Emile Berliner – The Inventor and Entrepreneur who shaped the Telecommunications and Recording Industries

Emile Berliner

Image Source: Library of Congress 2002

Emile Berliner (1851 – 1929) was a genius German-American inventor who laid much of the groundwork for modern sound transmission, musical enjoyment and powered flight.

Berliner lived in the era of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison spending much of his adult life inventing new items and improving upon conceptual ideas such as the telephone, sound recording, acoustics, flight and even flooring as well as giving back to society.

His inventions in the area of telephony, which included the microphone and the transformer, made the telephone far more practical to use than what Bell had obtained a patent for. The young Berliner (circa 1876) was so inspired by the potential of the telephone that he found numerous ways to improve on Bell’s transmission quality with his inventions. His microphone was capable of increasing the volume of the telephone transmission and his transformer made communication over distance possible. Mr. Watson from the American Bell Company was so impressed with Berliner’s patented inventions that the company bought the rights to them for $50,000 and hired Berliner.

To be clear, Berliner didn’t invent the telephone but he did made it a usable marketable device with his add-on inventions. There is long-standing and hotly contested debate as to if Phillip Reis or Antonio Meucci invented the telephone even though it was Bell who obtained notoriety for doing so with his timely patent.

Berliner was also a pioneer in the Recording Industry despite joining a party already in progress. In the early 1880’s several competitive inventors, Thomas Edison and Chichester A. Bell / Charles Tainter were working hard to create sound recording devices. Edison came up with a tinfoil model while the Bell/Tainter team came up with a wax cylinder model. While both models technically worked, they proved to be impractical as their recorded sound were both difficult to capture and the quality degraded very quickly. Berlinger looked at the device from an entirely different perspective, from the standpoint of output. He wanted to be able to reproduce sound for his talking-machine device in large quantities that could be distributed (sold) to the masses without degradation. After many attempts he came up with we now recognize as a record, that highly polished plastic-like disc with grooves that gets read by a stylus on a floating arm. His early versions of the gramophone relied on a hand crank, which didn’t work well enough to provide consistent sound so he partnered up with Eldridge Johnson to manufacture a motor-driven turntable. After a series of legal twists and turns the Gramophone became known as the Victrola, produced by the Victor Talking Machine Company and then later it would be known as the Phonograph. The name Gramophone would fade from the market but it did become the basis of the name “Grammy,” the award name presented annually by the members of The Recording Academy.

Berliner’s other noteworthy inventions and patents include:

  • Parquet Carpet – (1883, 1899 & 1900)
  • Radical Internal Lightweight Aircraft Engine – 1908
  • Helicopter – 1919
  • Numerous fixed wing innovations (1920’s)
  • Acoustical Tiles for music venues  (1926)

He was also involved in many Community and Social Causes, especially in the public health field. He is credited with saving the lives of thousands of children via his campaign for hygiene and pasteurized milk and he was a strong crusader for Women’s rights. 

Berliner was also a song writer, a piano player and published author with 5 books and numerous scholarly articles to his credit.

Many of Berliner’s inventions and contributions became the basis for modern telecommunications and recorded musical entertainment products which are on the market today .

Despite his significant and enduring contributions and orginal inventions in telephony, the music industry and aeronautics Emile Berliner’s name isn’t one that most people typically credit these accomplishments to as he lived in an era of transformative change where industry giants like Bell and Edison were casting wide shadows.


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