The Man Who Invented Modern Music

Emile Berliner made vinyl a mass-market reality in Montréal

Of all the architects of our modern music industry, few are more forgotten or more important than Emile Berliner. His story may be woefully under-told, but everyone who grew up buying records, every record collector, vinyl fetishist, crate digger, every DJ and listener holding out for the warmth and fidelity of analogue recording and delivery, is in his debt. At the turn of the 20th century, Berliner invented the technology behind recorded music and the means to distribute it on a mass scale. And the spiritual locus of Berliner’s achievement can be found in an out-of-the-way corner of Montréal known as Saint-Henri.

Emile (born Emil) Berliner arrived in Montréal in 1898, having already lived quite an odyssey. Born in 1851 in what was then still the Kingdom of Hanover (and is now part of Germany), he emigrated to the United States as a young man to avoid the Franco-Prussian war. He scuffled through menial jobs while gaining a foothold. Sam Brylawski, head of Recorded Sound at the Library of Congress in Washington, presents an image of Berliner at this time as an old-school self-starter. “This young man, pretty much self-educated... just rolls up his sleeves and dives into things.”

Emile Berliner with an 1877 and a 1927 microphone Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For a time, Berliner was an employee of Bell Telephone. In this period, a market-share fight between mighty Western Union (Edison’s partner) and then-tiny Bell bred an underdog tenacity that stayed with Berliner the rest of his life. Something of a prodigy in the nascent field of sound technology, at 25 years old he invented a loose-contact transmitter, essentially the first microphone. All the while, his cutting-edge explorations co-existed with prosaic bills-paying work.

One constant in Berliner’s early American years was his work on a pair of obsessions: a device on which to store re-playable music, and a device to play that music on. As early as 1890, remarkably, he had succeeded on both counts. Two years earlier, in an address to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, having just obtained a patent on his Gramophone, he had set out his shingle. “Whole evenings will be spent at home going through a long list of performances,” he said.

It’s important to have a sense of the landscape Berliner was stepping into. Thomas Edison’s 1877 patent phonograph was the first device to both record and play back sound. But it hadn’t really caught on: it was expensive, clunky, fragile and unreliable. In truth, the role of music in the average person’s life had seen little change for a century or more. The standard way of disseminating a song was via sheet music. The popularity of a song could be gauged by its sales in that form at a time when even working-class homes often boasted a piano. The era’s legacy is still with us today in the quaint use of the word “publishing” to describe a song’s copyrighted life.

Edison saw his device as a tool for dictation and business, Berliner as a domestic entertainment device.

Berliner, an amateur musician himself, must have seen a void and sensed an opportunity. What he came up with, after much trial and error, bears the kind of simplicity that only comes with true genius. In Edison’s cylinder, the machine takes the needle across the cylinder laterally; in Berliner’s great innovation, the flat shellac disc, the groove drives the needle across the record, a far more efficient dynamic. Edison’s cylinder, resistant as it was to mass production, placed extreme restrictions on the making and dissemination of recordings. With Berliner’s flat disc, plates were made from a master recording and could be reproduced and distributed at whatever rate the market demanded.

The difference in shape alone was stark: think of the challenges of storing a set of cylinders in your home or displaying them for sale – pretty much equivalent to having a collection of paper scrolls that you’d always have to be careful not to crush – and you’re some way toward appreciating one of the practical aspects of Berliner’s breakthrough.

Perhaps even more telling, though, was how the two inventors’ visions diverged in terms of implementation. Edison saw his device as a tool for dictation and business, ironic considering that for many years coin-operated phonographs in bars and other public gathering places were what kept the phonograph viable. Berliner, in sharp contrast, foresaw his invention as a domestic entertainment device. Indeed, he appeared to see it, at first, as a kind of glorified music box, a step up from the player piano as a source of self-generating home diversion at a time when commercial radio was still some 20 years in the future. Evan Eisenberg, in his book The Recording Angel, quotes an early promotional notice, written by Berliner himself, in which the gramophone is described in terms that make it sound like a miraculous visitation: a machine that “talks distinctly, sings any song with expression, plays the piano, cornet, banjo and in fact any musical instrument with precision and pleasing effect.”

Making recordings on Emile Berliner's Gramophone, c 1887 Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images

As for the gramophone itself, a key hurdle was the development of a motor that could maintain a constant speed and be close to silent. Once that was perfected, Berliner was off to the races. The first gramophones to the market weren’t cheap, but arguably they weren't outrageously expensive either. In 1900 they were being advertised in newspapers for $18. As Brylawski points out, that’s roughly the price of an iPad today, adjusted for inflation. At any price, people were buying. In the battle of the formats, the leader was becoming clear. Change moved slowly in those days: cylinders clung to life until the late 1920s. But Berliner’s advantage was ultimately decisive.

In his Noise In The Groove: The Origin of Sound Recording podcast, Ramsey Janini points out a seldom-remarked class paradox at the heart of Berliner’s model. “The gramophone implied a studio, where only certain sounds could be recorded, deliberately and with a strong sense of investment, of in some way needing to justify the substantial cost.” The paradox was that this inherently elitist setup entailed a distribution outreach that meant poorer, previously neglected or isolated audiences – for jazz, blues, country – would now be served to an unprecedented degree. An industry that had favored classical and opera was now wide open.

For all his drive, Berliner was a sensitive soul, perhaps not ideally suited to the politics and deception of the inventors’ world as represented by canny figures like Thomas Edison. The world of nascent communications was a thicket of litigation, rife with opportunists and shady operators. There was scarcely a time when Berliner wasn’t entangled in some battle or other to protect his creations, and he didn’t always win. His struggles were partly down to the seemingly capricious nature of patent-granting in those frontier days: he was first awarded, then denied, the patent for the aforementioned transmitter. There was also a degree of plain bad luck: in 1897 the building that housed his laboratory in Washington, D.C. burned down. (It’s a mark of just what an upstart Berliner still was in the broader culture that his company didn’t merit a mention in newspaper accounts of the fire.)

Any musician who has ever received a royalty check can offer thanks to Emile Berliner.

Hoping to find a place where he could further his entrepreneurial instincts, Berliner moved north to Montréal. He initially set up shop for his Berliner Gram-o-phone Company in a series of temporary homes and then, as demand grew, in a newly built and radically designed industrial space on the corner of present-day Lenoir and Saint-Antoine Streets, in Saint-Henri. There, Berliner finally had a facility extensive enough to accommodate not only manufacturing, but also a recording studio. Having all aspects of the operation under the same roof enabled rapid expansion. Retail outlets were opened around the city, including a flagship store on one of Montréal’s most celebrated thoroughfares, Ste-Catherine Street.

Montréal’s proximity to the major markets of the eastern seaboard, and its established standing as a launching stage to all points west, made it an ideal distribution hub. At a crucial juncture in the recording industry’s development, the city found itself acting as a crucial connection between European and North American markets. Berliner’s facilities meant that touring musicians now required a stop in Montréal, where they would take the opportunity to record new music for distribution. It also meant that there was no lack of work for the city’s local musicians, who either provided backing bands for international stars, or were themselves given the opportunity to record music. At a time when recorded music was still viewed as an addendum to the true focus of sales – the gramophone that served as a piece of furniture in people’s homes – the wider the range of music that Berliner made available, the better.

Very early on, when his mind must have been racing with the potential for vast expansion, Berliner took into account the welfare and integrity of those whose voices he would be disseminating. “Prominent singers, speakers and performers may derive an income on royalties on the sale of their (recordings),” he said during a speech in Philadelphia, “and valuable plates may be printed and registered to protect against unauthorized publication.” In other words, it’s not just lovers of recorded music who owe Berliner a debt. Any musician who has ever received a royalty check can offer thanks to the man from Hanover. In a business that would sadly become notorious for exploitation, Berliner was already a maverick.

Journals from shortly before his death in 1929 reveal a man still upset by Edison’s greater fame.

Before long, Emile went back to the United States to pursue new ventures. He left the business in the capable hands of his son Henry, under whom the company evolved into the Canadian arm of RCA Victor. In 1919, eldest son Herbert formed the Compo Company, Canada’s first independent label, in nearby Lachine. Follow each of those paths through the proceeding decades, through the twists and turns of an ever-evolving industry, and you end up respectively at today’s Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group.

Off the frontlines of the commercial music scene, Berliner was far from a spent creative force. He developed a rotary-engine helicopter in 1922, and an acoustic tile a couple of years later. As a proto-feminist philanthropist, he established a fellowship for women scientists. As a crusader for public hygiene, he led the fight – contentious in its day – for the pasteurization of milk. It would be nice to think he spent his twilight years happy with all he’d achieved, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Journals from shortly before his death in 1929 reveal a man still upset by Edison’s greater fame.

It would be wrong, though, to see Berliner’s story as tragic. Since 1996, the RCA Building on Lenoir and Saint-Antoine – long since sold off by the parent company and leased to an assortment of commercial concerns – has been home to the Emile Berliner Museum, a small but immaculately curated space devoted to the man and his work. Visiting these two rooms, seeing some of Berliner’s brainchildren in the very place where the man himself once worked, is like stepping back in time. If you’re a lover of records, something else is likely to hit you too. While in Montréal, Emile Berliner gave birth to the idea of an extensive home library of recorded music, and for over a century that model has reigned unchallenged.

By Ian McGillis on October 24, 2016

On a different note