Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email: Scribbles@cogeco.ca

Canada’s Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company

In 1900 Emile Berliner opened Montreal’s Gram-O-Phone Company, recording music on flat gramophone discs.  The firm created “Nipper”, the now-famous dog and phonograph logo

The marvellous machine called the phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, a device that would eventually bring lilts of music into the homes and ears of avid listeners. Improved over next seven years, the phonograph used a sapphire stylus and solid wax cylinders. Competitors in the newly-founded music industry surfaced and in short time, became aggressive. Emile Berliner, a German-American citizen, sidled into the field while the others, including the still-famous company, Columbia, were not looking.

Emile Berliner Patents

The Berliner Gram-o-Phone Company opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1893, with Emile Berliner’s own patents at work under the United States Gramophone Company. Berliner was the inventor of gramophone disc recording, a superior process of producing records from a master recording.

Montreal advertisement for Berliner Gram-o-phone Company, 1900

Montreal advertisement for Berliner Gram-o-phone Company, 1900/Library and Archives Canada

Berliner Recording in Canada

In 1898, the rivalry of recording companies hit a sour note and wound up in court. Among other suits, Columbia took Berliner to court with the goal of taking Berliner’s patents away. When the dust cleared, “a court injunction remained preventing Berliner from using the word ‘gramophone’ on any of his products in the United States,” according to the article, The Berliner Gram-o-phone Company of Canada, at Collections Canada. Berliner then took his business to Canada, where he would “hold exclusive rights to gramophones and discs… and to sell the rights to his American patents to his associate, Eldridge Johnson.” Developer of a gramophone motor for Berliner, Johnson set up the Victor Talking Machine Company in the US.

“Nipper” Logo of Berliner Gram-o-phone Company

Settled in Montreal, Quebec in 1900, Berliner imported equipment, rented space from the Bell Telephone Company and opened a storefront on Rue Sainte-Catherine. “Nipper” was designed and trademarked in the same year; the logo of the dog with his ear turned to listen to a gramophone would become world-famous under Berliner and later the RCA Victor label. Advertising his better-quality music product of a flat disc opposed to a cylinder, the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company flourished. “By the end of 1901,” said the entry in Canadian Facts and Dates, “Berliner had sold more than 2 million gramophone records.”

Berliner Factory Produced Flat Discs

The Berliner Gramophone Company of Canada was incorporated on April 8, 1904, with Herbert, Emile’s son, as one of the stockholders and directors. The firm built a new recording studio and factory to produce high-quality recorded music pressed on flat discs in Montreal on the corner of Lenoir and St. Antoine in 1906. The facility was noted as one of the first reinforced concrete buildings in the city. Restructuring in 1909, the “of Canada” was dropped from the name. Berliner remained president, Herbert, became vice-president and general manager, and a younger son, Edgar, became secretary treasurer. “His Master’s Voice” (HMV) was opened as a subsidiary in 1924, with distribution centres in six cities in Canada for Canadian recordings. (A larger music disc manufacturing plant was built in 1921 at St. Antoine and Lacasse, said Edward B. Moogk in the Canadian Encyclopedia.)

Gram-o-phone inventor Emile Berliner/Library and Archives Canada

Gram-o-phone inventor Emile Berliner/Library and Archives Canada

Music Industry Mergers

The music industry expanded in Canada and the United States. Berliner attempted to keep a hold by requiring stores to sell only Berliner music, but that procedure did not last. Undergoing a number of changes and an influx of new participants including radio, companies merged. The Victor Talking Machine of Canada absorbed the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company and then merged with Radio Corporation of America to form the RCA Victor Company in 1929. Edgar Berliner was president of the new firm.

In the early days of the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company, discs were commercially produced for a German toy company in 1889. With a diameter of 5 inches, the hard rubber discs were pressed with children’s recordings, including the imitated sounds of farm animals and nursery rhymes. The first discs recorded in Canada beginning in January 1900 were 7-inch plates. The discs, said Collections Canada, “in the Canadian Berliner 78-rpm series were black or dark grey, were recorded on only one side, and had no paper labels.” The company name was stamped above the centre hole and the performer’s name, song title and recording date was listed below. Some of the recordings included the “Nipper” logo on the stamping, British masters had an angel impression.

Born in Hanover, Germany on May 20, 1851, Emile was one of a family of 13 children. Their father was a merchant, their mother a musician. Emile emigrated to the United States in 1870, working as a salesman and cleaner in Washington, DC and New York City. He married Cora Adler in 1881, and through his interests working in electrical advances at the Bell Telephone Company, became an inventor. An inspired man with several inventions to his credit, Emile Berliner died of a heart attack at age 78 on August 3, 1929.

Emile Berliner and family would no doubt be astonished at the music business today, an exciting, thriving industry of which the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company was one of the master originators.

Sources:

Fitzhenry and Whiteside Book of Canadian Facts and Dates, Third Edition, Editorial Director Richard W. Pound, published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside, Markham Ontario 2005, pg 314.

Berliner Gramophone Company, Edward B. Moogk, the Canadian Encyclopedia Online.

The Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company, The Virtual Gramophone: Canadian Historical Sound Recordings, Collections Canada.

This article first appeared on Suite101.com in 2010.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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