History of the Gramophone

Emile Berliner brought the sound recorder and player to the masses.

Gramophone
Multi-bits/ Stone/ Getty Images

Early attempts to design a consumer sound or music playing gadget began in 1877. That year, Thomas Edison invented his tin-foil phonograph, which played recorded sounds from round cylinders. Unfortunately, the sound quality on the phonograph was bad and each recording only lasted for only one play.

Edison's phonograph was followed by Alexander Graham Bell's graphophone. The graphophone used wax cylinders, which could be played many times.

However, each cylinder had to be recorded separately, making the mass reproduction of the same music or sounds impossible with the graphophone.

The Gramophone and Records

On November 8, 1887, Emile Berliner, a German immigrant working in Washington D.C., patented a successful system for sound recording. Berliner was the first inventor to stop recording on cylinders and start recording on flat disks or records.

The first records were made of glass. They were then made using zinc and eventually plastic. A spiral groove with sound information was etched into the flat record. To play sounds and music, the record was rotated on the gramophone. The "arm" of the gramophone held a needle that read the grooves in the record by vibration and transmitted the information to the gramophone speaker. (See larger view of gramophone)

Berliner's disks (records) were the first sound recordings that could be mass-produced by creating master recordings from which molds were made.

From each mold, hundreds of disks were pressed.

The Gramophone Company

Berliner founded "The Gramophone Company" to mass manufacture his sound disks (records) as well as the gramophone that played them. To help promote his gramophone system, Berliner did a couple of things. First, he persuaded popular artists to record their music using his system.

Two famous artists who signed early on with Berliner's company were Enrico Caruso and Dame Nellie Melba. The second smart marketing move Berliner made came in 1908 when he used Francis Barraud's painting of "His Master's Voice" as his company's official trademark.

Berliner later sold the licensing rights to his patent for the gramophone and method of making records to the Victor Talking Machine Company (RCA), which later made the gramophone a successful product in the United States. Meanwhile, Berliner continued doing business in other countries. He founded the Berliner Gram-o-phone Company in Canada, the Deutsche Grammophon in Germany and the U.K based Gramophone Co., Ltd.

Berliner's legacy also lives on in his trademark, which depicts a picture of a dog listening to his master's voice being played from a gramophone. The dog's name was Nipper.

The Automatic Gramophone 

Berliner worked on improving the playback machine with Elridge Johnson. Johnson patented a spring motor for the Berliner gramophone. The motor made the turntable revolve at an even speed and eliminated the need for hand cranking of the gramophone.

The trademark "His Master's Voice" was passed on to Johnson by Emile Berliner.

Johnson began to print it on his Victor record catalogs and then on the paper labels of the disks. Soon, "His Master's Voice" became one of the best-known trademarks in the world and is still in use today.

Work on the Telephone and the Microphone 

In 1876, Berliner invented a microphone used as a telephone speech transmitter. At the U.S. Centennial Exposition, Berliner saw a Bell Company telephone demonstrated and was inspired to find ways to improve the newly invented telephone. The Bell Telephone Company was impressed with what the inventor came up with and bought Berliner's microphone patent for $50,000.

Some of Berliner's other inventions include a radial aircraft engine, a helicopter and acoustical tiles.