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Emile Berliner

Emile Berliner

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, right? Well, he actually invented one that worked, but not very well. The eventual success of the Bell empire rested on the work of a number of other inventors who fixed the problems or found a better way. We will look at some of these and examine their contributions. Emil (he later changed it to Emile) Berliner was one of the first.

Berliner was born in Hanover, Germany on May 20, 1851. He left school at fourteen to take a job to help support the large Berliner family. In 1870 he left Hanover for the United States. He had been offered a job with a family friend, and it was expedient that he leave Germany to avoid military service. He worked as a shop assistant in a mens' clothing shop for some years, then obtained a new job as cleanup man in the laboratory of Constantine Fahlberg, who invented saccharine. This fired his interest in science and inventing. He had been furthering his education at a night school run by the Cooper Institute, but the direction of his work was not determined until he attended the American Centennial celebrations in Washington. There he saw Bell's telephones in action. There was general amazement at the new device, but Berliner noticed its faults as well. Although the Gallows phone and its later derivatives were adequate receivers if they had a strong enough signal, they were poor transmitters. They were faint, noisy and clumsy. Watson described using the phones as like holding a packing case in each hand. These early phones were based on the induction principle - a varying electric current passed through a coil and influenced a nearby diaphragm, or the movement of the diaphragm influenced the current flowing through the coil. The signal dropped off quickly with increasing distance. The receiver part was also a microphone, so any outside noise interfered with the received voice.

Berliner set to work, and came up with two important improvements that eventually saved the day for the Bell company. The first was an improved transmitter. He knew from the earlier work of Philipp Reis that if a wire was not screwed down tight on a terminal, the loose contact would give a variable high resistance. He used this property to design a "loose-contact" transmitter. Considering his basic knowledge of physics, the transmitter was vastly better than Bell's. It increased the volume dramatically, thus extending the range over which a telephone could work. He set up a working system between his rented room and his landlady's rooms, so he was able to refine the transmitter into a good working model. He filed for a patent on 4 June 1877. The patent described a vertical metal diaphragm with a metal ball held against it by adjustable screw pressure. The important word here is "metal". It caused Berliner many problems in the years to come. The application was delayed by the Patent Office for some years, while they sorted out Berliner's and other conflicting patents.


The patent application came to the notice of the Bell company, and Watson was sent to investigate. It is probably a measure of Bell's concern for the poor performance of his transmitter that they hired Berliner and bought the rights to his invention for ,000 as soon as Watson returned with a glowing recommendation (both of the invention and of the man). During the next seven years, Berliner worked out problems associated with the new telephone industry for the Bell company..

His second major contribution was the use of the induction coil as a "step-up" transformer . This greatly increased the voltage out of the transmitter without needing extra batteries. This in turn increased the range so the telephone could be used over practical distances. It also stopped the occasional dropouts that the loose contact transmitters were prone to if the voice was too loud. Berliner's coil was based on earlier work done by Page in the United States and probably by Callan in Ireland. Until this point the induction coil was mostly used for scientific research and dodgy "medical" treatments.

A third but greatly unrecognized contribution occurred in the early 1880s. Another young inventor, Francis Blake, invented a transmitter that offered even more potential than Berliner's. He offered it to the Bell company in exchange for shares, an arrangement that Bell took up. Blake's invention was somewhat similar to Berliner's but used a pellet of platinum and a bead of carbon for the electrodes. Berliner, with his knowledge of loose-contact transmitters, refined the transmitter into the production version that kept Bell in business through the early years. He improved the damping spring on the transmitter to stop the resonance of the large diaphragm and added an induction coil to step up the transmission. It was here that things started to go wrong for Berliner. The transmitter was originally known as the Blake-Berliner, but eventually his name was dropped from the production version because of patent problems with Edison's transmitter.

Thomas Edison had filed for a transmitter patent on 27 April 1877. His application described a loose contact between "plumbago or similar inferior conductors". The Patent Office ruled that the Edison and Berliner patents were "in interference" - that is, they conflicted with each other. To further confuse the issue, a Daniel Drawbaugh applied for a similar patent in 1880 . Eventually Drawbaugh's patent was rejected, as Edison's invention had already been in use for two years before Drawbaugh applied for his patent. The interference between Berliner and Edison was then decided. The Bell company used delaying tactics, apparently hoping to use Berliner's patent to extend their near-monopoly after Bell's original patents expired. Berliner finally got his patent in 1891 and Edison got his in 1892 - fourteen years after the patents were applied for. Until then, the Blake transmitter boxes were stamped with the names of all relevant patent holders.

Berliner's patent description was pretty broad and open to interpretation. Although he specifically mentioned metal electrodes, his description actually covered the entire principle of variable resistance generated by varying pressure. This could be read to include carbon transmitters, but Berliner did not at this point develop multiple-contact transmitters any further. It did, however, leave Edison's patent open to legal problems. In 1893 the U.S. Attorney General started a case against Berliner and the American Bell company over the patent. The case was politically motivated by Bell's commercial enemies, who wanted to have the broad patent annulled and clear up any problems with the Edison transmitter. This worked , and the patent was initially overturned, but it was then upheld in the Supreme Court. The outcome was the restriction of Berliner's patent to metal electrodes only, which left Edison's patent to cover the rest.

Meanwhile Berliner had married Cora Adler in 1881, and he became an American citizen in the process.

He was somewhat disappointed by the legal ending to what was his first invention, and in 1884 he resigned from American Bell and started work as a private researcher and inventor.










He continued to work on telephone transmitters, and in Vienna in 1883, during one of his many trips back to Europe, he exhibited the transmitter shown above. This was a refinement of the version he had designed for the Bell company, which had now been replaced by the Blake. A rounded cylinder of hard carbon presses under spring pressure against a carbon plate attached to the diaphragm. The diaphragm is lightly damped by another spring. The whole assembly is cylindrical and compact, and was capable of being built into a rather awkward handset. A Berliner transmitter was in fact used in a number of handset phones, but little is known of its performance. It must have been adequate though, as it appears on French , German and Danish phones . Although the transmitter is essentially an improved Blake-Berliner, it was used briefly in areas where the Bell company did not have patents. It should be noted that in this transmitter Berliner did away with the metal contact, and used two carbon contacts. This would have put the transmitter into direct conflict with the Edison patent in the United States.

In 1886 Berliner started working on the invention that was to gain him the most glory, the gramophone. He may have discovered this interest through working with Bell, as both Bell and Edison developed sound recording systems using cylinders of wax (in Bell's GraphoPhone) and tinfoil (in Edison's Phonograph). The disadvantage of these was that the cylinders could not be easily duplicated , and in Edison's machine they could only be played once before the delicate tinfoil covering was damaged. Berliner's approach was to develop a flat disc to hold the sound grooves. In this, he acknowledged the work of Leon Scott in 1857. Scott was able to trace sound waves onto a sheet of smoked paper. He called these tracing "Phonautographs", but had no way to replay them. This is what Berliner developed. He changed the recording system to produce grooves that could be replayed. To do so, he had to devise the physical and chemical means to produce the master disk, design a system to reproduce the disks, and develop a playback device. Some friends financed him to set up the United States Gramophone Company to produce the device in 1893, but sales were slow and it mostly sold as a toy. From the start he set out to produce a system that would be practical to bring entertainment to people, but his biggest drawback was the poor sound caused by the variable rotation of the handcranked turntable.

He was fortunate to meet engineer Elridge Johnson at this time. Johnson's Consolidated Talking Machine Company had a steady rotation clockwork motor that solved the problem and made the Gramophone a commercial proposition. Johnson liked Berliner, and introduced him to friends who provided financial backing for the two of them to form the Victor Talking Machine Company. Johnson took over distribution for Berliner. Other parts of Berliner's invention were equally important. His flat discs were made initially of coated glass, then copies were made from zinc. The production copies later changed to hard rubber, and finally to longer-lasting shellac, and so could be easily reproduced by pressing copies from a master disk. He devised a master disk cutter that packed the grooves closer together, allowing more music to fit on a disk. (Edison's Phonograph could only hold about two minutes of sound). He designed a playback needle that used the side of the stylus rather than the tip. This reduced the wear on the needle and the disk. If fine slate dust was added to the shellac mixture, the disks lasted longer, were stronger, and could "sharpen" the stylus as they were played.

The Gramophone was popular. It brought reliable music reproduction to the masses, and Berliner, who seemed to make friends easily, was able to persuade many popular artists of the time to record for him. These included Dame Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso. Berliner was a lover of music himself, and is reputed to have played piano as a backing musician for some of the earliest recordings. Edison and Bell combined their companies to produce phonographs with the best features of each, but they found it hard to compete with Berliner's longer Phonogram records, cheaper duplicating costs, and wider entertainment catalog.

In 1908, in what seemed a smart marketing move, the Victor company bought the rights to a cute painting of a dog listening to a recording. The painting, by artist Francis Barraud, was called "His Masters Voice". It became one of the most famous trademarks of the twentieth century. It was registered in 1900. The painting was originally offered to the Edison Bell Company, and the dog Nipper was painted listening to an Edison Phonograph, but that was easily changed.

Once again, Berliner ran into trouble with the commercial side of his invention. He had sold the rights to the Victor company, in which he was now only a minority shareholder. They realized that they had a good product but no marketing experience. They signed up Frank Seaman to advertise and promote the Gramophone. Seaman signed an agreement with the Columbia Phonograph company to produce the ZoneOPhone, a gramophone copy. Berliner was unhappy with this - he saw it as a sellout of his invention to a commercial rival. With Berliner threatening legal proceedings, Seaman got a court injunction that prevented Berliner selling his invention in the U.S. in competition with Seaman's exclusive agreement. Berliner, disgusted, moved himself and his equipment to Montreal in Canada and set up again.

He sold only 2000 records in his first year of operation, but business did well and he sold over two million in the next year. The early records were one-sided, with the picture of Nipper on the reverse, but by 1908 the records were double-sided.

With financial stability, Berliner was able to continue experimenting in other areas. He was a music lover, but he was disappointed by the poor acoustic qualities of the halls in which many concerts were held. He developed an acoustic tile and acoustic flooring to correct the deficiencies.

An interest in aircraft led him to develop and build a lightweight radial engine that powered a helicopter with his son Henry. It was said to have lifted two men off the ground in 1909, but soon crashed. The dates are uncertain, but by 1922 they had a working helicopter using commercial engines that they showed to the U.S. Army. The helicopter continued in development by others.

Once he had the Gramophone organised in Canada, Berliner returned to Germany in 1889 to get gramophone production organised. At first it was sold as a toy by K&R, but it soon caught the attention of scientists of the day and progressed to the status of serious entertainment. Berliner again visited Germany in 1898 to set up production in Europe. He started a new company, Berliner Grammophon Gesellschaft, to manufacture it. This was run once again by his brother Joseph, and later became Deutsche Gramophone Gesellschaft, one of the world's greatest recording companies. It is now Polygram.

While in Germany he somehow became involved in telephones yet again. The legal situation in Europe was different to the United States, and many transmitters were being made that would have been in legal trouble in the U.S. The carbon granule transmitter was coming into wide use, but it suffered from packing of the granules into the bottom of the transmitter. Berliner had invented a version in 1893 that mounted the transmitter horizontally and fed the sound into a diaphragm at the base. This kept the granules shaken up and produced an efficient transmitter that was used widely by manufacturers in Western Europe. It was called Berliner's Universal Transmitter. It is surprisingly similar to an inverted version of Edison's original patent and it is not surprising that some are marked "Use Not Licensed Under Any U.S. Patents". It is relatively unknown to collectors because it was not widely sold into the British system except by Marsh & Son in London. American Bell could have used it, but their production was locked into the Blake Berliner. They did not have the resources to retool for another transmitter. The Univeral Transmitter proved a good substitute for the Blake transmitters in Europe, and continued in production for around six years. Berliner established the Berliner Telephone Company in Upper Thames Street, London, to improve sales, but the general preference for Bell equipment or the new handsets was hard to beat.

















Left: Skeletal phone with Berliner handset. Made by the Berliner company.

Centre: Wall phone with Berliner transmitter, possibly by Russell.

Right: Battery wall set by Marsh













Left: Railways battery wall set by Marsh

Centre: Megaphone-type transmitter

Right: Railways long-distance battery wall set by Marsh.


With the growth in telephone usage, Berliner started a new company in 1900 to produce a better quality insulated wire using a process invented by Louis Hackethal. Hackethal-Draht-Gesellschaft m. b. H. was run by Hackethal and Berliner's brother Jacob. It still exists as KabelMetal, part of the K M Europe Metal A G group largely owned by Alcatel.

As well as being an inventor, Berliner turned his attention to public health matters. His interest was probably stimulated by the death of his daughter in 1890 from a gastrointestinal attack. The child mortality rate was approaching 30% and Berliner was convinced that this was due to the consumption of unpasteurised milk. He formed the Society for the Prevention of Sickness in 1891 to encourage the scalding of milk to destroy bacteria. He continued this work through the early 1900s, and it led to the adoption of milk health standards in the United States.

Berliner also believed in Womens' Rights. He endowed the Sarah Berliner Research Fellowship, named after his mother. This organisation gave Fellowship awards in many scientific fields to promising young women scientists.

He was not a man to promote himself. Although he was passionate about the things he cared for, like childrens' health, he generally lived a quiet life. There were many cases where he would have been denied the credit he was due, and it was only his many friends who kept the record straight. The Blake-Berliner transmitter was one example. Another was when the U.S. Congress planned to mistakenly give Thomas Edison a medal for the invention of the Gramophone. Berliner's many influential friends sorted that out. Defying the Patent Office evidence, some early writers produced articles declaring that it was Edison who invented the loose-contact transmitter. The President of AT&T., Theodore Vail, took it upon himself to correct that one. There did not appear to be any animosity between Berliner and Edison. They were simply two inventors working in the same areas, and Edison was the better-known, so he inadvertently got some of the credit for Berliner's work. Even so, a scrapbook held in the Library of Congress Berliner Collection contains many articles and legal details, and a note by Berliner that this information might be necessary in later years to protect his reputation. He obviously learned a lesson from Bell's legal troubles.

Even in death he preferred to maintain a low profile. He asked for a quiet inexpensive funeral, with his daughters to play some musical pieces that he loved, and some money to be given to poor mothers in his memory. He died on August 3rd, 1929, aged seventy nine.



E Berliner "The Improved Gramophone" , from "Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers" December 16 1890.

"Electricity In The Service Of Man " 1886

R O Meyer "Old Time Telephones"

G A Marco "Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the USA" 1993

S Brody "Emile Berliner : His Legacy of Innovation and Invention"

M Bellis Emile Berliner - The History of the Gramophone Website

United States Library of Congress Collection "Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry"

J Brooks "Telephone" 1975

AT&T WorldNet "Emile Berliner" "Emile Berliner - A Clear and Unique Vision"

Todays Engineer, Engineering Hall of Fame "Emile Berliner and the Making of "Ma Bell"


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