Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry: About the Collection

The online collection Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry showcases the work of Emile Berliner, a prominent inventor at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Overlooked by today's historians, Berliner's creative genius rivaled that of his better-known contemporaries Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, and, like the works of these two inventors, Berliner's innovations helped shape the modern American way of life.

In America the turn of the century from nineteenth to twentieth was an era of booming growth. Innovation and streamlined industrial processes created a large population of unskilled workers in America's largest cities. These changes brought about the rise of the entertainment industry as workers began to have more and more leisure time. Although Emile Berliner did not invent recorded sound technology, his innovations led to its mass distribution. His flat-disc recordings eventually replaced the more fragile and unwieldy Edison cylinders as consumers' sound technology of choice.

The online collection draws from the Emile Berliner Collection housed in the Recorded Sound Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS) of the Library of Congress. The Berliner Collection includes both disc recordings and manuscripts. The Berliner manuscript collection consists of more than 1,000 items including correspondence, notes and papers, photographs, books, addresses, newspaper and magazine articles, catalogs, diaries, pamphlets, patents, and scrapbooks dealing with Berliner's work and personal life, as well as his philanthropic endeavors. These materials range from the mid-1870s to the 1950s. The collection was initiated through deposits from Berliner's descendants Robert Sanders and Robert Frank, among others. Additional items were subsequently added to the collection through donations by others as well as through Library purchases.

The recorded sound-component of the Berliner Collection consists of several hundred disc albums produced by the Berliner Gramophone Company. These records represent one of the first successful attempts to mass-market and commercially distribute popular sound recordings. All the Berliner discs were produced from the mid-1890s to 1900.

The online Berliner Collection includes more than 400 items from the manuscript collection and more than 100 sound recordings from the disc collection. Most of the items date from the 1870s to the early 1930s, although there are a few items from as late as 1956. The Berliner Collection has many types of material resulting in a variety of digital formats. The recorded sound discs have been converted to WAVE files and Real Audio streaming files. For the other material, such as photographs, correspondence, notes, papers, addresses, diaries, and other paper material, both service-quality JPEGs and higher-quality TIFF images were generated. Included in the online presentation is a 16mm film of Berliner's family from the Motion Picture Section of MBRS, which has been transferred into a small Real Video streaming file, a medium-quality QuickTime movie file, and a high-quality MPEG file.

In addition to his contributions to the progress of recorded sound, Emile Berliner worked tirelessly in many other endeavors both business-related and philanthropic. His development of microphone and recorded sound technology remains, however, the greater part of his legacy. Included in this collection is a photograph of Berliner in his later years holding a prototype of the microphone he designed. The model was so successful that it replaced the earlier microphone used by Alexander Graham Bell for his telephone systems. It is still the basic design used in most microphones manufactured today. Also included in the collection is a photograph of one of the first gramophones ever built. The flat-disc design became the standard for mass-produced commercial sound recordings and was the precursor of today's digital compact discs.

Selecting a hundred Berliner sound recordings from the many hundreds that are in the collection proved difficult. Berliner made recordings of a variety of performers and the online collection represents the broadest possible range of these. Genres include bands and orchestras, instrumentalists, male and female vocalists, vocal groups, classical and opera vocalists, spoken comedy, and sermons and speeches. Also included are songs that were popular at the time in other countries, performed in languages such as Spanish, French, Polish, and Swedish. The selection was limited by the quality of the recordings; those included were chosen for their sound quality.

Apart from his work in sound recording, Berliner had a part in developing other important technologies. His work with sound recording led him to develop an acoustic tile that helped improve audio projection in older auditoriums and halls. Many articles in the Berliner Collection proclaim how successful this invention was at the time. Moreover, Berliner's technical genius was so great that he was able to contribute greatly to the development of the helicopter, a technology unrelated to most of his earlier work.

Apart from his business dealings and technical research Berliner performed a lot of philanthropic work. In 1924 he established the Bureau of Health Education in Washington, D.C., to disseminate health and hygiene information to prevent disease. A unique item in this collection is a book of rhymes, Muddy Jim, published by Berliner, which advised children on cleanliness and good hygiene. Berliner in fact wrote the rhymes himself.

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