Life After the Gramophone: Emile Berliner’s Last Hurrah (1929–1930)

Gramophone inventor Emile Berliner stayed active until the end. As owner of the Berliner Gramophone Company, Ltd. (Victor’s Canadian cousin), he established a second residence in Montreal around 1903, but continued to spend time in Washington, D.C. After Victor acquired the Canadian operation outright in 1927, Berliner returned home for good. According to a late 1920s report, Berliner’s estate at 1438 Columbia Road (on what was then the outskirts of the city) included a separate building housing a laboratory and experimental recording studio.

Exactly what went on in there isn’t well-known (there’s no evidence of any commercial recording activity), but these ads from April–June 1930, which appeared some months after Berliner’s death, might be a good starting point for further investigation. It would also be interesting to determine whether son Herbert (a skilled engineer, who developed his own electrical recording system for the Compo Company in the mid-1920s) had any hand in the Berliner Acoustic System.



(Berliner’s Variety obituary, August 7, 1929)



Clinton Repp’s Vitaphone Phonograph

Clinton B. Repp’s Vitaphone* machine was an oddity for its day, dispensing with the usual reproducer and hollow tone-arm assembly. Instead, the sound vibrations were transmitted by a solid wooden tone-arm to a stationery reproducer positioned at the horn linkage. Edward Amet had employed a similar idea in his glass-arm Echophone (U.S. patent #562,693, filed in November 1895), but Repp’s was a much more sophisticated design. It was also a universal phonograph, able to play lateral- or vertical-cut discs at a time when the latter were first appearing in the American market:

Repp’s patent #1,003,655, filed on June 24, 1909, used a cylinder machine for illustrative purposes. We don’t know of any Repp cylinder machines having been produced, but the same basic design was incorporated in the Vitaphone disc machine:

VITAPHONE_patent The Vitaphone Company launched a nationwide ad campaign in 1911, which naturally caught the attention of Victor’s patent attorneys.  On October 6, 1911, Victor applied for an  injunction, claiming infringement of its Berliner patent. On November 13, Judge Lacombe ruled in Victor’s favor and ordered issuance of a temporary injunction. Vitaphone appealed and continued to operate. The company advertised heavily during 1912, assuring dealers that its unique product infringed no patents (although it actually did):

VITAPHONE-patent-letter The company even arranged to have Columbia press Vitaphone records, which were sold in Canada. More legal wrangling ensued, but in the end the legal issues became largely moot, as there apparently was too little demand for the product to keep Vitaphone afloat.


* Of no relation to the earlier American Vitaphone Company (although Repp had sold their products in Cuba and Mexico), the Warner Brothers’ sound-film system, or any of the various other ventures using the Vitaphone name.