Monday, November 17, 2008

Emile Berliner

If you're younger than me, chances are you've never listened to a vinyl record for any reason besides curiosity, a desire to be retro, or the nostalgia of your parents. CDs were introduced in 1982 and by the early 1990's had displaced LPs as the popular format for music albums. Circular records may not have lasted forever, but they enjoyed nearly a century of dominance and cultural transformation after surviving the first great format battle. In the late 1800's, Emile Berliner jumped into the middle of that battle. His invention, a lateral groove audio replaying device named the "Gramophone," would eventually best the vertical groove replaying devices that came before it.

Berliner (1851-1929) did not invent the LP, but the long play vinyl record was based on the discs his Gramophone read from. Thomas Edison's Phonograph and Charles Tainter's Graphophone (from the Bell labs) had met with some success recording and playing back audio, but suffered from numerous deficiencies. Both models were cylindrical playback machines with vertical recording and replaying action. Edison's first model used tin-foil and Tainter's used wax; neither device was replicable at the time and both were fragile. Berliner's development was inspired by an earlier lateral-cut audio recording invention called the phonautograph. While the first known recorded noises are preserved on phonautograph recordings, the device was never intended to replay sounds. Berliner was the first to try this and succeed, using discs, giving the Edison and Tainter models a run for their money.

Development of the Gramophone was a several-year process in which Berliner experimented with glass, celluloid, rubber and shellac discs. There were also two devices required (unlike the cylindrical models): one for recording and one for replaying. What helped Berliner's Gramophone achieve technological and market supremacy was the relative durability of the records and the ease with which they could be reproduced. Cylindrical models lasted until the 1920s while the Gramophone survived and morphed into the record players we're all familiar with. LPs arrived in the late 1940s and stereo recording (which combined vertical and lateral grooving) a decade later.

Berliner didn't invent the first audio playback machine and his invention hasn't survived the never-ending march of technological progress, but as an audio recording and playback innovator he played as important a role as anyone. Because of his ability to coordinate disparate developments in his burgeoning field, Berliner is an excellent example of an entrepreneur and of course, a laudable Hero of Capitalism.

Wikipedia entry on record-players
Wikipedia entry on Berliner
Library of Congress website on Berliner on Berliner

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