Emile Berliner - Biography

Emile Berliner - The Early Years 1851 - 1875

Emile Berliner
Emile Berliner.

Emile (originally Emil) Berliner was born in Hanover, Germany, on May 20, 1851. He was one of thirteen children born to Samuel and Sarah Fridman Berliner, two of whom died in infancy. His father was a merchant and a Talmudic scholar, and his mother was an amateur musician. From both parents Berliner and his siblings inherited a great sense of integrity and a pride in accomplishment.

Following a few years of school in Hanover, Berliner was sent to nearby Wolfenb├╝ttel to attend the Samsonschule from which he graduated in 1865 at the age of fourteen.

According to his own later statement, this marked the end of his formal schooling. Berliner then spent several years at odd jobs in Hanover helping to support the large Berliner family. Enticed by the offer of a clerkship in a store partly owned by a man named Behrend, a Hanoverian who had emigrated to the United States some time earlier, and perhaps by a desire to escape the military duty that faced most young men in the year of the Franco-Prussian War, Berliner persuaded his parents to allow him to accept the job offer and to emigrate to America. In late March 1870 he left Hanover.

The dry-goods store for which he was destined was located in Washington, D.C. For three years Berliner clerked for Gotthelf, Behrend and Co. until in 1873 he decided a better opportunity awaited him in New York City. There Berliner again took up onerous jobs during the day while trying to improve himself by studying privately at night at the Cooper Institute.

After a brief career as a "drummer" (traveling salesman) for a "gents' furnishings" (men's clothing and accessories) establishment in Milwaukee, Berliner again went back to New York where this time he was most fortunate in obtaining a position as general cleanup man in the laboratory of Constantine Fahlberg, the discoverer of saccharine.

This experience in a research laboratory fired Berliner's ambition, and he decided that science, research, and invention were to be his destiny.

In 1876, Berliner returned to what was now Behrend and Co. in Washington and resumed his clerkship. That was the year of the American centennial celebrations, and among the outstanding events that took place in Washington was a demonstration of the new telephone of Alexander Graham Bell. Berliner saw the instrument for the first time and was filled with enthusiasm. He commenced to study the telephone.

To his inquiring mind one of the instrument's weaknesses was its transmitter. Working alone in his rooming house he fashioned a new type of transmitter which he called a "loose-contact" transmitter, a type of microphone, which increased the volume of the transmitted voice. That he was able to do this while still possessing only a rudimentary knowledge of electricity and physics was quite astounding. When the members of the newly-formed American Bell Telephone Company were advised that a young and entirely unknown man in Washington had submitted a caveat (Berliner wrote it himself without the aid of a patent attorney) to the Patent Office covering a new transmitter, they could hardly believe it. Thomas Watson, the Mr. Watson of telephone fame, was sent to Washington to make inquiries. He returned such a glowing report of the transmitter and of Berliner himself that the company offered to buy the rights to the invention and to hire Berliner as a research assistant.

For the next seven years, Berliner was employed by the ABT Co., first in New York City and then in Boston. During those years Berliner worked on numerous problems associated with the fledgling telephone industry and developed into a first-class theoretical electrician.

While working in Boston in 1881, Berliner became an American citizen and in the same year married a young woman of German descent named Cora Adler.

In 1884 Berliner decided to set himself up as a private researcher and inventor, his cherished dream. He resigned from the American Bell Telephone Company and he and Cora left Boston and set up housekeeping in Washington, D.C.

In his small house in Washington, Berliner began working on additional improvements to Bell's telephone, selling the rights to his patents to the telephone company. Then 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.

Among his other inventions were: