It’s hard to imagine that a gigantic, international organization such as RCA Victor Records (now a part of the Sony Music group) could have ever begun as a small independent.
But it did. And it’s all due to one man – German born inventor Emile Berliner.
Berliner immigrated to the United States in 1870. Seven years later, he’d invented the microphone (which he sold to Alexander Graham Bell) and was working on a flat lateral groove disc system of playing music that could be commercially manufactured. Up to that point, Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder machine was the only way to hear recorded music, although the quality of the sound left a lot to be desired. In fact, it was Edison who coined (and trademarked) the word ‘phonograph’.
Berliner named his invention the gramophone.
Emile Berliner took his idea to Eldridge Johnson, an sewing machine repair shop owner in Camden, New Jersey, who conceived of a spring motor to maintain a continuous turntable speed. That became the foundation for the modern record player.
In 1898, Berliner (along with his brother Joseph) expanded his growing empire by founding Deutsche Grammophon in Germany. The company would go on to become the world’s leading classical music label. That same year, Berliner, this time with a different partner, founded the Gramophone Co. Ltd in Great Britain, which over the years, became EMI (and is now part of the Universal Music Group).
Berliner was a very busy man, but should have paid a little more attention to his core business in America.
There were all sorts of snakes, scoundrels and thieves waiting in the wings and after several lawsuits and court cases, which did not go well for Berliner, he was barred from conducting business in the United States. Although a deal was struck where he would receive royalties for the rest of his life, Emile Berliner moved his family to Montreal where he had launched the Berliner Gram-o-phone company. Although Berliner didn’t stay in Quebec for long, his son Herbert did, and a few years later, he launched his own Canadian record company called Compo.
Eldridge Johnson eventually gained control of Berliner’s patents (along with the now iconic trademarked painting of a little white dog named Nipper cocking his head at the sound of ‘His Master’s Voice’ coming out of the Gramophone horn). Johnson also began to improve upon Berliner’s disc formulation by using wax and he changed the name of his company from the Consolidated Talking Machine Company to the Victor Talking Machine Company. …and RCA Victor Records was born. Well, not quite.
That happened in 1929 when the Radio Corporation of America, which was a major manufacturer of radios, radio equipment and also owned a network of radio stations in the U.S. acquired the Victor Talking Machine Company. In the same year that Emile Berliner died in Washington D.C., RCA Victor Records made its debut.
While there was serious competition between the rival record companies of the day, there was occasionally, a spark of co-operation. Columbia Records led by scientist Peter Goldmark and his research team are historically credited with inventing the 12” LP (long playing album) in 1948 (even though the initial Columbia LP releases were actually 10”). This allowed record companies to have nearly 25 minutes of music per side instead of the 5 or 6 minutes on their 78rpm records. The LP was also made of a better quality (a plastic compound called vinylite) than the prevailing 78’s, which were shellac. Columbia executives thought that this technology would help advance the entire record industry and set up a meeting with RCA Victor executives to share their technology. After Columbia made its presentation, the RCA group, angry over being beaten to the LP format by a rival company, stood up and walked out.
Within two years, RCA Victor had invented the 45rpm vinyl single…and a new record revolution was underway. And yes, RCA did eventually adopt the LP format as well. The company built record pressing plants in several cities in North America, including Camden, New Jersey and Smith Falls, Ontario.
There were several decades during the 20th Century when RCA Victor was one of the largest and most profitable record companies in the world, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars every year from such hugely successful RCA artists as Elvis Presley, Hank Snow, Neil Sedaka, Mario Lanza, Paul Anka, Harry Belafonte, Jim Reeves, Henry Mancini, Nilsson, Dolly Parton, Floyd Cramer, Jefferson Airplane, Skeeter Davis, Perry Como, David Bowie, John Denver, Duane Eddy, Sam Cooke, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Eddie Fisher, The Guess Who and hundreds of others around the world.
Emile Berliner would have been proud.