Emile Berliner (bottom row, left) pictured with his staff, 1894

Emile Berliner’s first patents for what would become the disk record were establishing legal protection over the manner in which the GROOVE itself was etched to the record. Thomas Edison’s ‘Phonograph Cylinder’ was a crucial inspiration - but a flawed one. As a format, the CYLINDER was born to die based on the virtue of its vertically etched ‘groove’. The vertical grooves in a cylinder were guided along by a feed-screw - creating two problems for the format in the long run of its possible progression. The first and most fatal of these problems was that a vertical groove could only ever rise to a particular fidelity based on the physics of how the groove was cut. The dynamics (and thus fidelity) could only ever achieve a particular amount of frequency response from this method of etching sound. The second of these problems was the feed-screw itself - which created a multitude of engineering problems as time wore on for The Edison Co. and his partners at Columbia Phonograph (whom had licensed from Edison his patents to utilize the devices in the Washington D.C. (District Of Columbia) area court systems in place of stenography typewriters.

The Berliner Recording Process

After receiving patents on the lateral groove (the groove that is the standard today for all disk records in the modern age), disk record, and his playback system (the record player, then known as The Gramophone) - Berliner set about creating a system to etch the disks in the highest quality possible - without violating patents owned by Thomas Edison & Co. His first hurdle was a tough one; find a way to etch a disk record without utilizing WAX. Edison & Columbia had owned a patent on this particular material (a proprietary blend of 6 or more waxes and metallic soap materials carefully formed into cylinders and cylinder blanks) - and this would prevent a path of least resistance in the early days of the disk record. Berliner’s Philadelphia based The Gramophone Co. would adopt a ‘zinc etching’ to glass urethane coated disk - which many of the first disk records used to create the initial master disk. This disk was then sent out to a button factory - The Duranoid Mfg. Company of Newark, NJ - who pressed these disks in a common ‘button’ almost petrified rubber type material. The glass masters of the early days recorded at the first recording studio (located at Emile Berliner’s The Gramophone Co. headquarters in Philadelphia) were carefully packed and sent to the Duranoid Mfg. Company and within several weeks hundreds of disk records returned to The Gramophone Co. store (which was also its offices and recording studio).

In 1896, Berliner and his Gramophone Co. were eager to accelerate what they felt was a superior business to Thomas Edison & Columbia’s cylinders. They believed that their invention of the disk record and record player were superior and should be marketed as a home entertainment device (as opposed to a dictation device - as was the cylinder tradition up to that point). The company enlisted the help of a machine shop owner across the river from The Gramophone Co. store: Eldridge Reeves Johnson. Johnson was immediately drawn to the concept of the disk record and record player - but as a contractor he was not asked to better the disk record itself. Instead, he was tasked with creating a motor and cabinet design for The Gramophone - which up to that point had been prototypes and hand wound. Johnson succeeded in bringing The Gramophone to a commercially viable form and his tiny machine shop became the first headquarters for the manufacturing of the world’s record players - which at this point numbered much smaller than one can even imagine.

None the less, by late 1896, Johnson was experimenting with how to improve the disk record itself. It was deemed by him that the etching system for the recording of the initial disk record at the recording studio was not of sufficient quality. The system Berliner had devised wouldn’t function if the disk record was to be superior to the cylinder - and the acid etching of the initial disk at the studio created ‘air bubbles’ and this added extraneous noise to the recordings. Johnson experimented with several formulas at his workshop till he found one that worked…he reverse engineered a brown wax cylinder by melting it down and determining its makeup. Creating a new blend of waxes and soap metals - he invented a system of disk recording that utilized a large 4 inch thick by 14” wax paddy. He and his roommate at the time, Alfred Clark, then invented an exceedingly accurate cutterhead and created the modern record lathe for the recording of of disks with (what was then) state of the art accuracy in terms of precision. Johnson and Clark patented their inventions which The Gramophone Co. deemed superior and adopted immediately.