutes, he concluded his visit with the words, ‘We will want that, Mr. Berliner. You will hear from us in a few days.’” Following months of negotiations Berliner sold his transformer patent and the rights to the microphone transmitter caveat and patent, should the latter materialize, to Bell Telephone for $50,000 (approximately $1.1 million in 2010$). He also went to work for Bell Telephone as the company’s chief engineer, first in New York City and then later in Boston. The hard work and the negotiations, however, took their toll on Berliner. He suffered a nervous breakdown soon after joining Bell Telephone and spent six weeks in Washington, D.C.’s Providence Hospital. Ironically, when he was finally able to resume his duties at Bell Telephone in January of 1879, Berliner’s first task was to work on a microphone/transmitter design that had been modified by a different inventor, Francis Blake. The Blake transmitter worked better than Berliner’s design but required near constant adjustment. The double irony in having Berliner, rather than Blake, work to improve the device was that the latter had also suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to modify his device for Bell. In six weeks, Berliner solved the problem with the transmitter, allowing for the mass production of up to 200 per day. He personally oversaw the manufacture of the first 20,000 transmitters. Yet the work proved stressful and in 1879 Berliner suffered a second breakdown and was confined for a time to Massachusetts General Hospital before recuperating in New Hampshire.
Berliner returned to Germany for a visit in 1881. While there, he convinced his older brother, Jacob, to form a business partnership with his younger brother, Joseph, in the company Telephon-Fabrik J. Berliner, Hannover. Joseph had also immigrated to the United States and had gotten a job through Emile’s connection with the Williams Company, which manufactured Bell telephones. Joseph returned to Hannover based on Emile’s advice and used his former association with the Williams Company to obtain telephone equipment for Telephon-Fabrik. Emile Berliner’s efforts to help his brothers establish a business in Germany reflected his innate entrepreneurial character and showed that he was interested in the potential profits that could be made from his inventions.
Upon his return to the United States from Germany, Emile decided to strike out on his own again, though he remained associated with Bell Telephone. He, Cora, and their first child, Herbert, returned to Washington, D.C., which remained Berliner’s home for the rest of his life. In the 1880s Berliner received a number of patents including one for a floor covering that Berliner termed a Parquet Carpet (patent number 284,268). In 1899, and again in 1900, he received additional patents on this idea as he made improvements to the design.
As Berliner pursued new interests in the 1880s and 1890s, the number of lawsuits initiated over his transmitter patent, and others the Bell Company held, expanded to more than 600 cases. By the time Bell Telephone and Western Union made corporate peace, the question of the transmitter patent had taken on a life of its own. Berliner, and thus Bell Telephone, was issued patent number 463,569 for the transmitter on November 17, 1891. The day after the patent was issued the Boston Globe editorialized: “We think it is safe to say… that this Berliner patent is of more commercial value than the original Bell Telephone patent.” Rivals cried foul claiming that the thirteen-year delay, because the patent was pending, gave American Bell more time to consolidate its monopoly, and they persuaded the federal government to take action. On February 1, 1893, the United States government brought suit against the American Bell Telephone Company and Berliner, though by then Berliner was long gone from the company, to have the patent canceled. On January 3, 1895, a circuit court indeed canceled the patent, but the decree was overturned on appeal on May 18, 1895. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, whose decision, handed down on May 10, 1897, favored American Bell Telephone and Berliner. Thus Emile Berliner’s pioneering work in the field of telephony was officially recognized by the nation’s highest court.
By the time the telephone transmitter lawsuit began to make its way through the courts, however, Berliner had become involved in an enterprise that was every bit as groundbreaking as telephony. His work in telephony, and possibly his earlier musical studies, gradually made him interested in creating a better talking machine. His work in this field brought him, once again, into rivalry with Thomas Edison. Edison developed the first working talking machine in the fall of 1877. It had a diaphragm and stylus mounted to a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil upon which the stylus inscribed a continuous vertical groove when the cylinder was turned by hand crank. Edison named the device a phonograph. He was so sure that his invention would be commercially viable that he formed the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company nearly a month before he received a U.S. patent for the device on February 19, 1878. Chichester Bell (Alexander Graham Bell’s cousin) and Charles Tainter improved Edison’s invention. The most important aspect of their talking machine was the use of a wax cylinder, rather than one covered with tin foil, on which to inscribe the groove. Their machine, for which they received a patent on May 4, 1886, came to be known as the graphophone. It was at this stage of the device’s development that Emile Berliner set out to create his new talking machine.
During the winter of 1887-1888, Berliner and his assistant, Werner Suess, perfected and patented an idea that others, including Edison, had rejected. They developed a device that recorded and played sound on a disk using a continuous horizontal, rather than a vertical, groove. Berliner named his invention the gramophone. However, before he could guarantee the commercial viability of his invention, Berliner first had to guarantee the quality of the records on which the sound was recorded. His idea was to coat a zinc disk with a substance suitable for etching. The disk would then be immersed in acid, which would eat away the metal where the recording stylus had traced leaving a groove. It took months of trial and error before he hit on the proper coating, “a thin fatty film that responded to the stylus and yet was impervious to the acid.” Berliner recorded his first records in March of 1888, and on May 16, 1888, he gave his talking machine its first public demonstration. The site he chose was the prestigious Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. The demonstration was a success, and it placed the gramophone in direct competition with the phonograph and the graphophone, though it would be a number of years before gramophone technology triumphed conclusively in the marketplace.
Meanwhile, Berliner spent another five years improving the gramophone design and the recording process before he sought to market his invention commercially. Perhaps the most important improvement he made was the reverse matrix record, a “negative” so to speak, that allowed for thousands of “positive” copies to be stamped onto a disk made of hard rubber or celluloid. In 1893 he and others formed the United States Gramophone Company, located in Washington, D.C., to manufacture gramophones and recordings. The company was undercapitalized and relied solely on Berliner’s patents as its main asset. It wasn’t until the end of 1894 that the first gramophone plates, as records were then called, appeared for sale, and with their success the company began to regularly release new recordings. The plates were made of hard rubber and were single-sided, seven-inches in diameter, and sold for 50 cents each or $5.00 per dozen (approximately $13.10 and $131 respectively in 2010$). The plates could be played on any of three gramophones the company produced. The least expensive, and therefore most popular, model was the Seven-Inch Hand Gramophone. At twelve dollar (approximately $314 in 2010$) it was the most inexpensive talking machine, disk or cylinder, on the market. The fact that the turntable, as the name implied, had to be rotated manually at seventy revolutions per minute made its commercial future limited since the more expensive talking machines were either motor or spring-driven, which ensured an evenness in tone.
The pace of development began to quicken in the talking-machine industry. For his part, Berliner, who had been slow in making the gramophone commercially viable, tried to make up for lost time. On October 8, 1895, he and a group of Philadelphia investors formed the Berliner Gramophone Company as the manufacturing arm of his business, while the United States Gramophone Company continued to hold the patents. Business was so good that by the following summer Berliner Gramophone contracted with Eldridge R. Johnson of nearby Camden, New Jersey to manufacture 200 motors for the gramophone. That same year, Berliner Gramophone signed a fifteen-year contract with New York entrepreneur Frank Seaman that made him the exclusive U.S. sales agent for the gramophone. Seaman set up the National Gramophone Company of New York and initially sold only the Seven-Inch Hand Gramophone with two records for $15. By November of 1896 the company was selling spring-motor gramophones for $25, which was half the price of the least expensive spring-driven cylinder phonograph.
By 1897 Berliner’s gramophone enterprises had become so extensive that he confined himself to the recording aspect of the business. He personally supervised the creation of matrices and the stamping of record disks. That year Berliner switched from using vulcanized rubber to a shellac composition for his disks. The switch was necessitated because “the rubber records tended to flatten out in spots, and this would send the needle skidding across the record in spots.” He also began marketing the gramophone internationally in 1897 when he allowed William Barry Owen, who had for a time been associated with the National Gramophone Company of New York, to negotiate gramophone rights in the United Kingdom. The company that Owen and his partners Trevor Williams and Edgar Storey established the following year, the Gramophone Company, became the U.K. partner of the United States Gramophone Company. In 1898 Berliner co-founded Deutsche Grammophon, in Hannover, Germany, and served as one of the company’s first directors, along with his brother Joseph. In its early days Deutsche Grammophon was an associate company to the British Gramophone Company. It provided “shellac disks for the Gramophone Company… with recordings provided by [Berliner’s American associate] Fred Gaisberg.” The disks were originally produced on “American-made hydraulic presses.” Other gramophone companies soon sprung up in Russia and Austria. In a short amount of time Berliner’s various intertwined business enterprises expanded rapidly. As with the transmitter patent, though, litigation soon followed success. This time, however, the lawsuit came from one of Berliner’s erstwhile business partners.
In March of 1899, U.S. sales agent Frank Seaman “transformed the National Gramophone Company of New York into the National Gramophone Corporation of Yonkers.” His reasons for doing so were twofold: First, National Gramophone of New York had just barely staved off a lawsuit for patent infringement brought by Bell and Tainter’s American Graphophone concerning National Gramophone’s use of a “floating stylus” supposedly copied from American Graphophone’s design; second, Seaman felt slighted by his profit sharing arrangement with Berliner Gramophone. Berliner and his partners had refused to renegotiate the contract with Seaman. Seaman also responded by helping organize the Universal Talking Machine Company in order to manufacture a gramophone-style machine, even though he held no patents. Seaman called his new talking machine the zonophone. The zonophone was more than simply a competing product in the talking machine marketplace. Since Seaman’s company, under either name, was the authorized sales agent for Berliner’s gramophone, his introduction of a new talking machine onto the market represented a clear conflict of interest since it deliberately undercut Berliner’s sales. Soon, Berliner Gramophone found itself with vastly reduced orders to fill, but the Machiavellian Seaman was not through as he sought to edge out Berliner altogether from the talking-machine market.
Early in 1900 Seaman acknowledged the veracity of the patent infringement suit that American Graphophone had filed against his original company. In mid-May, Seaman’s National Gramophone Corporation and its associated company, Universal Talking Machine, joined forces with American Graphophone and its associated company Columbia Phonograph. The move ensured that Seaman’s zonophone was now under the protection of joint patents. On June 25, Seaman obtained a court-issued injunction for patent infringement against Berliner Gramophone and essentially forced the company to halt its business.
Berliner fought back, but for a time there was nothing he could do against the injunction. Complicating matters was the fact that Eldridge Johnson stood to lose the money he had invested in his gramophone manufacturing company in New Jersey. Johnson also held gramophone patents, essentially improvements on Berliner’s patents. He, in turn, formed the Consolidated Talking Machine Company. Like Berliner and others, Johnson also manufactured records for his machine, and these disks were technologically superior to Berliner’s. Eventually the Consolidated Talking Machine Company became the Victor Talking Machine Company. There was some question as to whether or not Consolidated was a subsidiary of Berliner Gramophone, but by 1901 the courts decided it was not. Soon after Consolidated’s court victory the United States Gramophone Company won its own victory in a Philadelphia court and thereby established the legitimacy of Berliner’s gramophone patents. Commercially, Johnson’s Victor Talking Machine Company and Columbia Phonograph emerged as the industry’s dominant manufacturers following these legal decisions. Johnson and Berliner remained associated for years, and Berliner owned stock in the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Meanwhile Berliner decided to move his gramophone operation to Canada. In 1899 he had established E. Berliner, Montreal, “which [held] exclusive rights to gramophones and discs in Canada (based on a Canadian patent of 1897).” When, in 1900, he was barred from manufacturing and marketing gramophones in the United States due to the patent infringement injunction, Berliner’s Montreal operation became his primary link with the industry. Canadian law also required him to establish production facilities in Canada in order to preserve his Canadian patents. Canadian law and the American court injunction left Berliner with essentially no choice but to relocate. In 1904 the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company of Canada was incorporated, though Berliner was a shadow figure in the company. His eldest son, Herbert, was a major stockholder and served as a company director. In 1909 the company was reorganized as the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company. This time, Emile Berliner served as company president, Herbert as vice president and general manager, and another son, Edgar, as secretary and treasurer. For a number of years Berliner Gram-O-Phone was Canada’s leading recording industry company, but the industry in North America gradually began to consolidate around Victor and Columbia. Throughout most of its history, Berliner Gram-O-Phone remained on good terms with the Victor Talking Machine Company, but in the end was subsumed by it. Despite being the original patent holder to the gramophone, Emile Berliner was no longer an important player in the industry. In fact, the term “gramophone” was eventually replaced by Edison’s preferred term “phonograph” in the United States. However on the strength of companies such as Deutsche Grammophon the term remained in use in Europe and elsewhere.
In 1906 Berliner focused his attention on another budding industry, manned flight. In 1901 and 1903, respectively, Gustav Weisskopf and the Wright Brothers had demonstrated the practicality of flight in heavier-than-air, fixed-wing aircraft, but Berliner was interested in a different type of aircraft, the helicopter. The possibility of building a working helicopter gained impetus in the mid-nineteenth century as steam engines, and later internal combustion engines, were developed that provided compact sources of mechanical power. By the time Berliner turned his attention to helicopters many others around the world including Gustave de Ponton d’Amécourt (who coined the word hélicoptère), Enrico Forlanini, Thomas Edison, Jaques and Louis Breguet, and Paul Cornu had all designed working models. The Breguet brothers and Cornu achieved manned flight in 1907. In 1909 Berliner designed a helicopter that lifted two men off the ground. That machine was tethered to the ground, so only vertical assent was achieved rather than full flight. Berliner followed up that success by cofounding the Gyro Motor Company of Washington, D.C., and serving as it first president. Over the next two decades he continued to develop a lightweight rotary motor for vertical flight. He also developed and experimented with the vertically mounted tail rotor, which counteracted torque created by the rotation of the main blades. In this commercial venture Berliner was joined by his son, Henry, and together the two men demonstrated a helicopter to the United States Army on July 16, 1922. With Henry at the controls, the aircraft (dubbed a helicoplane because it had rotors mounted on the wings of a biplane) “rose to 12 feet and made a few short-distance flights.” On February 23, 1923, “a triplane version… flew at an altitude of 15 feet for a little more than a minute and a half.” By the time of the latter flight, though, Emile Berliner was nearly 72 years old and preferred to let his son commercialize the new technology. As with his work with the telephone and, to a lesser extent, the gramophone, Emile Berliner’s achievements in manned flight have been overshadowed in the popular histories and public imagination by others, notably Igor Sikorsky.
Berliner’s final invention of note, the acoustic tile, hearkened back to his early interest in acoustics. In 1926 at age 75 he received a patent (number 1,573,475) for a tile “composed of porous cement, … hard as stone, and yet [having] the resonance of wood when vibrated by a tuning fork.” Over the ensuing years the tile was used to enhance the acoustics of a number of public buildings in the United States and elsewhere.
Despite his legal reversals in the gramophone industry, Berliner’s achievement did not go unrecognized by the scientific community. In 1897 he received the John Scott Award under the auspices of the Franklin Institute. He was twice more honored by the Franklin Institute. In 1913 he received the Elliot Cresson Medal in engineering for “contributions to telephony and [the] science of sound reproduction.” In 1929, less than three months before his death, the Institute awarded Berliner the Franklin Medal in engineering for “life work in the invention of sound recording and telephony devices.”
Emile Berliner made another long-lasting contribution to the gramophone and recording industry in the field of marketing. In 1899 the English painter Francis Barraud sold the rights to a painting he had made of his dog, Nipper, listening intently to a talking machine to the Berliner-associated Gramophone Company of the United Kingdom. The British company, along with the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company of Canada, began using the image as a marketing tool the following year. Meanwhile, Berliner convinced the Victor Talking Machine Company to purchase the American rights to the image, now known as His Master’s Voice or simply HMV. The trademarked image and motto gained worldwide recognition during the twentieth century due to the expansion and consolidation of the recording industry.
While the microphone/transmitter, the transformer, and the gramophone and its associated apparatuses were Berliner’s most notable engineering achievements, they were not the only areas upon which his energetic mind engaged, and in which he received patents. Some of Berliner’s other inventions included the suction cup, an improved electric incandescent lamp, various improvements to the violin, and a heat-radiating fireplace mantel.
Emile Berliner was able to embrace life in the United States while never totally rejecting his European roots, especially his family and friends. He relied upon a network of German and German-Jewish immigrants to sustain himself during his early years in the U.S. A German-Jewish immigrant, Nathan Gotthelf, sponsored Berliner’s emigration from Hannover. In Washington, D.C., Gotthelf and his business partner B. J. Behrend helped ease Berliner’s acclimation into American culture. During the years prior to his association with the Bell Telephone Company, Berliner was sustained by his connections within the German immigrant communities of Washington, D.C., New York City, and, no doubt for a brief time, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His wife, Cora Adler, was herself part of Washington’s German immigrant community.
Berliner was not simply an appendage to the German immigrant network in the U.S., however, he was a vital connection in his own right. He encouraged his younger brother Joseph to immigrate to the United States and later convinced him to return to Germany for business purposes. He hired the talented Werner Suess, former assistant to Professor Robert Wilhelm Bunsen, inventor of the Bunsen burner, as his assistant. He also made trips to Germany to set up businesses, give demonstrations, and reconnect with family and old friends and pass along news from the United States.
At the same time Emile Berliner was determined to reinvent himself in the United States. Superficially, he added the second “e” to his name to give it an Anglicized appearance, but he also quickly mastered the English language to such an extent that within a decade he was comfortable enough to write his own caveat when initiating the patent application process for his microphone/transmitter. The fact that he had begun to make his mark in the fields of electrical engineering and acoustics, rather than in dry goods, is perhaps the most important break he made with the Old World. Thereafter, his interests, especially his business interests in the United States, became more closely tied with the interests of American businessmen and the expanding American society. While never turning his back on the immigrant community, Berliner nonetheless saw himself as an American. In 1881 he cemented his new identity when he became a U.S. citizen.
When Berliner left the Bell Telephone Company to strike out on his own, he returned to Washington, D. C., and to the bosom of the German immigrant community with which he was most familiar, especially the Adler family. As his assistant he hired Werner Suess, with whom he shared some patents, and possibly other German immigrants as his business grew. Yet that seemed to be the extent of his reliance upon the German immigrant community in his business dealings. Later, as he founded the various companies, some of which bore his name, he dealt first with Americans like Frank Seaman, Eldridge Johnson, and William Barry Owen and then with family: his brothers Johan and Joseph, his sons Herbert and Edgar in the gramophone business, and son Henry in aeronautics. By the time of the latter business ventures, he had been in the United States for more than 30 years and a U.S. citizen for more than two decades. Many of Berliner’s original connections within the immigrant community had either died or had retired by that point.
Emile Berliner was a risk taker, as his willingness to be the first member of his family to immigrate to the United States and his subsequent career illustrate, but he tempered this aspect of his personality with a sense of expediency, for example by throwing in his lot with the Bell Telephone Company. He was also willing to work hard for his goals. It appears that Berliner was an outgoing person who made friends both within and outside of the immigrant community and gained the respect of his colleagues and rivals. During his time in New York City, Berliner joined the Orotorio Society of New York, originally founded by German immigrant Leopold Damrosch in 1873, where he sang the baritone parts for The Messiah, Elijah, and Samson. Two other aspects of his personality were his intensity, especially when applied to his work, and his basic humanitarianism. The financial security he gained from his association with Bell, and later from his gramophone patents, enabled Berliner to use his personal resources to improve his local community and, in time, the nation as a whole.
What set Berliner above the crowd was his imagination, especially a mechanical intuition that could make new connections and dream of the practicality of things that were, at that time, only theoretical. He had a wide range of interests, a seemingly boundless enthusiasm that allowed him to strike off in different directions, and an intense will. The latter allowed Berliner to bounce back from adversity such as nervous breakdowns and court injunctions. He also had a sense of loyalty to family, friends, and business associates that was admirable but may have blinded him to the rough-and-tumble business realities of the late-nineteenth century, especially in the emerging music recording industry. Berliner was either unwilling or psychologically unable to recognize the legal flexibilities in business contracts, such as his sales agreement with Frank Seaman. For example, if Berliner had renegotiated Seaman’s contract to provide Seaman with a more equitable share of the profits from gramophone sales, the numerous lawsuits and injunctions against Berliner Gramophone might have been averted. At the very least, they might have remained directed toward Seaman’s company, which could have been reorganized under different circumstances, allowing Berliner to continue manufacturing gramophones in the U.S. instead of shifting his operations to Canada.
The 1900 injunction against Berliner Gramophone, which might have forced Berliner into a period of idleness for which he was temperamentally ill-equipped, had the opposite effect. Berliner’s wide-ranging mind and the vagaries of life soon focused his attention elsewhere. Berliner’s youngest child, Alice, was born the same year as the injunction. The infant nearly died from a severe case of gastrointestinal illness, and Berliner threw himself wholeheartedly into her recovery and, when that was assured, into eradicating gastrointestinal illness in infants and children in Washington, D.C., where the problem was widespread. The following spring, Berliner and a few of his friends formed the Society for the Prevention of Sickness to promote public health and to advocate for the pasteurization of all milk. Berliner wrote numerous pamphlets on both topics over the next two decades.
Berliner’s first pamphlet or “medical bulletin” appeared in the June 15, 1901, edition of the Washington Post. It set out six facts about infected milk and in six single-sentence paragraphs refuted the reasons for not scalding milk. Berliner not only maintained his clean-milk campaign for many years, he also expanded his interests to other areas of public health. In 1904 he published The Milk Question and Mortality Among Children Here and in Germany: An Observation and followed it that year with Some Neglected Essentials in the Fight Against Consumption. Both were published by the Society for the Prevention of Sickness. In the ensuing years as he was working on the helicopter and winding down his involvement in his Canadian gramophone business, he continued his pamphleteering and also donated the money for the construction of an infirmary building at the Starmont Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Washington Grove, Maryland, dedicated to his father’s memory. In 1919 he published Recent Developments in Infant Feeding and co-wrote Muddy Jim and Other Rhymes: 12 Illustrated Health Jingles for Children. Five years later Berliner established the Bureau of Health Education in a building he constructed on Columbia Road in Washington, D.C., not far from his own home.
Berliner’s public health advocacy at the behest of the Society for the Prevention of Sickness was not his first publication venture. In 1889, a paper he had read before the Franklin Institute was published as The Gramophone: Etching the Human Voice. In 1902, as he was embarking on his controversial milk campaign, he published Conclusions, in which he espoused his agnosticism. This represented a final break from his Old World roots, in which religion had played a major role.Conclusions was very much in keeping with Berliner’s iconoclastic nature. Having aligned himself with the Bell Telephone Company early in his career, when that company was the underdog in its fight against Western Union, and having struck out on his own numerous times, it was in his nature to go against the grain of recognized thought.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Berliner also focused his attention on women’s equality, specifically in the field of science. In 1908, with the assistance of the American Association of University Women, Berliner founded a scholarship program, which he named the Sarah Berliner Research Fellowship in honor of his mother. It made its first annual award in 1909. The fellowship was open to any American woman who held a Ph.D. or D.Sc. in physics, chemistry, or biology. Until the Guggenheim Fellowship was founded seventeen years later, the Sarah Berliner Research Fellowship was the largest fellowship for women in the United States.
Berliner was also an advocate of Zionism. From 1913 to 1919 he addressed the cause with four articles: “The Social Status of the Jews,” “Zionism and the American Spirit,” “Americanism and Zionism,” and “A Study Towards the Solution of Industrial Problems in the New Zionist Commonwealth.” In 1919, Berliner served as chairman of the Committee on Arrangements for the Washington, D.C. reception of the noted social Progressive and Zionist rabbi, Stephen S. Wise.
Berliner was meticulous almost to the very end of his life. In a letter to his wife dated May 9, 1928, more than a year before his death, Berliner made explicit his desire to have a plain funeral, directing that he be buried at sunset and that his daughter, Alice, “play the first part of the Moonlight Sonata” and his daughter-in-law, Josephine, play Chopin’s funeral march. In that same letter, Berliner expressed patriotic sentiment toward his adopted country and closed with the advice to his children and grandchildren that “peace of mind is what they should strive for.” The patriotic sentiment was not merely a late-in-life emotion. In 1897 Berliner had composed a song that reflected his patriotic feeling toward his adopted country. “The Columbian Anthem,” with lyrics by W. J. Newton, was so highly thought of by Americans that it was considered a candidate for selection as the national anthem of the United States. The song debuted publicly in Washington, D.C., on February 22, 1897, during a commemoration of George Washington’s birthday at the national council of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and thereafter was sung for years, especially in the nation’s capital. The anthem was likely a natural outgrowth of Berliner’s musical interests, especially concerning the piano and violin.
Emile Berliner suffered a heart attack at his residence in Washington, D.C.’s Wardman Park Hotel and died on August 3, 1929, at age 78. When the announcement of his death was made public, the NBC radio network, according to Berliner’s grandson, Oliver, observed five seconds of silence in his memory. At the time of his death, the German-Jewish immigrant who had come to the United States barely able to speak English had amassed a fortune in excess of $1.5 million (the equivalent of $19.1 million in 2010$), the majority of which he bequeathed to his family. However, Berliner excluded his sons Herbert and Edgar from his bequests, having given each substantial amounts of money during his lifetime. Herbert briefly contested the will, while Edgar did not. Berliner’s funeral was held three days later, exactly as he had requested in the previous year’s letter. He was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery. In 1942 Cora Adler Berliner died, and she was buried alongside her husband and their young son, Oliver.
Emile Berliner was a leading figure in the telephone and recording industries whose work in electronics and acoustics helped usher in the modern age of telecommunications and recorded musical entertainment. Berliner’s patents for the microphone/transmitter and the transformer made Bell’s telephone feasible for widespread commercial use. His inventions helped transform the way the world communicates, shrinking time and space as humanity had previously experienced it. Furthermore, Berliner’s transmitter was also utilized in the early days of radio. Berliner’s other great invention, the gramophone, and his foresight into its possibilities not only for the listener but for musical artists, helped pave the way for the phenomenal growth of the recording industry in the twentieth century. This also dovetailed with the expansion of radio as an entertainment medium.
It is the variety of Berliner’s lesser-known inventions, his myriad commercial and intellectual interests, and, especially, the scope of his humanitarian efforts and philanthropies, made possible by his entrepreneurial accomplishments, that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. His mind was not limited simply to those fields in which he achieved commercial success, nor were his interests limited to the mechanical arts. Other accounts of Berliner have noted that he was a man who was genuinely respected by his professional rivals, and that he seemed to bear no grudges, though the latter may be an exaggeration given the outcome of his relationship with Frank Seaman. In a sense, Berliner’s career and his life were about overcoming obstacles. Whether it concerned the technical problems of the microphone, gramophone, and helicopter, or the thornier problems in trying to overturn the entrenched beliefs of the medical establishment regarding pasteurization or circumventing the educational glass ceiling that hindered women in science, Emile Berliner’s industriousness, his determination, and his entrepreneurial spirit, annealed, no doubt, by stubbornness, bore fruit.
 In English it is becoming more common to spell Hannover in the traditional German manner.
 Samuel Kurinsky, “Emile Berliner – An Unheralded Genius, Part I – The Early Years,” Hebrew History Federation Factpaper (27-I), (accessed January 24, 2011).
 Frederic William Wile, Emile Berliner: Maker of the Microphone (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1926 ), 10.
 Wile, 16. Passing the Einjährige-Freiwillige examination was a mark of cultural distinction, but exceptions were also made for those who exhibited mechanical ability. Such may have been Berliner’s case.
 Berliner would return to Hannover in subsequent years to visit family and friends, but he would never again see his father. The Hammonia was the second of five ships with that name owned by the Hamburg America Line. See the brief description “Hammonia/Moskva 1866” under “Ship Descriptions-H,” The Ships List (accessed April 4, 2011).
 See Kurinsky, “Emile Berliner – An Unheralded Genius, Part I – The Early Years,”
 Wile, 35.
 Fahlberg is best known as the discoverer of saccharin. He first identified the artificial sweetener on February 27, 1879, long after Berliner had left his employ. See “Constantin Fahlberg (22 December 1850-15 August 1910): The Inventor of Saccharine,” TODAYINSCI, (accessed November 10, 2011).
 Wile, 39.
 Quoted in Wile, 75.
 Ibid., 76.
 At the time, an inventor, or the corporation employing the inventor, filed a caveat describing an invention with the United States Patent Office as a precursor to an application for a patent. The process gave the caveat holder first claim on the application should others submit rival claims.
 Wile, 309.
 All 2010 dollar conversions in the article, unless otherwise noted, are based on Samuel H. Williamson, "Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present," MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.
 Wile, 112.
 Kurinsky. The author also mentions, parenthetically, “The German Gramophon Museum states that Berliner received $75,000,” which may be the total amount Berliner received from Bell Telephone. Wile mentions “Several years afterward the Bell Company paid Berliner a lump sum and largely increased his annual retainer, which took the place of a salary, because he left Boston [i.e. Bell headquarters] and went to work for himself.” Wile, 117.
 Francis Blake (1850-1911) was a scientist and inventor who also worked for Bell.
 A month after Berliner joined the Bell Telephone Company it became the National Bell Telephone Company. In 1880 National Bell in turn became the American Bell Telephone Company, which, in 1899, became, effectively, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company.
 Quoted in Wile, 141.
 Findlaw for Legal Professionals, U.S. Supreme Court: U.S. v. American Bell Tel. Co., 167 U.S. 224 (1897), (accessed January 25, 2011).
 Edison’s device was the first working “talking machine” (a name devised by a newspaper headline writer), but he was not the first to come up with the idea. On April 30, 1877 Frenchman Charles Cros deposited a paper with the Académie des Sciences that described essentially the same mechanical sound production process as Edison’s. Cros also named his device a “phonograph.” The paper, however, was not opened until December 5, 1877, by which time Edison had taken the first steps to exploit his invention commercially.
 Roland Gelatt. The Fabulous Phonograph: From Tin Foil to High Fidelity, (New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1955), 61.
 Gellatt, 63-64; Wile, 199.
 Gellatt, 65-66.
 Ibid., 85-86.
 Seaman’s marketing efforts proved so successful that Berliner Gramophone could not meet the growing demand for gramophones. Johnson’s factory in Camden also manufactured entire gramophones by this point. In fact Johnson introduced the Improved Gramophone.
 Gellatt, 88.
 Berliner held a British patent for the gramophone
 Rate Your Music, “The Gramophone Company,” (accessed November 14, 2011). See also Gellatt, 104-105. Some sources identify the company as the Berliner Gramophone Company of London or simply the Gramophone Company of London.
 Deutsche Grammophon subsequently moved its headquarters to Berlin.
 Gellatt, 94.
 See “The Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company of Canada.”
 In 1992, in a two-part magazine article, Oliver Berliner, grandson of Emile Berliner, refuted the general assertion as to why his grandfather relocated the business to Montreal. See Oliver Berliner, “The Berliner Gramophone Company: Personal Recollections, Antique Phonograph News, Jul.-Aug./Sept.-Oct. 1992. See also “Emile Berliner.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004. Encyclopedia.com, (accessed February 3, 2011).
 Henry Berliner founded the Berliner Aircraft Company in 1925, which was later acquired by North American Aviation.
 Scott Award recipients are chosen by the Philadelphia City Council from a list of nominees presented by the Franklin Institute. In addition to Berliner, the list of winners includes: Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, and the Wright Brothers. See: “The John Scott Award, Philadelphia, PA.” (accessed February 7, 2011).
 Barraud originally painted the dog listening to a cylinder phonograph, but was unable to persuade the Edison Company to buy the painting. The painting was changed to a gramophone when the Gramophone Company bought the rights.
 See “The Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company of Canada” and Wile, 225 fn.
 Wile, 192.
 Samuel Kurinsky, “Emile Berliner – An Unheralded Genius, Part II – The Later Years,” Hebrew History Federation Factpaper (27-I), (accessed March 21, 2011).
 Wile, 238-39. The bulletin is reprinted in full.
 In these years The Society for the Prevention of Sickness was ahead of the national curve when it came to urging pasteurization, but other cities soon followed Washington’s lead and, in fact, surpassed it. By 1914 “half of the bottled milk sold in Washington was pasteurized. In 1924… 97 percent of the milk marketed [in Washington] was pasteurized.” (Wile, 241. Statistics quoted are from the District’s public health officers of the given years.) However, by 1915 New York (in 1910), “Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston and San Francisco [had] introduced full mandatory pasteurization.” And Chicago followed suit in 1916. (Alan Czaplicki, “’Pure Milk Is Better Than Purified Milk”: Pasteurization and Milk Purity in Chicago, 1908-1916,” Social Science History,” 31:3 (Fall 2007), 411.) These laws were passed after numerous AAMMC conferences on the hazards of unpasteurized milk harangued politicians and the general public.
 Berliner’s other public health publications were: The Tuberculin Test as a Factor in Milk Traffic, The Outbreak of Typhoid Fever in Cassel of 1909, Opening Address before a Congressional Sub-Committee on Milk Legislation for the District of Columbia, Hospital Milk, High Typhoid Mortality in Washington Hospitals and Their Milk Supply, The Literary Propaganda of the Washington Tuberculosis Association, What Constitutes Municipal Responsibility; How a Love Kiss May Be a Death Kiss,and Are Annual Winter Epidemics Caused by Infected Butter?. He also published History of the Society for the Prevention of Sickness. See Kurinsky, “Emile Berliner – An Unheralded Genius, Part II – The Later Years,” Hebrew History Federation Factpaper (27-I), n. 9, (accessed March 21, 2011).
 Berliner’s father was a Talmudic scholar.
 Wile, 302-03.
 “Berliner Left $1,527,573.” The New York Times, August 29, 1929. Scanned newspaper clipping from Library of Congress, “Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry” (accessed February 8, 2011).
 Berliner’s historical legacy is mixed. With regard to the telephone, contemporary writers seem to consign his invention of the microphone/transmitter to the background. In the Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret (2008) Seth Shulman mentions Berliner only three times, but on the penultimate page of the book remarks: “without the ensuing transmitter improvements made by Emile Berliner and Thomas Edison, the commercial, long-distance telephone industry could never possibly have gotten off the ground.” In Network Nation (2010) Richard John also mentions Berliner only a few times and always with regard to the patent lawsuit. Berliner’s contribution, they seem to agree, was vital but secondary to the whole story of telephony. On the other hand, Berliner’s contribution to the recording industry was paramount. Perhaps the last full recognition he received for a career that included more than the telephone and the gramophone came in 1994 when he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Cite this Entry
"Emile Berliner." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved November 17, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=34
Caso, Frank. "Emile Berliner." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 2, edited by William J. Hausman. German Historical Institute. Last modified March 25, 2014. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=34
"Emile Berliner," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 17 Nov 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=34>
Emile Berliner in later years