Biography of Emile Berliner


Emile Berliner invented the gramophone that provided the technology for recorded media in quantity.

He also improved Edison’s telephone by introducing a microphone. 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 Wolfenbuttel 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.

He first worked as a printer, then as a clerk in a fabric store. It was here that his talent as an inventor first came to surface. He invented a new loom for weaving cloth.

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, in 1875 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.

Picture on the left shows the store in Washington where Berliner clerked as a young man.

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. He just wanted to make his own telephone. He spent much of his time at the library of the Cooper Institute where he took a keen interest in electricity and sound.

Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was consisting of two identical cases containing an electro-magnet and a diaphragm connected by an electrical circuit. Unfortunately for Bell, the message transmitted wasn’t very clear. The invention had a good receiver but a poor transmitter.

Emile Berliner began his research in a small apartment in Washington which he transformed into an electrical laboratory. Within a year he’d found that, by varying the pressure on an electrical contact, he could send a continuously varying signal. Working alone he fashioned a new type of transmitter which he called a “loose-contact” transmitter 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. He eveninstalled a telephone between his apartment and his landlady. The principle that Berliner discovered provided a good transmitter for Bell’sinvention at any distance. Years of dreary patent-law combat followed as he and Bell and Edison circled and vied for priority. Berliner’s discovery was patented on June 4th 1877. In simple terms, he invented a primitive microphone.

When the members of the newly-formed American Bell Telephone Companywere 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.

Cora Berliner, 1917

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 BellTelephone Company and he and Cora left Boston and set up housekeeping in a house on Columbia Street, Washington, D.C.

The home of Emile Berliner at 1458 Columbia Road in Washington from 1884-1924. 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 theinvention 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. Berliner invented the gramophone and lateral-cut discs in this house. The house was also the headquarters from which Berliner conducted his campaigns for public health, for women’s rights, and developed aeronautical innovations, including the invention of the helicopter.

Next Berliner followed up on another great invention. In 1886 Edison patented his phonograph. He used a needle vibrating in and out of a groove wound around a cylinder. While Thomas Edison’s 1877 phonograph was “a wonderful invention,” in the words of a contemporary Scientific American, in its original tinfoil form it was impractical for common use.

Edison soon devoted his energy to development of the incandescent light. But about the same time that Berliner was creating the gramophone, Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory and Edison’s laboratory resumed work on development of the phonograph. (The word, “phonograph,” was Edison’s trade name for his device, which played cylinders rather than discs.

The cylinder invention patented by Bell’s Volta Laboratory was called the “graphophone.”) Two years later, Berliner perfected the familiar system with a needle vibrating side-to-side in a groove on a flat phonograph record. This was Berliner’s gramophone (patented 1887), horizontal (flat) sound playing system. Out of that grew the Victor Talking Machine Company.

Gramophone drawing in Berliner’s Canadian patent #55079

In 1887 Emile Berliner produced the first flat disc recording. Basically the same principal of recording using a large horn to collect the sound, which translated via a diaphragm to a needle, but instead of pressing indentations into the record, moved the needle from side to side in a spiral groove.

An inside-out mould is then taken from the original recorded disc (master), which is then nickel plated. Shellac records can then be pressed out between two plates. These Shellac records were recorded at a fixed 78 rpm and were played on wind-up gramophones that amplified the sound using only mechanical vibrations from the needle through the large horn, similar to Edison’s phonograph. By modern standards the sound reproduced was poor, but capable of producing enjoyable music.

The records were prone to wear from the metal needles that were used, and Shellac was very easy to break. Due to the speed of rotation of these records the playing time per side was relatively small, so it wouldn’t be uncommon for a single opera or symphony to be sold as a book of several records.

Berliner’s gramophone was presented for the first time, in 1888, at the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. It was at this time he began to manufacture records. He invited musicians to record on zinc plates. In 1890, Scientific American published an article about his invention, illustrated by engravings of his gramophone and the machine that recorded the sound.

An early Berliner-style phonograph (gramophone)

The gramophone was commercialized in 1893 by a company founded by Emile Berliner and some of his friends, The United State Gramophone Company. In the fall of 1895 a group of businessmen in Philadelphia put up $ 25,000.00 to set up the Berliner Gramophone Company.

Emile Berliner was a minority stock holder and the copyright for the patent belonged to the company. Sales of the gramophone were lower than hoped and the company was quick to understand the need to improve the gramophone and equip it with a wind-up spring motor. Eldridge R. Johnson of Camden, New Jersey invented and manufactured this motor for Berliner Gramophone. Between 1896 and 1900 almost 25,000 motors were produced.

It was not until late 1896 that Berliner’s Gramophone became a practical instrument, with a spring-driven motor developed by Levi Montross. The first spring motor Gramophones had metal bodies, but in December 1896 they were housed in attractive oak cases as illustrated here. The machine was wound by pulling a ratcheted lever from side to side rather than with a rotating crank as is typical of all other old phonographs. This lever-wound mechanism is unique in the history of antique phonographs and was extremely short-lived.

Within 7 months Berliner came out with the “Improved Gramophone” which had essentially the same case but was fitted with a better motor with a conventional crank, developed by Eldridge Johnson. Berliner had little success selling his ‘talking machines’ and was ultimately forced out of the U.S. market by his unscrupulous business partner.

One offshoot of the resulting legal battles evolved into the aptly-named “Victor” company, which dominated the disc market for many years thereafter. With its short lifespan and tiny production, the ‘lever-wind’ Berliner (also known as the ‘ratchet-wind’) is one of the rarest disc phonographs ever made.

The Berliner Gramophone Company, which was inexperienced in the domain of marketing, signed an advertising contract with Frank Seaman of New York.

Emile Berliner’s invention was now in the hands of three companies – The Berliner Gramophone Company (Philadelphia) who manufactured gramophones and records, The Seaman National Gramophone (New York) who oversaw advertising and marketing, and the United States Gramophone Compan (Washington) who held the patents.

Emile Berliner’s unsavory experiences with American business men led him back several times to Europe to take advantage of his creations. He first returned to Germany in the summer of 1881. Eleven years had passed since he last saw his mother and brothers. Only his younger brother, Joseph, had followed him to the USA. Joseph apprenticed in a telephone manufacturing plant, and completed his training in the evenings under the guidance of his brother and one of his brother’s personal assistants, an English mechanic.

Emile Berliner formed the Telephon-Fabrik J. Berliner in Germany. The J. stood for both his older brother, Jacob, and for Joseph, brought back from America to be the technical administrator. Jacob, who had founded a small tanning factory, became the business manager of the new firm. “So the Hanover lad paved the way for the telephone transmitter or microphone in the Old World as he had done in the New.”

Eight years later, in 1888, Berliner again returned triumphantly to Europe to lecture on and demonstrate his gramophone. Berliner received a hero’s welcome. He had become famous in Germany and France. He had attained renown not only because the scientific community acclaimed him as the inventor of the microphone, transformer and telephone, but also because his brothers had so successfully marketed the telephone. The production and distribution of the telephone had become a highly remunerative enterprise. The news about Emile Berliner’s next invention, the gramophone, placed the scientific community in eager anticipation of the arrival of its inventor.

In 1898 Emile Berliner with his brother Joseph formed Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft in Hannover, Germany and built the first plant for pressing gramophone discs. The discs were single-sided and embossed on the non-playing side ‘Reproduced in Hannover’.

This picture shows the German factory producing gramophone discs.

Emile Berliner

Berliner first received an enthusiastic welcome at the Hanover Institute of Technology. The German patent Office then invited him to display his gramophone. The exhibit made such a profound impression that the Commissioner of Patents asked him to repeat it before a group of distinguished engineers and scientists. The Electrotechnical Society of Berlin invited him to lecture at their meeting in November 1889, where, ironically, a demonstration of an Edison phonograph was being featured.

Emile was called to the podium, and his exposition of the merits of his instrument “To this day remains a standard contribution to German scientific literature and part of the official history of the talking machine.”

The great Helmholz, on whom the Emperor had bestowed the title Excellenz, came personally to Berliner’s apartment along with a bevy of distinguished scientists for a soirée of listening to his gramophone.

The mechanism, that employed etched zinc discs for sound reproduction at the time, was recognized by the scientific community as unquestionably far superior to Edison’s device and its use of wax cylinders. Most gratifying was Emile Berliner’s appearance before the Technical Society of Frankfort-on-the-Mein, the same group of physicists before whom Phillip Reis had demonstrated his telephon twenty-two years earlier!

Emile Berliner, ca. 1900

Early in 1900, Seaman’s National Gramophone negotiated an agreement with American Gramophone and Columbia Phonograph to manufacture the Zonophone. Berliner saw this agreement as a betrayal in view of the exclusivity contract he had previously signed with them.

On June 25th 1900, Seaman filed an injunction against Berliner Gramophone which effectively prevented Emile Berliner from selling his gramophone in the United States. It is believed that as a result of these problems, Berliner moved his company to Montreal, although his grandson, Oliver Berliner, later explained in the Antique Phonograph News (1992), that Montreal was selected because of the ease of railway transport between there and Philadelphia.

Berliner set up his Montreal headquarters in 1900. First mention of the company appeared in Lovell’s Montreal Directory of 1900. At the time, their retail store and offices were located at 2315 St. Catherine St. and were under the direction of Emmanuel Blout. The factory was at 367 – 368 Aqueduc St.. (currently Lucien L’Allier St.) The oldest advertisement dates from November 1900 in the Canadian Magazine mentions that the gramophones were made in Canada.

On December 22nd, 1900, Berliner Gam-O-phone Company (this is the spelling popularized in ads and which appeared on signs at the shop for many years) placed an ad in La Patrie which mentioned recordings were available in French. Another ad which appeared in the fall of 1900 told of a medal won at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in that year.

“His Master’s Voice”

On July 16th, 1900 Emile Berliner registered the trademark for his company, “Nipper” – the dog listening to a gramophone. The painter, Francis Barraud created this image which was used for more than 70 years. This trademark first appeared in Montreal on the back of record # 402 – “Hello My Baby”, by Frank Banta. Berliner produced 2,000 records during his first year of operation in Montreal. In 1901, he sold more than 2 million records. By 1926 Berliner’s little dog, listening to his master’s voice, could be found in most American homes.

In 1904 the company installed a recording studio at 138A Peel Street. The manufacturing plant moved to 201 Fortification Lane, while the shop and offices remained at St. Catherine Street. Between 1904 and 1906, the Berliner Gramophone Comapany produced several types of gramophones at the Montreal factory: the Model A, the Model B called the Ideal, model E called the Bijou and the model C called the Grand, and some years later the “Victrola”.

This factory also produced 7″ (18 cm), 10″ (25.5 cm) and 12″ (30 cm) record. Early records had groves for sound on only one side. The other side featured the now familiar image of “Nipper”, the dog. It wasn’t until 1908 that records had sound on bothsides. Joseph Saucier (1869 – 1941) had the honour of making the first Montreal recording. He sang the “Marseillaise”.

The Berliner Gramophone factory on Lenoir Street in Montreal,

The first brick structure, situated on Lenoir Street dates from 1908. Sometime between 1908 and 1912, the company added an annex to the south. This latter building, considered, very modern for the times, was made of reinforced concrete and was four stories high, with very large openings. A large billboard perched on the top portrayed “Nipper” and read: The Home of the Victrola”.

Berliner working

The company saw a huge expansion after World War I, and a factory in St. Henri was enlarged. When construction of this building on St. Antoine was completed in 1921, Berliner Gramophone possessed one of the most modern factories in Montreal. The 50,000 sq. ft. plant made both players and records. In 1924 the company was bought by Victor Talking Machine which merged in 1929 with R.C.A. to become R.C.A. Victor.

Emile Berliner is not known to have had any testy relations with his inventor colleagues; he appears to have been a man of remarkably even temperament. When certain slights came his way it was not Berliner but some of his admirers who took up arms in defense of his reputation. For instance, in the early years of the century some writers took it upon themselves to declare that it was Thomas A.

Edison who had invented the loose-contact telephone transmitter. Theodore Vail, president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, wrote a letter declaring that to his certain knowledge it was Emile Berliner who invented that type of microphone. Again, when Edison was presented with a statue of “Orpheus Discovering the Gramophone Record,” it was not Berliner but a host of his friends who complained, as they also did when Congress was considering awarding Edison a medal for the development of the gramophone, in addition to his numerous authentic inventions.

Still, that Berliner was concerned about his reputation and noted the dubious claims of others is evident from the Library of Congress’s collections. The Library has a scrapbook apparently compiled by Berliner with articles and letters relating to Thomas Edison’s receiving credit for Berliner’s invention of the gramophone. Likewise, Berliner wrote in the front cover of a volume of telephone litigation that it might be necessary to preserve this book in order to protect his reputation.

Emile Berliner, Charles S. Tainter (the father of the talking machine), September 1919

Floor Covering

As early as 1883, while still working for the telephone company, Berliner obtained Patent 284,268 for a new type of floor covering which he termed Parquet Carpet. From time to time he returned to this work and he obtained additional Patents 621,316 in 1899 and 656,162 in 1900.

Acoustic Tile

As one who frequently attended orchestral concerts, operas, and other musical events, as well as lectures, plays, and sermons, Berliner was well aware of the poor acoustics of many halls, theaters, churches, and synagogues. Having studied acoustics for many years, he decided to do something about the situation. He soon came up with a new type of tile that could be affixed to the existing walls of rooms.

Acoustic tiles were, in the inventor’s words, “. . . composed of porous cement, are as hard as stone, and yet have the resonance of wood when vibrated by a tuning fork.” In 1926 he obtained Patent 1,573,475 for these tiles. They were eminently successful in the days before public address systems.

Among the buildings that added these tiles were the auditorium of Drexel University in Philadelphia, Stanley Theater in Jersey City, the Church of the Messiah in Montreal, Leicester Theatre in London, Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, the Second Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and the board room of the Karachi Port Trust in what is now Pakistan.

Emil Berliner’s fascination with sound doubtless began in his teens when he was taking piano and violin lessons. Clearly the love of music never left Berliner. He joined the New York Oratorio Society, founded by Leopold Damrosch in the 1870′s, and sang baritone roles in he Messiah, Elijah, and in Samson.

Berliner also turned his genius to composing. He expressed his love for America and the opportunities it had afforded him in a patriotic song which became a smash hit of its day: The Columbian Anthem. The song debuted in Washington on Washington’s birthday at the 1897 national council of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The song immediately took hold. It was next presented on Flag Day with a full chorus and orchestra at the Lafayette Square Opera House in Washington. Schools in the National Capitol and New York made the singing of the anthem part of their curriculum. The United States Marine Band featured it in their programs. The Columbian Anthem opened the program under the famous conductor Professor Fanciulli at a White House garden party of President and Mrs. McKinley.

Berliner’s composition may well have become the new National Anthem. Commenting on its presentation at the White House concert, the Baltimore American wrote:

“Considering that this country has not a national melody other than those borrowed from Europe, the Columbian Anthem of Emile Berliner has a good chance some day to be selected as our national melody. It is remarkable for its stately dignity, and has within it that patriotic stir and catchiness bound to make it popular…. As a composition [it] ranks easily with the best national hymns ever written.”

Berliner turned his attention to the violin. It is well known that antique violins are consistently more brilliant over their entire range than new instruments. Berliner determined that the new instrument did not vibrate freely because the fibers of the wood under the bridge took much time to adjust to the uneven pressures transmitted by the strings through the bridge to the instruments body.

As a violin is played upon and ages, the wood fibers gradually adjust to these uneven pressures. Berliner therefore developed a new method of stringing directly to the body. Several instrumentalists, among whom were Leopold Damrosch and the then well-known violinist Camilla Urso adopted Berliner’s instrument. But the Berliner violin never became popular because “violinists were inclined to look upon any radical departure in the stringing of the violin as heresy.”

Berliner did succeed, however, in improving the acoustics of concert halls and indeed, of all architectural spaces, including the home. He was an inveterate theater-goer, and the acoustical inadequacies of various halls disturbed him. He refused to accept the current architectural philosophy of the day, expressed to him by an architect on one occasion:

“Acoustics has always been a gamble,” argued the architect.

“You’re right,” Berliner replied, “and as I am against gambling, I want to stop this!”

Busy with his other activities, Berliner nonetheless launched into a twenty-years-long study of hall acoustics. The “acoustic tiles” and “acoustic cement” he developed were, once more, groundbreaking innovations. He presented his solution for the baffling problem of hall acoustics at a meeting of the American Institute of Architects in Washington on October 8, 1925.

Berliner employed the radio and distributed free educational literature on “scalding” milk to reduce the scourge of deadly diseases that killed one third of all children. Berliner persisted in his campaign despite the opposition of medical societies over a quarter of a century. In between his fight for public health ans women’s rights Berliner found time to invent the helicopter and make a series of inventions and innovations in aeronautics.

Berliner’s genius was not confined to acoustics. When his daughter Alice died in 1890 of a gastro-intestinal disorder, he turned his talents to medical research. In the nineteenth century, infants were suffering a devastating 30% mortality rate. Berliner, convinced that many infant’s diseases were caused by the ingestion of raw milk, founded the “Society for the Prevention of Sickness” in 1891 and launched a widespread campaign for “scalding” milk before its ingestion. The first of a weekly series of “health bulletins” promoting the “scalding of milk” was published in the Washington Post of June 15, 1901.

Emile Berliner among children of a public health class, which contained pupils in the early stages of tuberculosis

Berliner’s intensive campaign was opposed by the medical profession over many years! The American Pediatric Society was the most strident about its opposition to scalding milk, claiming that children who drink it would contract scurvy and rickets! Berliner persisted in his campaign. Every bulletin he issued ended with the slogan “Scald the milk, and keep it cool and covered thereafter.”

“In addition to stigmatizing pure milk, the bulletins of the Society for the Prevention of Sickness pointed out the dangers of ice cream, butter, and dairy products made from non-pasteurized milk and cream. This voluntary, popularized propaganda, systematically and efficiently conducted under Berliner’s personal direction, supplied the people of the National Capitol with a liberal education in the science of health.”

The persistent propaganda, and emerging facts about pasteurization stirred some doctors to take notice. In 1906, a former surgeon-general of the U.S. Army, Brigadier-General George M. Sternberg created a milk committee and made Emile Berliner its chairman.

Berliner wasted no time. In 1907 he organized the first milk conference in Washington, D.C. about pasteurization and quality controls over the production of milk. The issue of the contamination of milk by traces of dung from tubercular cows was ascribed a significant cause of tuberculosis in people. The conference resulted in the adoption of milk standards by the Federal Government.

The American Pediatric Society opposed the measure! Another milk conference initiated by New York City’s health department adopted similar standards to those set at Washington. “When Professor von Pirquet, the renowned child-hygienist of the University of Vienna, visited Washington, Berliner was told that his gospel of safe milk for healthy children had spread to Europe and was universally acclaimed.

Resistance to “scalding” milk persisted. Emile Berliner also persisted. He published “Twelve Rules for Health”, and distributed free twenty-five thousand copies to schools. The Rules were written in single syllable words., and Berliner also converted them into nursery rhymes. One of his most effective nursery rhymes was widely recited by children in their games:

“When milk is raw just from the farm
It’s full of germs which may do harm;
But safe it is and highly prized
When it is boiled or pasteurized.
Ice-cream, cheese, and butter-fat
Come from milk – you all know that.
Made from raw milk, we can see
They might harm both you and me.”

In 1909 he donated funds for an infirmary building at the Starmont Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Washington Grove, Maryland, dedicated to the memory of his father. Berliner was president of the Washington Tuberculosis Association for some years. In 1920 Berliner endowed a silver cup as an annual award by the Tuberculosis Association to the city whose school children were most engaged in his health crusade.

President Harding presented the award in 1921 to the school children of Washington D.C. That same year, together with Doctor Alfred J. Steinberg, Berliner wrote and published The Bottle-Fed Baby, a guide for young mothers on the healthy rearing of their babies. Every new mother was entitled to a free copy, and in the next five years, over fifty thousand copies of the guide were distributed.

“The Medical Society protested Berliner’s gratis circulation of the guide, on the ground that it gave young mothers so much and so sound advice on the rearing of infants that it was almost as potent as an apple a day – it kept the doctor away.” Undeterred by the Medical Society’s’s opposition, Berliner wrote, published and distributed a dozen more works on children’s health.

Finally, in 1925, Berliner was instrumental in securing the passage of a milk law standards bill for the District of Columbia. It was the beginning of a nation-wide series of laws applying the principles Berliner had first proposed in 1901. It had taken the medical profession a quarter of a century to recognize the validity of Berliner’s health rules.

“Had Berliner never touched the telephone or the talking machine,” Wile concludes, “his health work should secure his claim to the gratitude of his era and of eras to come. It is no exaggeration to state that hundreds of thousands of children’s lives were saved by Berliner’s heroic, steadfast, selfless campaign. In 1924, he inaugurated the Bureau of Health Education to promote public hygiene and health education for mothers and children.

Crusader for women’s rights

Emile Berliner long held, in contrast to the supercilious opinions of the bulk of scientists of his time, that erudite and creative women like Madame Curie were no exception. He argued that women, given the opportunities for education equal to men, would equal them in the sciences. In 1908 he founded amd subsidized the “Sarah Berliner Research Fellowship.

” Mrs. Christine Ladd Franklin, the first woman to earn a doctor’s degree at Johns Hopkins University, was a charter member, and Berliner also obtained the cooperation of the American Association of University Women. The fellowship was made available for research in physics, chemistry or biology. From 1909 to 1926 awards were given to women each year in those fields as well as in psychology, physiology, paleontology, geology, nutrition, zoology and related subjects.

In 1926 Professor Agnes L. Rogers of Bryn Mawr College lauded Emile Berliner for his devotion to women’s equality in the sciences: “Mr. Berliner’s foundation was one of the first, if not the first, fellowships for women in the United States, and the very first designated for science… It should be remembered that Mr. Berliner made this fellowship available when women’s position in colleges and universities was far from being so assured as now.” Emile Berliner’s interests and philanthropies extended to his support of the rebuilding of Palestine and his very active support of Hebrew University.

Emile Berliner and the helicopter

In 1906 or 1907 Emile Berliner became fascinated with the possibilities of the flying machine. This led to his involvement in the development of the helicopter which, as he himself said, was one of the earliest forms of heavier-than-air machines conceived, going back at least as far as the time of Leonardo da Vinci.

Between 1919 and 1926, he built three helicopters, which he tested in flight. In 1907 Emile Berliner built a prototype of the helicopter. Berliner’s unique rotary-engined mechanism likewise flew a few meters that same year. The flight took place August 1, 1907. The successful launching that took place is but one of the significant advances in aeronautics made by Berliner that day.

Emile Berliner with his son Herbert, c. 1915

It was the first time rotary motors were used on an aircraft. Berliner went on experimenting with new designs and new mechanisms in model after model and year after year. Berliner next produced a two-engine, two-bladed machine. On June 26, 1909 the mechanism lifted an associate, Williams, off the ground in a tethered flight. The two machines, were, therefore, the true precursors of the helicopter.

Berliner-Williams helicopter, 1908

The first manned US vertical flight machine appears to have been developed by Emile Berliner and John Newton Williams. Berliner designed what may be the first production rotary aircraft engine, the 36hp Adams-Farwell engine. In 1908, Williams constructed a coaxial machine for Berliner using two of these rotary engines.

It reportedly lifted both Williams and the machine ” a total of 277kg ” but was probably steadied from the ground. In May, 1908, Williams built another stand in Hammondsport, New York, as a member of the famed Aerial Experiment Association (which included Alexander Bell and Glenn Curtiss), using a 40hp Curtiss engine. It made hovers around 1 m, again steadied from the ground.

Emile Berliner continued to experiment until a viable result was successfully achieved. At first he proceeded alone, and later he was joined by son, Henry. On June 10, 1920, a platform, outfitted with two rotors above the pilot’s seat, not only soared straight up, but traveled forward for a measurable distance. Thus, after a dozen years of experimental gestation, the first true helicopter was born. Emile and Henry Berliner were its creators.

Emile Berliner’s experimental helicopter, 1920.

Emile Berliner’s “Helicoplane,” featuring a number of inventions and innovations: Twin counter-rotating main rotors controlled by differential braking; A radial engine; A tilting tail rotor.

A triplane version followed. On February 23, 1923, it demonstrated its ability to fly. It rose fifteen feet and remained aloft for fifteen minutes. The unwieldy craft, although fraught with limitations, did, however, employ yet another Berliner innovation: tiltable propellor shafts.

Thus all the elements for a universally controllable helicopter were developed and installed by Emile Berliner in his aircraft. The evolution of helicopter design thereafter became merely a matter of reducing the helicopter to its essential elements. The Berliners set about immediately to do just that.

At this time several other inventors entered the field. Sikorsky is most notable among those who took full advantage of the principles and devices pioneered by Emile Berliner, and went on to construct new and larger models..

A biplane “helicoplane” succeeded the Berliner triplane of 1922. “This machine was flown out of ground effect at 30′ height, maneuvered laterally 400 yards, and attained a forward speed of 40 mph.” The Berliner triplane and biplane designs gave way to a monoplane. “A Berliner helicoplane, of monoplane configuration, was entered in the British helicopter competitions of 1925-26, it had a lifting tail rotor.”

A Berliner helicopter of that period was put on permanent exhibition in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. It is designated: “1924 Berliner Helicopter No. 5.” It is described as “a Berliner 1924 “helicopter” with two propellers on a horizontal wing and a third near the tail. Also on view is a Berliner 1932 monocoupe that was popular in air shows..”

In 1899, Berliner wrote a book, Conclusions, that speaks of his agnostic ideas on religion and philosophy.

At this point Emile Berliner was in his seventies, and was deeply involved in his philanthropies and concern with public health. His son, Henry, become a pioneering inventor in his own right, at first with the help and guidance of his father, and then, when his father passed away in 1929, he followed in his father’s footsteps to break new ground in aeronautics. Albeit this monograph is concerned with his father, a brief summary of Henry’s considerable accomplishments is in order. They can surely be considered an extension of Emile Berliner’s pioneering in aeronautics.

Emile Berliner, through his innovations and inventions, left invaluable legacies in communications, acoustics, and aeronautics to America and to the world. His activity in the field of public health saved hundreds of thousands of lives. His philanthropies helped to boost women to new levels of equality in science. Elliot Cresson gold medal was presented to Emile Berliner by the Franklin Institute in 1913 in recognition of his scientific contributions to telephony and acoustics.

Zionism was another cause that involved Emile Berliner deeply. Between 1913 and 1918, Berliner wrote four articles on the subject: “The Social Status of the Jews,” “Zionism and the American Spirit,” “Americanism and Zionism,” and “Thoughts on Zionism.”

In 1919 Berliner was named chairman of the Committee on Arrangements for a reception for the celebrated rabbi Stephen S. Wise. During the same year he wrote a letter to the editors of both the Washington Star and the Washington Post concerning the second commemoration of the 1917 declaration by British statesman Arthur Balfour that “His Majesty’s Government favors establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine.” In 1919, Berliner wrote another article on “A Study Towards the Solution of Industrial Problems in the New Zionist Commonwealth.” His support for Israel and the Hebrew University was considerable.

In a May 9, 1928, letter to his wife concerning the type of funeral he would want, Berliner expressed both his humanitarian and patriotic feelings: “When I go I do not want an expensive funeral. Elaborate funerals are almost a criminal waste of money. I should like Alice to play the first part of the Moonlight Sonata and at the close maybe Josephine will play Chopin’s Funeral March. Give some money to some poor mothers with babies and bury me about sunset. I am grateful for having lived in the United States and I say to my children and grandchildren that peace of mind is what they should strive for.”

Emile Berliner died on August 3, 1929, after a heart attack in his seventy-ninth year. He was buried on the Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, District Of Columbia, U.S.A.


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