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Figure 3 (p. 10)-First Talking Machine (Gramophone) Exhibited in 1888.


Figure 4 (p. 12)-The Instrument pictured above is very similar to the model which Mr. Whitaker brought to Mr. Johnson in February of 1896.

The Victor Talking Machine Company

chapter three
Emile Berliner

Emile Berliner was born in Hanover, Germany on May 20, 1851, the fourth child in a family of eleven. As a boy of 19, he went to Washington, D.C., where a job as a dry-goods clerk had been found for him by a former Hanover neighbor. During the next ten years, he spent a good part of his time peddling haberdashery along the Mississippi, but some time was spent in New York working for a chemist. He attended Cooper Institute in the evenings for awhile, and was greatly influenced by the book, A Synopsis of Physics and Meteorology. He had no formal education.

He became interested in the telephone as a result of the publicity it received at the Centennial Exposition of 1876. The "puttering" which he did, while working in the dry-goods store, finally enabled him to evolve the loose contact principle which is still used in the mouthpiece (transmitter) of the telephone. He sold this invention to Alexander Graham Bell for $75,000 plus a retainer of $5,000 a year. This invention, and that of the continuous current transformer, brought him great professional prestige both in this country and in Germany where he was accepted and received by Von Siemens, Von Helmholtz, and other scientific notables of that important period of academic and scientific development.

The Berliner Process

Since the telephone men with whom Berliner had been working-Bell, Edison, Tainter-all became actively interested in the reproduction of sound around 1887, it is understandable that Mr. Berliner's attention would also be attracted to this subject.

He approached it from a new angle. Whereas Edison used the principle of indenting metal foil (Hill and Dale), and the Bells and Tainter cut the groove in a wax cylinder (also Hill and Dale), Mr. Berliner etched the sound in a metal disc, using the zig-zag pattern of Scott's original Phonautograph. The metal disc was coated with an acid resistant material. During the recording process, the pattern of the record groove was cleared by a stylus (attached to a flexible diaphragm) which removed the acid resistant material from the disc, thus exposing the metal to the subsequent acid etching process. The disc was then used as a master to make stampers from which duplicate records could be pressed in material that was plastic when heated and hard when cooled. It is interesting to note that, while the Berliner patent is generally supposed to have rested on the disc type of record as opposed to the Edison and Bell cylinders, the fact is that the form of the record was a matter of judgment and choice. The early patent situation was such that both Edison and Bell could have used the disc form had they so elected. (p. 9)

(Figure 3)

Commercially, the Berliner process had five important advantages. Of the five, the first two below gave the patent its basic value.

1. A record groove which formed track to guide the sound box across the record. (No propelling mechanism was needed.)
2. Grooves with hard walls which provided support for the needle and resulted in louder reproduction and protection against wear.
3. Ease and economy in making a large number of duplicate records.
4. Better musical results from the lateral process of recording.
5. Ease and economy in shipment and storage.

On the other hand, the Berliner process left something to be desired from the standpoint of extraneous noise. The walls and edges of the groove did not come out of the etching process as smooth as could be desired.

On May 16, 1888, Mr. Berliner added to his prestige by demonstrating his invention to the Franklin Institute. He called the instrument the "Gramophone" and the recording process, "Voice Etching." The feature for which the invention was best known was the elimination of the propelling mechanism.

Mr. Berliner assigned all of his patents to the United States Gramophone Company with an office in Harper's Ferry. West Virginia. Such efforts as were made to promote the sale of the original hand-powered Gramophone were not financially successful. The instruments, which were made by outside vendors, were used in exhibitions and demonstrations as a scientific novelty. Since Mr. Berliner was the principal owner of the company, he lost a considerable amount of money.

The Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia

In the Fall of 1895, the Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia was set up as a manufacturing unit with a capital of $25,000. They had an exclusive license for the entire United States, with the exception of the District of Columbia, for the use of the Berliner patents. Mr. Berliner was a minority stockholder in the Berliner Company. Mr. Thomas S. Parvin, a structural steel executive, became president of the new company. The other stockholders were Max Bierbaum, Joseph Goldsmith, William Armstrong, and Thomas Latta.

The hand-powered product which they were offering was, again, not being well received by the public. They were steadily losing money and, by the following February, came to the conclusion that their only hope of making a success of the venture would be to equip the instrument with a spring motor. The search for a satisfactory spring motor led them to Eldridge R. Johnson (Fig. 4).

From what has been said, it should be understood that Mr. Johnson's initial, and subsequent, routine contact was not with Mr. Berliner, as has been generally supposed, but with Mr. Parvin and his associates of the Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia. (p. 11)

(Figure 4)

The Berliner Patent

For twelve or fifteen years prior to 1912, the "Berliner Patent" held basic control over the disc-type phonograph. During most of this time, the patent was on the defensive and its complications were shrouded in mystery to all but the legal experts.

The importance of the patent was generally recognized, and there was a great deal of curiosity as to what was behind the curtain. There were many conjectures, of course, but most of them were wrong.

The story which follows is based on information gathered, with the assistance of Mr. Joseph Sanders (Mr. Berliner's nephew), from many sources. It endeavors to reconstruct the case accurately and without bias. The technical description of the invention and the development of the Berliner disc was extracted from depositions prepared by Mr. Joseph Lyons-a famous turn-of-the-century patent expert-in connection with a suit filed by the American Graphophone Company against the National Gramophone Company and Frank Seaman.

The Berliner disc Gramophone record was covered by several U.S. patents, the most important of which was No. 534,543. It was issued in 1895, adjudicated in 1909, and expired in 1912. Patent 534,543 was a major factor in Victor's background and the foundation on which the phonograph industry was built.

In the late 1890's, Mr. Johnson questioned the patent's validity for the reasons which appear below. However, by the Fall of 1901, when Victor was incorporated, he was satisfied that it would be sustained. It therefore became a principal consideration in assigning a substantial participation in the new company to Mr. Berliner's Consolidated Talking Machine Company of America. Prior to this, there had been an understanding that Mr. Johnson would pay accumulated royalties if, and when, the patent was adjudicated.

The patent covered a disc record with an etched groove of substantially uniform depth, and laterally cut in a hard material. The advantages were: (1) better performance, (2) more volume, (3) greater durability, (4) much greater ease of duplication, storage, and shipment, and (5) the elimination of the mechanism previously needed to guide the sound box across the record.

This was the vision which Mr. Berliner had in March or April of 1887 when he started to develop an etching process. He knew that Leon Scott had used the lateral type of tracing thirty years earlier in his physics laboratory experiment which demonstrated that sound could be recorded. He also knew that Edison had done some experimental work in indenting hill-and-dale recordings on disc originals, and that Bell and Tainter had also done similar experimenting with cutting hill-and-dale disc recordings. (p. 13) However, no one had made a lateral tracing through an acid resisting film on a polished surface, nor cut a lateral groove in a disc, nor visualized the advantages of the disc over the cylinder in commercial practice.

His initial experiment consisted of tracing a lateral wave on a piece of paper covered with an infinitesimally thin coating of lamp black wrapped around a cylinder. The grooves were rather coarse and far apart. A few flat grooves were then etched in the plate by a photo-engraving process. When the stylus of a hand-held sound box was guided in these grooves, the result confirmed the soundness of the etching principle. The results, notwithstanding the harsh surface sounds, also indicated that, with refinements, the process would be better and louder than either indenting or engraving in wax.

In May or June of 1887, Mr. Berliner substituted glass for paper. He also substituted "amorphous ink" (i.e.. lamp black mixed with oil) for lamp black. The glass resulted in a better photo-engraving, and the ink reduced the surface sound. Under magnification, lamp black appears as an infinite number of small flakes, loosely held together. The cutting style in the recording process piled them up in saw-tooth formation on both sides of the groove. The oil tended to smooth them out. All in all, the results were encouraging in that some progress had been made.

By Thanksgiving of 1887, the process had been developed to the point where the recording on glass, covered with a film of amorphous ink, was transferred to a photographic negative which, in turn, was transferred to a polished zinc plate coated with bichromated albumen (a material which became insoluble when exposed to light). Except for the sound track, the surface of the disc had now acquired a protective coat. After the soluble albumen had been washed out of the sound track, and the edges and back had been protected, the disc was then ready for the etching bath of nitric acid. The acid etched into the zinc surface of the disc, which was exposed by the sound track, and developed a record groove of substantially uniform depth. While the results were better, the record wasn't totally uniform in depth and there was a mysterious roughness which, after numerous experiments, was determined to be hydrogen gas bubbles in the etching bath. This prevented the etching fluid from reaching the plate.

Early in 1888, a radical experiment was tried in which both the glass record and its subsequent photograph were eliminated. Instead, the recording was made on a highly polished zinc plate which had been coated with a thin solution of beeswax dissolved in benzene. This was an important improvement, but, because the residue was very thin, it didn't always protect the entire surface of the plate. This resulted, at times, in breakthroughs between the grooves. However, this was corrected by substituting chromic acid for nitric acid. The bubble problem, with its resultant unevenness and roughness of the playing surface, was finally solved by the addition of bichromate of soda to the bath. To avoid crystallization, the bath was later changed to a fresh solution of sulfuric acid with bichromate of soda. (p. 14)

About this time, a baffling complication developed. Two or three ghost grooves had a way of developing along side the master. It was finally determined, after a lot of experimenting. that this was due to minute particles in the air. However, neither water-filters nor vacuums did any good.

The solution to the problem seemed ultimately to have been found when alcohol, dripped on the center of the revolving plate, was permitted to flow over its surface while the record was being made. However, the grooves on records so treated had a way of varying in depth. This was not corrected until it was found, on further experimentation, that some of the diluted wax would find its way back into the groove which was being traced, and that it could be removed by washing the record in running water as soon as the recording was finished.

The work of refining the recording and matrix making continued, and the product was not released for manufacture until 1891 or 1892. From then until 1895, the volume increased, but was apparently not large. The real activity started after the development of the spring motor and after the record plants were set up in Washington. D.C., in 1892 in Hanover, Germany, in 1898, and in Canada, in 1900. The etching process progressively gave way to the groove-cut-in-wax method from 1900 to 1903.

On March 30, 1888, while browsing through the library of his patent experts. Lyon & Bissing, Mr. Berliner happened on a book entitled Telephon, Mikrophon and Radiophon, by Theodor Schwartz. The book contained a description of the paper written by Charles Cros on April 30, 1877. This was the first time that Mr. Berliner or his patent advisers had heard of him or his paper, but the description in the book was bad news. It described a process which was almost an exact copy of his own, and it looked as if he had been anticipated.

To determine whether he was confronted with a priority, he asked the patent office for a ruling. It was decided that the Cros paper had not disclosed invention and, even if it had, could only be regarded as an abandoned experiment. So far as is known. Mr. Cros never made a model of his instrument or record, and the long series of experiments which were required to perfect the Berliner Disc, as detailed above, points up the gulf which lies between describing a desirable product and the inventive skill which is required to make it work.

The ruling of the patent office, while logical and reassuring, had no official standing, and the issue would not be definitely determined until a patent had been issued and adjudicated. This, as we have seen, was not finally cleared for 21 years. (p. 15)

While these developments were going on Mr. Berliner was also working with vendors to find the best material from which to make the finished record. Hard rubber was tried as was celluloid, but it was found that the best results were obtained from a manufactured product known then as "imitation rubber." This material, based on secret, carefully guarded formulae, was based on shellac. It was brought to its top development by Mr. Berliner's nephew. Mr. Joseph Sanders.

As for the patent it is not hard to understand from the references to possible priorities, that in the late 1890's, there may have been some doubt in Mr. Johnson's mind as to its ultimate validity. Once convinced that the patent would be sustained, it became a bulwark of strength in Victor's growth. However. Victor never used the etching process. The principal value of the patent to Victor was the use of the record grooves to guide the sound box across the record.

As for the industry, it wasn't long before the disc type of record had completely, and finally, replaced the once dominant cylinders. (p. 16)

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