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The Original Grammy Snub

Emile Berliner’s inventions shaped the music industry we know today, but his name has been mostly lost to history

Grant Besner
March 30, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

On Sunday, the music community will gather at last for the 64th Annual Recording Academy Awards, and the presentation of the iconic Grammy Awards. The trophy, instantly recognizable as a symbol of musical excellence, features a glimmering miniature gramophone—the revolutionary prototypical musical device, hand-cast in Grammium, a zinc alloy created by the Colorado artist who has made the statues in his basement workshop for the past four decades. The decision over which names are ultimately engraved on the placard has been the subject of much controversy, with artists such as The Weeknd and Drake boycotting the awards this year after criticizing the opaque nomination process as out of touch with the listening preferences of the public. But the absence of the German Jewish immigrant who invented the gramophone (creating the music industry in the process) from the public imagination might be the greatest Grammy snub of all. The legacy of this man whose scientific achievements composed the score of musical history has been largely overlooked, even by the ceremony which bears the name of his greatest innovation.

Emile Berliner was born in Hanover, Germany, on May 20, 1851, to Samuel Berliner, a Talmud scholar and merchant, and Sarah Friedman, an amateur musician. The fourth-oldest of 11 siblings, he attended one of the foremost Jewish schools in the German states, the Samson-Schule in Wolfenbüttel, where he received a traditional Jewish education in addition to German and mathematics. Ceasing his formal schooling at the age of 14, Berliner worked as an apprentice in a number of trade shops until his parents had him shipped off to America to work in the dry goods store of a family friend on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War in the spring of 1870.

After a two-week trans-Atlantic voyage on the Hammonia, the young Berliner arrived in Washington, D.C., just a week shy of 19 years. Penniless and without a word of English to his name, he began clerking at Gotthelf, Behrend and Company located on 7th Street between H and I. By day, he wrapped goods in old newspapers, rehearsing his English as he read story after story scrawled over wrinkled print. By night, he took violin and piano classes, prompting a lifelong fascination with acoustics. After a few years, Berliner left for New York, seeking better financial prospects amid the international financial crisis of 1873. There, he took a number of odd jobs throughout his early 20s, selling glue, giving German lessons, and painting backgrounds for tintype portraits.

Briefly, Berliner ventured west, working as a traveling salesman for a Milwaukee haberdashery, though with little success. When he returned to New York, the only employment that he could find was as a low-level bottle washer in a sugar chemist’s laboratory, getting paid a meager $6 a week. However, though he could not have known at the outset, this job would prove most auspicious. Not only was the lab located just a few blocks away from the Cooper Institute (Cooper Union today), in which Berliner took advantage of free evening classes and studied obsessively in the library, throwing himself into the fields of physics, electronics, and acoustics, but it also marked his first encounter with ordered research. A real life Will Hunting, Emile Berliner was a genius masquerading as a janitor.

In 1876, he returned to the dry goods store on 7th Street in Washington, D.C., having recently applied to become a citizen of the young nation in whose capital he called home once again. His arrival coincided with the centennial celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the United States. There was much fanfare, including, in Philadelphia that summer, the Centennial Exhibition where a Boston University professor named Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his recently patented telephone. Having studied the underlying physics behind the invention, Berliner took a great interest and began experimenting, venturing to create an improvement for one of the device’s most noticeable flaws: namely, its complete and total deficiency. Though Bell is widely considered the father of telephony, the instrument in which Bell had famously first summoned his assistant Thomas Watson was far from an effective communication tool. Speech was not all that discernible due to the weak electrical current that the magneto-electric induction force of Bell’s proto-microphone transmitted across conductive wires; over any significant distance, the metal diaphragm in the receiver which reproduced the sound would barely vibrate, turning what was once a joyous shout into a muted murmur.

Reconfiguring his third-floor boarding house apartment into a makeshift electrical laboratory, with wires coming out of his windows and the downstairs neighbors pressed into his experimental service, Berliner worked tirelessly for months to come up with a feasible solution which would render the telephone viable. His breakthrough came inadvertently after a friend, who worked as a telegraph operator, explained that the signal of a message varied with the pressure applied to the contact switch. Using this principle of increased pressure, Berliner eventually created a working prototype for both the loose-contact transmitter (the first working microphone), as well as for a transformer (which prevented electrical signals from fading over long distances). By this point, his English had improved such that he filed for a patent caveat himself on April 4, 1877. When the news reached Bell, he was immediately dismissive and skeptical that an unknown, 26-year-old immigrant had managed to solve an issue whose scientific limitations and complexity he and his partners could not overcome. However, by the end of the year, the Bell Telephone Company had purchased Berliner’s caveat for $50,000 ($1.3 million today) and offered Berliner a job as a researcher. Within the decade, the telephone business was booming and the future was ringing with opportunity. Though it was Bell’s name on the label, as the Boston Globe would later editorialize in 1891: “It is safe to say that this Berliner patent is of more commercial value than the original Bell Telephone itself.”

While Berliner and Bell were ushering in the age of real-time verbal communication, another father of American invention was hard at work producing a different kind of sound. In 1877, Thomas Edison patented the tinfoil cylinder phonograph, the first sound reproduction machine. Yet, for all its promise, Edison’s designs did not produce consistent results and he abandoned the project. In 1886, after Berliner had stopped working for the Bell Company, Bell and an associate had produced their own version of the phonograph, the graphophone, which used engraved grooves in a wax cylinder to materialize acoustic waves. However, this also had its share of problems: The recording could only be two minutes in length and the cylinder was quite fragile. Additionally, because the cylinder did not yield itself to easy replication due to its shape, artists had to repeat their performances when recording in order to amass a high quantity of work. This was not only time consuming, but costly. As such, the phonograph, which Edison later revived, borrowing the graphophone’s wax cylinder concept, was advertised primarily as a business dictation tool for typists.

Thus, the genesis of sound reproduction as we know it today owes itself to the gramophone which Berliner first demonstrated at the Franklin Institute in May of 1888. The novelty of Berliner’s innovation was twofold. First, the audio quality of the gramophone was a dramatic improvement over the phonograph and graphophone. Berliner noticed that the stylus that etched the sound waves into the graphophone’s wax cylinder experienced some degree of resistance both due to the hardness of the wax and the gravity of its vertical orientation. So, Berliner changed the orientation from a vertical cylinder to a flat disc to account for the interference of gravity. Additionally, after much experimentation, he created a much softer etching compound by mixing beeswax and alcohol which he applied on top of a zinc disk. These two innovations taken together produced a sound that was much clearer. Second, Berliner created a method for the cheap and efficient reproduction of recordings. He poured acid into the wax etching which ate away at the exposed zinc disk underneath where the grooves had been cut. Then, a positive mold could be taken from this master copy from which an infinite amount of rubber (later shellac) discs could be replicated. The scalable reproduction of sound, and thus the music industry, was born. As an early advertisement cheered: “the Berliner Gramophone is to the voice what photography is to the features—a simple, practical medium for securing accurate and lasting records.”

As with the telephone, Berliner was able to identify the flaws in existing technology and create an elegant solution that made the product commercially viable. Yet, despite all of the material (and financial) rewards that his invention would soon bring, Berliner was more interested in the transcendent implications of man’s synthesis with science and technology. He concluded his speech at the Franklin Institute with the following:

“Future generations will be able to condense into the brief space of twenty minutes the tone pictures of a lifetime—five minutes of childish prattle, five of boyish exultation, five of the man’s mature reflections, ending with five moments embalming the last feeble utterances from the death-bed. Will this not seem like holding veritable communion with immortality?”

In his later years, Emile Berliner showed no signs of slowing down. With the fortune he generated from the sale of the telephone and gramophone, he continued to innovate and also committed himself to philanthropic pursuits. At the turn of the 20th century, he became fascinated by the possibility of flight and by 1909 constructed the first working model of a helicopter using a lightweight internal combustion engine that he designed himself. In 1919, after his daughter became deathly ill due to the bacteria she had consumed in a glass of raw milk, he launched a national campaign to educate the public about the dangers of unpasteurized dairy and the increased need for hygiene, authoring a cartoon rhyme book titled Muddy Jim: 12 Illustrated Health Jingles for Children which was distributed free to public schools.

Finally, though he long abandoned the tradition of his youth in the old country, Berliner remained passionate about the status of Jews in America. He adopted an assimilationist attitude, attributing gentile prejudice against Jews to the “mannerisms” and “lack of poise” of the Jews themselves. In an address published in The American Israelite in 1913, he advocated that the Jew should “wipe away that which socially and ethically separates him from the Christian. Judaism is strong enough to stand without danger of falling into decay … the rigid and forbidding fence of ancient ceremonies should be replaced by a hedge of flowers and the gentle spirit of co-ordination with other people.” Believing that the security of a nation-state would engender the social and ethical refinement that the Jews so lacked due to their poor conditions in Europe and America, Berliner strongly supported the Balfour Declaration and donated large sums to the newly established Hebrew University.

Originally, when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (now The Recording Academy) ventured to establish an award to celebrate musical achievement in the 1950s, they called it the “Eddies” after Thomas Edison, the creator of the phonograph. Yet, as we have seen, Edison’s phonograph did not create the recording industry; Berliner’s gramophone and etched discs did. It was only after launching a nationwide contest asking Americans to come up with a better name for the trophy, that a submission from a New Orleans secretary was decided upon: the Grammys, honoring Berliner’s legacy.

It is staggering to consider both the sheer breadth and societal impact of Berliner’s accomplishments and their relative obscurity today. Even in his own lifetime, Berliner’s achievements had largely already faded from public view. As Frederic Wile exclaimed in his 1926 biography of Berliner, published three years before the inventor’s death: “here is a story of a hero unsung and unheralded who some sixty years ago, as a small boy, gazed upon New York harbor from the steerage of an ocean liner, and who was destined to confer countless benefits on all sorts and conditions of mankind.”

Perhaps, then, such as with art, the trophies that the historical narrative confer have little to do with deservingness, but, rather, with the story society wishes to tell about which of its subjects are worthy of recognition. Along with Bell and Edison, so, too, must Emile Berliner be enshrined on the Mount Rushmore of great American minds which advanced the frontiers of human possibility. Mayer Lipman said it best in his eulogy for Berliner published in B’Nai B’rith Magazine:

“It was just as well that he was a modest, quiet, unassuming man, and that the world at large did not realize its debt to him. America has lost a great citizen; Judaism has lost an illustrious son; and Humanity has indeed lost a benefactor.”

Grant Besner is a freelance journalist and a current graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies at New York University.