Émile Berliner and the birth of the Grammys

Love ’em or loathe ’em, the Grammy Awards in the US are one of the biggest events on the annual music calendar.

The first were given out in 1959, and they were very nearly called the Eddies, in honour of American inventor Thomas Alva Edison, a pioneer in the invention of recording devices.

The organisers eventually settled on the Gramophone Awards, or Grammys, in recognition of the importance of the transformative recording system developed by German-born inventor Émile Berliner.

The US Library of Congress, which has a rich online collection of information about Berliner, says that “in 1886 he began working on the invention that was to prove his most important contribution to the world. This was the development of the gramophone, the recording and reproduction of sound by means of disc records”.

However, before the gramophone, Berliner tinkered with an invention that profoundly affected the development of another important device, the telephone. Wired magazine, in a 2010 article, describes Berliner inventing “a new kind of microphone”.

“Alexander Graham Bell had already invented his telephone, but without Berliner’s carbon-disk or carbon-button microphone, telephones would have sounded terrible for decades,” it says. “And they may not have been capable of surmounting such great distances, hindering one of humanity’s most important advances.”

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Berliner with the model of the first phonograph machine he invented. Credit: National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)

The article explains how Berliner “improved on the existing design by adding a layer of carbon particles in between two contacts, one of which acted as a diaphragm for catching sound waves. Movements of the diaphragm created varying pressure on the carbon particles, allowing more or less electricity to pass between the contacts.

“This process converted sound waves into electricity more accurately than any other microphone could at the time. It became commonplace in telephones, and even radio, until the appearance of the condenser microphone in the mid-1920s.”

It must be pointed out that Edison claimed the idea of using carbon in a transmitter was his, and after a long legal battle a court ruled in 1901 that Berliner’s patent was invalid and gave Edison full rights to the invention.

Nonetheless, microphone and gramophone are pretty fair achievements for someone who, according to the Library of Congress, ended his formal education at 14.

Berliner was born in Hanover, Germany, on 20 May 1851, one of 13 children. After leaving school he helped support his family by taking odd jobs, but in 1870 a family friend who had emigrated to the US offered him a position in his dry-goods store, so he moved to Washington, DC.

Three years later he decided to try his luck in New York City, where he landed a job as a janitor in the laboratory of Constantine Fahlberg, one of the discoverers of the sugar-substitute saccharine.

“This experience in a research laboratory fired Berliner’s ambition, and he decided that science, research, and invention were to be his destiny,” the Library of Congress says.

When representatives of the American Bell Telephone Company became aware of Berliner’s transmitter, they offered to buy the rights to the invention and to hire Berliner as a research assistant.

In 1881 he became an American citizen, and in 1884 he went out on his own as a private researcher and inventor.

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Émile-Berliner Museum display in Montreal, Canada.

The Library of Congress archives go into great detail about Berliner and his “many trials and errors developing the gramophone”.

There were already several devices under development, including Edison’s phonograph and the Volta Laboratory’s graphophone, both of which used vertically placed foil or wax-coated cylinders to record sound.

Berliner’s crucial innovation was to settle on a horizontally placed disc on which sounds were recorded and played back using a lateral method in which a needle in a groove moved left to right, rather than up and down as in Edison’s vertical cylinders.

He called the complete process – the machines for etching the discs and replaying the sounds they contained – the gramophone, and tried several materials for his records, including celluloid, hard rubber, and finally a shellac compound.

Berliner began to gather patents for his gramophone in 1887 and by the early 1890s, through a variety of licensing arrangements, the Berliner Gramophone Company was doing business, starting in Germany and Britain, and eventually the US.

He eventually lost control of these companies but up until his death, on 3 August 1929 at his home in Washington, DC, he continued to come up with new products, including a patent for a type of tile that could be affixed to walls and ceilings, to improve the acoustics of rooms; and a prototype of a helicopter with a rotary engine.

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