The Early Gramophone

1887 Nov. 8 from Emile Berliner
1887 Nov. 12 from Scrapbook
1888 May 16 from Emile Berliner
1888 May 16 from Emile Berliner
1888 Aug. 18 from Scrapbook
1894 from Emile Berliner
1895 Feb. 19 from Emile Berliner
1895 from Treasures
1895 from Emile Berliner
1896 May 16 from Scrapbook
Emile Berliner began working on a recording machine in Washington D.C. after seeing the graphophone unveiled by Tainter and Bell in 1886. He set up a laboratory in his home on Columbia Road, and showed an early device to the patent attorney Joseph Lyons by April 1887 that recorded a lateral pattern on lamp-blacked paper wrapped on a cylinder, similar to the phonautograph of Leon Scott, but with an oil applied to the surface mixed with lampblack to make a fatty ink better able to be engraved with a cutting stylus, then producing a stereotyped copy engraved into metal by a photoengraving process, and played back on another device with a stylus following the lateral grooves and making a diaphragm vibrate. For his patent application, Berliner created the name "gramophone" from the terms used by Leon Scott for his "phonautograms" and "phonautographic records."

The gramophone U.S. patent 372,786 was filed by Emile Berliner May 4, 1887, and granted Nov. 8, 1887. During 1887 Berliner developed the idea of making a negative matrix directly from the glass lampblacked disc and produced zinc copies. The earliest known Berliner disc is one of these zinc copies dated Oct. 25, 1887. This new process was described in his British patent 15,232, applied for Nov. 7, 1887.

The first news story of Berliner's invention was published by Electrical World in a two-page article Nov. 12, 1887. It described a device driven by a weight box and controlled by a paddle-wheeled governor that recorded four minutes of sound on an 11-inch glass disc at 30 rpm.

After Thanksgiving 1887, Werner Suess joined Berliner in his lab as an assistant to perfect the device that was still only experimental. Suess helped make an improved device with the reproducer mounted on a pivot arm that Berliner used in a public lecture and demostration at the Franklin Institute May 16, 1888. The discs played at this lecture were copper duplicates electroplated from wax originals.

Berliner in August 1888 began to use celluloid from J. W. Hyatt to make his duplicate copies rather than zinc, but the celluloid wore down too quickly. Some of these Hyatt discs have survived in the Smithsonian Museum. Berliner described his improvements in the article "The Improved Gramophone" in Electrical World Aug. 18, 1888.

By July 1889, Berliner used hard vulcanized rubber rather than celluloid for his disc copies. By December 1888 he had improved his device to begin making plans for sale to the public. His first efforts would be in Europe and he departed on a trip in August 1889. He gave a demonstration of his device Nov. 26, 1889 at the Electro-Technical Society in Berlin. The first pressing of 25,000 single-sided 5-inch Berliner discs was made in Europe in late 1889, but "the sound quality was so dubious that a small rectagular paper label imprinted with the actual words was glued to the back." (Koenigsberg 1990 p. lvi)

Berliner arranged for the first gramophones to be made in Europe during the trip to Germany 1889-90. According to Raymond Wile, "It was in Germany that the first commercial beginnings of the gramophone occurred - presumably in July 1890. The toy makers Kammer and Reinhardt in Waltershausen (Thuringia) began to market small hand-propelled gramophones and a talking-doll. For the doll, a small 8 centimeter (just over 3") disc was prepared, and for the regular machine a 12.5 centimeter (just under 5-inch) disc. The records were available in three substances during the period they were marketed. Without adequate documentation it is impossible to determine if the copies made in hard rubber or celluloid were contemporaneous, or which substances had precedence. For an additional price, zinc discs also were available. The records were produced by two companies, one known solely by the initials GFKC, the other was the Rhenische Gummi und Celluloid Fabrik Werkes of Necharan, Mannheim. The machines and records also were imported into England, notably by J. Lewis Young, but were available for only a few years in both countries" (Wile 1990 p. 16). As a result, Berliner's efforts led to the establishment of Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (DGG, later to become PolyGram).

After returning to the U.S., Berliner in 1891 paid a New York clock maker to produce a spring mechanism to power his gramophone. Berliner created the American Gramophone Co. on Apr. 23, 1891, but it was a short-lived company. A new assistant Edward L. Wilson developed a coin-operated gramophone in 1891, filed for a patent Dec. 3, granted Apr. 5, 1892. But Wilson left by 1894.

In April 1893 Berliner transferred all patents to a new company, the United States Gramophone Co., moved to a new lab at 1205 G Street NW in Washington D.C., hired Fred Gaisberg to record talented singers. According to Gaisberg, "Professional phonograph vocalists of established reputation like George J. Gaskin, the Irish tenor, Johnny Meyers, the baritone, and Dan Quinn, the comedian, were expensive, but they had loud clear voices and provided us with effective records of 'Down went McGinty to the Bottom of the Sea,' 'Anchored,' 'Sweet Marie,' 'Comrades' and so forth. We averaged up by employing lower-paid local talent secured from the beer-gardens and street corners of Washington. [These included such individuals as the monologist and former Indian Medicine Troupe member George Graham and his side kick John O'Terrell.]" (Wile 1993 p. 180)

In 1894 Berliner opened a factory and showroom at 109 North Charles Street in Baltimore. The flat record size was standardized at 7 inches, and 2 gramophone models were produced with electric motors in addition to the hand-cranked model. By the fall of 1894, Berliner's company had sold 1000 machines and 25,000 records. Berliner published his first list of gramophone discs for sale, at 60 cents each, 6.875-inch diameter (after 1895 are 7-inch), 2 minutes in duration, made of celluloid (after 1895 in hard vulcanized rubber), one-sided, with name and date stamped in center (paper labels after 1900).

In 1895 Berliner received patent 534,543, filed March 30, 1892, and granted Feb. 19, 1895. According to Allen Koenigsberg, the most important statement in this patent was Claim 5, the "reproducing stylus shaped for engagement with [the grooves of] said record and free to be vibrated and propelled by the same, . . ." and this self-driven, zig-zag feature "later became Victor's most valuable patent, in glorious dominance the full 17 years (1895-1912)" (Koenigsberg 1990 p. xxxvii). This patent victory allowed Berliner to seek new investors to expand production. He signed an agreement with William C. Jones who organized the new Berliner Gramophone Co. chartered Oct. 8, and sold a territorial license to Frank Seaman who formed the New York Gramophone Co. to sell records and machines in New York and New Jersey. Other licenses were sold to the New England Gramophone Co. and to the Gramophone Co. Ltd. in Britain founded by William Barry Owen in 1897. The first London discs were made on August 8, 1898, including a piano record by a Mr. Castle, and a cornet record by C. Burgess, and four by the clarinetist A.A. Umbach.

In 1896, Berliner contracted with Eldridge Johnson to develop an improved spring motor for an improved gramophone described in an article in Scientific American May 16, 1896. Johnson turned to machinist Levi Montross to help him manufacture a spring-motor gramophone for the Berliner company, and they filled the first order of 200 machines that Berliner requested Aug. 10 to be delivered in 60 days at $4 each wholesale. Montross received patent 598,529 for his design Feb. 8, 1898.

By October 1896, Berliner changed from vulcanized rubber to shellac records, using material from the Duranoid Co. of Newark NJ. Frank Seaman organized the National Gramophone Co. Oct. 19 to expand the sales and production of gramophones and records. "Berliner's best year for record sales was 1898 when he sold, mainly through Frank Seaman's National Gramophone Co., 713,753 discs" (Koenigsberg 1990 p. xxxvii).

In 1898, Eldridge Johnson received patent 601,198 on his gramophone March 22, 1898, filed Aug. 19, 1897. It was this patent that "effectively launched the disc talking machine in America" (Koenigsberg 1990 p. xli). Johnson was able to sell his own machines through his Consolidated Talking Machine Co., defeat Frank Seaman in a patent dispute, create the Victor Talking Machine Co. in 1901 and join with Columbia to create a disc monopoly for many years. The "Berliner" and "gramophone" names disappeared in the United States and were replaced by Victor and the victrola.


Stars & Stripes from Berliner Recordings
1894 List of Plates from Berliner
Arapaho Ghost Dance from Berliner Recordings

Recording Technology History | Berliner Scrapbook | More Berliner images | this page revised August 6, 2004 by Steven Schoenherr