Berliner Gramophone – its discs identified with an etched-in "E. Berliner's Gramophone" as the logo – was the first (and for nearly ten years the only) disc record label in the world. Its records were played on Emile Berliner's invention, the Gramophone, which competed with the wax-cylinder-playing phonographs that were more common in the 1890s.
Emile Berliner received US patents 372,786 and 382,790 on the Gramophone on November 8, 1887 and May 15, 1888 respectively. This was before the organization of the North American Phonograph Company, which first produced cylinder recordings for public use, and thus Berliner's flat disc record is roughly contemporary with the exploitation of the cylinder medium, though it took longer for Berliner to commence production of his discs in America. Although based in Washington D.C., Berliner's first joint venture was undertaken in Germany in 1889 with the manufacturer Kammer & Reinhardt, a maker of toys. The Kammer & Reinhardt machine utilized 5-inch hard rubber discs, and some machines and discs were exported to England. An 1890 recording of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, likely made by Berliner himself, is the oldest disc in the BBC Library and was once touted as the oldest in the world, though this has since been disproven. The Kammer & Reinhardt venture did not last very long, though just how long is unclear.
In the early 1890s, Berliner attempted to found his first American company, the American Gramophone Company, in New York City, but it fell apart before issuing a single machine or disc. Back in Washington, D.C., Berliner tried again under the name of the United States Gramophone Company and began to manufacture machines and 7-inch hard rubber discs in 1894. Some celluloid discs were also made. In 1895, hard rubber was replaced by a shellac compound, which in various formulations remained the standard disc record material until the first vinyl records – initially made only for radio use and other special applications – were introduced in the 1930s. Beginning in 1896, Berliner's gramophones were made by Philadelphia-based machinist Eldridge Johnson, who added a spring motor to drive the previously hand-rotated turntable. Berliner also opened an office in New York City, staffed by Frank Seaman and O.D. LaDow and organized as the National Gramophone Company.
Master recordings were made onto zinc plates, which were then electroplated and a negative-image "mother" made from them to stamp discs. A major reversal of Berliner's fortunes occurred when the mastering plant in Washington D.C. burned down on September 29, 1897, destroying a hundred unissued masters and all of his record manufacturing equipment. Within a few months, however, Berliner was up and rolling again, with some record production aspects moved to Philadelphia.
Berliner records were short-playing. Only about two minutes could comfortably fit on each single-sided 7-inch disc. The absolute maximum depended on the speed, which was not standardized and ranged from about 75 rpm to a more typical 70 rpm down to as slow as 60 rpm. During most of the 1890s, the competing small-diameter brown wax cylinder records were recorded at about 120 rpm and could play for as long as three minutes, although recordings fully that long were uncommon. At the end of the decade, cylinder record makers began a transition to higher speeds, mainly to produce louder-playing cylinders that could better compete with the considerably louder gramophone – cylinders had usually been heard through individual stethoscope-like listening tubes rather than through a horn that yielded relatively feeble sound. A new standard cylinder speed of 160 rpm was soon established, reducing the maximum playing time to a little over two minutes and losing an advantage over Berliner's discs.
As the popularity of the gramophone began to pick up, Berliner found himself having to deal with infringers on his patents. In 1898, Berliner shut down at least two firms that were leeching off his business models and, in the first case, products. In 1899, Berliner discovered that Frank Seaman was behind a machine called the Zonophone that seemed an exact replica of the Gramophone. Furious, Berliner cut off all supply to New York, which proved a fatal error. Seaman countersued for breach of contract, and in June 1900 the court granted an injunction against Berliner and United States Gramophone Company. Though he would attempt in several proceedings afterward to have the injunction overturned, it was allowed to stand and it compelled Emile Berliner's exit from the gramophone business in America.
Berliner transferred his patents to Eldridge Johnson, who then changed the name over the door to his own, though Berliner retained a share in the new company. In March 1901, Johnson registered the name Victor Talking Machine Company and launched the brand later in the year. By 1905 it had regained the lead in the American disc record business, while by 1906 Seaman's Zonophone was on a receiver's index.
In 1895, comic Billy Golden introduced Berliner to Fred Gaisberg, who, with Barry Peter Owen – a trusted associate within the National Gramophone Company – helped to establish Berliner's overseas interests. Although the German partnership with Kammer and Reinhardt had long ended, Berliner still held patents in Germany and England. In 1898, Owen founded the Berliner subsidiary in England which eventually took the name of Gramophone & Typewriter Ltd.; in 1931, this was one of the companies that was folded into EMI. That same year, Gaisberg established Berliner's German subsidiary as Deutsche Grammophon; this was the longest-lasting record company in history under its original charter, until finally being acquired by Universal Music Group in 1999. Gaisberg also founded a Berliner subsidiary in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1901.
E. Berliner Gramophone of Canada was established in 1899. It was first located in the Aqueduct Street building of Northern Electric in Montreal, and commenced marketing records and gramophones the following year. In 1904, the company received its charter as the Berliner Gram-o-phone Company of Canada. Early recordings were imported from masters recorded in the United States until a recording studio in Montreal was established in 1906.
The Berliner name as a record label lasted longest in Canada. In 1918, Emile Berliner's son Herbert Berliner left Berliner Gram-O-Phone and founded the Compo Company. Herbert's younger brother, Edgar, continued as chief executive of Berliner Gram-o-phone. In 1924, Canadian Berliner was bought out by USA's Victor and became Victor Talking Machine Company of Canada. Emile Berliner died in 1929 – the same year RCA bought out Victor – and Edgar Berliner resigned from Canadian RCA in 1930.
Berliner Gram-o-phone's facilities in Montreal, a complex of buildings at 1001 rue Lenoir and 1050 rue LaCasse in the St-Henri district, became home to RCA Victor Canada over the next several decades, developing and producing such high-tech products as microwave radio relay systems, communication satellites, television broadcast equipment, etc. Since the dissolution of RCA in 1986, the Lenoir building has been turned into a multi-use office/commercial building, but the Lacasse facility is now The Emile Berliner Museum, documenting the history of the man, his company and the building complex. The historic Studio Victor located there is still an active recording studio.
Legacy and Preservation
The range of material on Berliner records was wider than that available from cylinder companies in the 1890s. Naturally, Berliner was well-supplied with the typical band and song selections commonly found on cylinders, but he also branched out into piano music, ragtime, speeches, sermons, instrumental solos and some ethnographic material on a greater scale than his competitors. From the first, Berliner's European subsidiaries were deeply invested in opera and classical music, only indirectly exploited by American cylinder companies, at least in the 1890s.
Documenting the output of American Berliner has proved a daunting task, as original records are scarce collector's items and the company employed a system of block numbering that seems to make little sense. Although referred to commonly as "Berliner matrices", they are not true matrix numbers, but catalog numbers concerned with preserving the same number for each selection even if a given title was re-recorded by another artist. Subsequent re-recordings are usually given a letter suffix, usually "W-Z" for early releases. Helpfully, the recording or matrix processing date is usually inscribed in the label area, but as Berliner did not employ paper labels sometimes the information is difficult to read. A simple new more or less sequential numbering system was started in March 1899, in which every number had a leading zero (never used previously) and the letter suffix, when present, denoted the category, e.g., "A" for marching band, "F" for banjo, "N" for vocal quartet. Berliner's foreign matrices employed entirely different strategies, and many to most of those have been documented by discographer Alan Kelly.
In 2014, the EMI Archive Trust announced an online initiative that would collect information on Berliner records worldwide. They have what appears to be the largest concentration of Berliner records in one place, numbering close to 18,000 items and largely collected by Fred Gaisberg in the early years of the company. Another large concentration of Canadian Berliners are held by the National Library of Canada, which has set up the Virtual Gramophone on the web to provide access to them, though their focus is primarily on Canadian artists.
Berliner recording artists
Some of the notable artists who recorded for Berliner include:
- Auguste Aramini
- John Yorke Atlee
- Buffalo Bill
- Albert Campbell (singer)
- George Club
- Arthur Collins
- Cousins and DeMoss
- Cullen and Collins
- Charles D'Almaine
- Will F. Denny
- Diamond Quartette
- S.H. Dudley
- Edward M. Favor
- George J. Gaskin
- Billy Golden
- George Graham (comic)
- Graus Mountain Choir
- Lil Hawthorne
- Russell Hunting
- George W. Johnson
- Dwight L. Moody
- Vess L. Ossman
- Arthur Pryor
- Dan W. Quinn
- Len Spencer
- Sousa's Band
- U.S. Marine Band
- Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry at the Library of Congress
- The British Library's Kammer & Reinhardt gramophone from the 1890s
- Norris McWhirter & Ross McWhirter – The Guinness Book of World Records 1974 Edition Bantam Books, 1974
- Raymond Wile, "Etching the Human Voice: The Berliner Invention of the Gramophone", ARSC Journal Vol. 21/1, 1990
- Arcane Radio Trivia – "The Transcription Disc"
- "The Gramophone Business" in Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry, American Memory Site, Library of Congress 
- Supreme Court Appellate Division, Eugene V. Daly against Frank Seaman
- Roland Gelatt, The Fabulous Phonograph, MacMillan Publishing Company; Second Revised Edition (April 1977)
- Supreme Court Appellate Division, Eugene V. Daly against Frank Seaman
- Jerrold Northrop Moore – Sound Revolutions: A Biography of Fred Gaisberg, Founding Father of Commercial Sound Recording. Sanctuary Publishing; 2nd edition (August 1, 1999)
- Compo Company Ltd.. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved on 2013-07-16.
- CAPS 2003 APN. Capsnews.org. Retrieved on 2013-07-16.
- Travel guide to museums and galleries in Canada | Virtual Museum of Canada Find a Museum. Virtualmuseum.ca (1996-01-24). Retrieved on 2013-07-16.
- The Online Discographical Project: Early Series
- The Online Discographical Project: Berliner Discs, Later "0" Prefix Series
- The EMI Archive Trust – The Berliner Project
- National Library of Canada: The Virtual Gramophone
- Bryan, Martin F. Report to the Phonothèque Québécoise on the Search for Archival Documents of Berliner Gram-O-Phone Co., Victor Talking Machine Co., R.C.A. Victor Co. (Montréal), 1899–1972. Further augmented ed. Montréal: Phonothèque Québécoise, 1994. 19,  p.