This Day in Jewish History |

1904: An Inventor Sets Up Shop in Canada

German-born inventor Emile Berliner, who largely lived in the U.S., helped develop the telephone and recording industries.

David B. Green
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Emile Berliner with disc record gramophone.Credit: Wikipedia
David B. Green

On April 4, 1904, German-born inventor Emile Berliner incorporated his Berliner Gramophone Company of Canada in Montreal. Berliner, a multi-faceted and largely self-trained engineer and entrepreneur, played a key role in developing both the telephone and the recording industries, as well numerous other technological products, but his involvement in these nascent, potentially lucrative industries guaranteed that much of his time would be spent in legal battles over patents and manufacturing rights. His decision to move his business to Canada was precipitated by an injunction in the United States, where he lived, preventing him from manufacturing or selling his phonograph there.

Emile Berliner was born on May 20, 1851, in Hannover, in what is today Germany, to a Jewish family with a long history in the city. His formal education ended at age 14, when he began to work to help support his family. By 1870, just prior to the start of the Franco-Prussian War, and facing possible conscription into the Prussian army, he accepted the offer of a family friend to travel to the U.S. He settled in Washington, D.C., which remained his long-term home, although, in his initial years in the States, he worked in a number of different businesses and moved around as opportunities presented themselves.

During a stint as a janitor in a New York laboratory, Berliner began taking night classes at the Cooper Institute, and became interested in acoustics and telephony. It was at this time, in 1876, that Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone. Berliner worked independently to improve both the microphone and the transmitter of the Bell phone, developments that, after lengthy negotiations, he sold to Bell. Matters were complicated by the fact that Bell was competing in the fledgling field with Western Union, which used technology developed by Thomas A. Edison. Berliner went to work for Bell Telephone, but in 1878 and 1879, he suffered two nervous breakdowns, for which he had to be hospitalized.

In 1881, Berliner married Cora Adler, another German immigrant, whom he had met a decade earlier, on his second day in Washington. The two eventually had seven children. In the same years, Berliner moved on to develop a linoleum-backed floor covering he called the Parquet Carpet, and then into the new field of sound recording. Whereas Edison’s Speaking Phonograph Company depended on the use of a cylinder for the reproduction of sound with its “graphophone,” Berliner pioneered the invention of a flat disk that played sound from a horizontal, rather than vertical, groove. This was the technology that eventually prevailed in the market, both through Berliner’s collaboration with the Victor Talking Machine Company and his own Berliner Gramophone firm. (It was Berliner who convinced Victor to purchase the rights to use the image of the dog Nipper listening to “His Master’s Voice” on a gramophone, painted by English artist Francis Barraud, for its marketing efforts in the U.S.)

Emile Berliner.Credit: Wikipedia

When a serious dispute with his sales agent in the U.S. led to the injunction against him, Berliner moved his business to Canada, in 1904. During the first decade of the new century, he also became interested in vertical flight. This led him to begin extensive work on building a helicopter (his Gyro Motor Company produced the rotary engine he invented). He also developed acoustic tiles and a high-performance loom.

When not preoccupied with business, Berliner took on social and humanitarian issues. After one of his children nearly died from an intestinal disorder, he became an advocate for clean milk for children. Berliner also wrote health pamphlets for children, he provided the money for establishment of a tuberculosis sanatorium in Washington, and set up a university research scholarship program for women. As a musician, he wrote the melody for “The Columbian Anthem,” which was even considered as a possible national anthem for Berliner’s adoptive home.

He also was an early advocate of Zionism in the U.S., writing a number of publications on the subject, including “Zionism and the American Spirit,” and another called “A Study Towards the Solution of Industrial Problems in the New Zionist Commonwealth.”

Berliner died on August 3, 1929, and was buried at Rock Creek Cemetery, in Washington, D.C. His instructions for his funeral directed his family to make it modest, because “elaborate funerals are a waste of money…. Give some money to some poor mothers with babies and bury me about sunset.”