Technical GRAMMY Award: Emile Berliner

Paul Charosh pays tribute to the audio pioneer behind the gramophone and microphone
  • Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
    Emile Berliner
January 18, 2014 -- 8:00 am PST
By Paul Charosh / GRAMMY.com

(In addition to the GRAMMY Awards, The Recording Academy presents Special Merit Awards recognizing contributions of significance to the recording field, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trustees Award and Technical GRAMMY Award. In the days leading up to the 56th GRAMMY Awards, GRAMMY.com will present the tributes to the 2014 Special Merit Awards recipients.)

Emile Berliner was born in 1851 in Hanover, Germany, emigrated to the United States in 1870, and settled in Washington, D.C. During this decade a number of inventions of lasting importance were patented, including the telephone and the phonograph. Berliner's restless, inventive mind focused on these devices and he devoted his energies to improving them. 

His initial concern was with the telephone. Berliner wanted to develop a more efficient transmission and reception process and make the telephone a practical means of communication. He is known to his biographer, Frederic Wile, as "the maker of the microphone" and today an award with this title is offered annually by the Berliner family. During the 1920s modified versions of the microphone became routinely incorporated into the recording process.

Berliner's interest in sound recording prompted an attempt to improve upon Edison's phonograph and in 1887 he received the first of several patents. At this time those working with the phonograph believed it could become a voice transcription device useful in business offices and did not see its potential as a means of home entertainment.   Sound waves were cut vertically into revolving wax cylinders. These objects were fragile, difficult to store, and subject to attracting mold which rendered them unplayable. No method of reproducing copies of a specific cylinder existed. If a cylinder holding sound that was worth preserving was rendered unplayable, one had to record another one.

Berliner recorded on a disc, and sound waves were cut laterally, thus eliminating a source of sound distortion intrinsic in the vertical-cut process. Discs had a center hole and were held in place by a spindle in the center of the turntable on which the disc rested. His discs did not deteriorate with time, were easy to store, and if not abused, sound today as they did when recorded and sold during the 1890s. Berliner's device also allowed for the creation of a master disc from which many identical copies could be made. Berliner also understood the value of the gramophone as a source of entertainment and in 1895 he procured capital from a group of businessmen to found the Berliner Gramophone Company, which was instituted to manufacture Berliner's sound discs and the gramophone that played them. 

Though he passed away in 1929, Berliner's vision encouraged the development of the modern record industry, dependent through most of the 20th century on profits accrued from the sale of identically recorded discs distributed in mass quantities.

(Paul Charosh is a widely published researcher of historic sound recordings and 19th century American popular music. A retired educator, he taught for many years in the Sociology and Computer Information Science departments at Brooklyn College. In 2012 he published Berliner Gramophone Records In America: A Discography (Denver: Mainspring Press), a reference for archivists and advanced collectors.)

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